Back doors to transformation

Peter Brantley -- January 30th, 2012

This weekend I had the pleasure of participating in a Mellon Foundation-funded meeting discussing the future of open peer review for scholarly materials. Peer review is the process by which journal articles and books are evaluated by one’s colleagues in advance of publication in order to improve their quality, or in some cases, recommend their rejection. Peer review concerns itself with questions of originality, clarity, and overall contribution to the literature. The practice arose in conjunction with publishing, and as peer review evolves, we begin to see new – and potentially profound – impacts on scholarly presses.

In contrast to older models of peer review in which submissions are reviewed by one’s colleagues in a “single blind” fashion in which the author does not know the identity of the reviewers, open peer review takes place more or less openly on the web. This has a number of potential benefits, including timeliness; lessened risk of favoritism or backstabbing; and increased quality of comments, knowing they will be aired publicly. Open peer review is not an absolute; portions of the process might be initially closed and then opened up, or the reverse. Anonymity might be preserved at certain moments, but prohibited in others. The reviewing community might be global, or restricted to members of a specific community.

In our discussions, one of the things we kept stumbling over most was the relationship between open peer review, and open access. The distinction is significant: open peer review concerns itself with how the scholarly community evaluates itself online, more or less openly, whereas “open access” presumes that scholarly publications are openly available within at least the boundaries of academic institutions, and perhaps the broader public. But open peer review inherently means that the text under consideration is public to a greater extent than ever before, along with the comments that any number of reviewers might have of it. If this richer fabric is available online for anyone to see, what is then left to publish by a press? To put it another way, open peer review opens a back door to new forms of publishing.

However open peer review might work, one of its consequences will be to impact the existing practice of academic publishing. Already financially tenuous, university presses may find an increasing portion of their value questioned as the review, revise, and resubmit process moves onto an open web. It is possible that press costs could decline as they become ever leaner, with a portion of the editorial process removed from the firm, leaving only final curation and the actual packaging process into digital and print journals and books. But even that final packaging might not need rest with them.

Fundamental aspects of the publishing process could change. In an open peer review system, the status of reviewers could be far greater than it is today. Ultimately curation is the most highly valued product of publishing, and thoughtful reviewers might well become the most essential arbiters of quality. Publishing concerns would seek to form alliances with specific individual reviewers or reviewer collectives, even above association with specific authors, as authorship shifts into web-based practice.

Open peer review is open production. Academic review is part of the fabric of scholarly life, and promotion and tenure is dependent on it; supporting a respected review process is not something that will fall to the level of unique visitors to a faculty blog. However, it is certainly possible that a scholarly association, intimately aware of the intricacies of academic culture, would be able to create the technical infrastructure necessary to support an open peer review methodology that could then be adopted by both small or large communities. Once an open peer review platform is in place, web based academic publication could take place among communities as large as societies or as small as a group of authors working on a edited online volume. Although a university press could fill that function, so could the American Chemical Society.

As Dan Cohen of George Mason’s Center for History and New Media noted on twitter, “An alternative peer review system might be more appropriate for a completely different system of scholarly production and content.” Creating a workable open peer review system is not something that develops overnight. But as we broaden our understanding of web based communication, and what seems exceptional today becomes our normative practice, we may find that the conduct of scholarship is changing and adapting along with it. Current scholarship assumes that the university press exists to share its insights; whether it continues to exist is not as likely to be a priority for evolving forms of academic practice.

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