Are Peer Reviews Good Practice?

Friday, January 15th, 2016
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Peer reviews are becoming a popular means of determining a project’s worth in some jurisdictions, but what does the process truly achieve?

A former colleague of mine reported that when he was attending university in the mid-1980s, he and his architecture and design class were introduced to someone who was to sit in on some preliminary critiques two weeks out from their final presentation.

Most students thought this person was an external reviewer, there to see how the department was conducting its academic requirements. Unbeknownst to them, he was actually “The Boss,” soon to become the Dean of the Architectural Faculty.

Seemingly without having been backgrounded on the design brief on which the students were working (for a “Design Ideas – Competition” and not working drawings), he began to tear apart many students’ designs and criticising them on unknown and undeclared criteria as part of a “peer review” process. This for a project that was weighted at 25 per cent of the students’ final grades.

“The Boss” abraded one student in particular for having one door (on a 100-hectare design that included many building typologies) which swung the wrong way. That student was harangued at length and told he would earn a “capital ‘F’ fail” for his work.

Beyond this, another student was the spouse of a senior lecturer and had enjoyed dinners and informal contact with “The Boss.” That student is said to have sabotaged the reputation of many of several of her classmates.

Was that a classic case of nepotism and conflict of interest blighting the careers of many excellent architectural students, or does the peer review process bring out the most creativity in prospective students?

Considering the student whose work was lambasted was forced to repeat two years of work at another school – three years of missed income and opportunity due to unprofessional conduct, bias and bullying – it seems anything but positive. And damage to reputations can affect professional appointments and commissions many years after completing studies.

Unfortunately, the issues above of students in design and architectural courses “white-anting” colleagues continues in the professional sphere. During an appraisal for architectural registration, a colleague found out that I was about to sit my registration exams. I was competing with her for a promotion and recognition in a work environment.

Somehow, she found out that the examiner was a close mentor. During the registration exam, the interviewer began to interrogate me in a very negative manner. I remembered the interview questions and appealed on the basis that this line of questioning was manifestly biased and not related to the material required to gain registration. It is a matter of record that my appeal was successful, and I was registered in Queensland.

This is an example of an academic conflict of interest and bullying which has wider implications in NSW. Current laws which were introduced in NSW in local town plans have added peer review processes in place. This process calls for architectural and building designs to be subject to a process whereby “people of good standing in the architectural and design profession, members of the public” assess the design content and value of a proposal.

This has meant that architects of influence on these panels can literally determine the future career direction and success of their colleagues. If this isn’t an example of a conflict of interest, I don’t know what could be! Architect’s cosy up to colleagues on these evaluation panels, wine and dine, or send invitations to events and “seminars” in exotic locations, all expenses paid. The endemic corruption at universities becomes a clique from which many talented architects never escape.

The post-modernist movement was very influential from the mid-1980s through to the 1990s. This movement included pastel-coloured buildings, and high-rise buildings shaped like Roman columns or dollhouses. It was a rather vapid philosophy, in my opinion, and it was very difficult to get through an architectural education in this era without paying homage to the post-modernists. This philosophical and design monopolised architectural critique in this period. These buildings had little consideration of sustainability, natural ventilation cooling and heating, and would be considered preposterous if evaluated based on modern ideals.

Some of the central protagonists of post-modernism have garnered influence in the committee rooms and peer review panels which reward “good design.” NSW and Sydney give precedence to developers who can achieve a good rating through the peer review process. How have these reviews, which are often endorsed by professional bodies, come to be a gravy train for those who are part of the clique, and a devastating professional blight for others?

Is the peer review process an example of institutional corruption in another name? Is it there to benefit helicopter-flying developers bearing champagne and goodies for committees which deliver good ratings and higher profits? It can forge a cosy relationship between such and developers and those who are the beneficiaries of this largesse, and can lead to bitter recriminations for those who can’t or won’t jump on the gravy train.

Peer reviews are open to all manner of influences and professional rivalries and payback, and bring to mind the current dilemma faced in the medical profession in terms of the ethics of complaining about colleagues, with whom they compete. How can conflicts of interest possibly be avoided?

From what I hear about the peer review process in NSW, the architectural profession operates more like a guild or a clique to which you must pay homage, rather than a process which should deliver better quality design outcomes in our cities and developments. Subtle rivalries and conflicts of interest are endemic to the current process of peer reviewing, and I have heard of several architects practicing in Queensland who have left NSW because the peer review process had damaged their reputation and their ability to practice.

If similar protocols would be considered unfair or tainted, isn’t it time to have higher standards for evaluating design as professional bodies? Developers who undertake suspect developments which are given excellent peer reviews are an indication that a similar evaluation and appraisal of registration protocols which have been described in the medical profession are also a concern in the design profession. It is incumbent on the profession to recognise that the peer review process in need of a complete overhaul, as are protocols to make it far more difficult for colleagues of students to damage the outcome of academic evaluations and design critiques.

The power imbalances which exist in the medical profession have a direct correlation to the architectural design industry and profession. Perhaps it is time to make changes to peer reviews, which are open to improper influence and professional vendettas.

I hope that all states recognise that the current peer review system used in many NSW jurisdictions would be considered a corrupt, and improper practice in other jurisdictions.

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