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Open Peer Review for the Humanities

Technology, Scholarship, and the 21st-century Humanities

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The dominant forms of academic publishing rely on methodologies that are driven by the technologies of the 20th-century (and frequently the 15th), rather than the requirements of scholarship.  The goal of the scholarly project is to produce work of the highest quality, and to reach the largest audience possible.  And yet, academic publishing in the humanities has been limited to monographs and journal articles as the only viable form of publication.  Although these forms work well, and will continue to be central to the humanist project, the internet provides opportunities to both explore different forms of publishing, and to map the development of scholarship more closely onto the round of research, writing and conference presentations that underpin academic publication.    HWPP represents an attempt to step back and re-evaluate why we publish the way we do and to develop more effective alternatives.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 For over a century, technologies of publication have driven the process of scholarship.  Take an article, for example.  Typically, a solitary scholar develops their project, occasionally presenting it to their peers at a conference or symposium.  The ostensible purpose of these meetings is to develop ideas and solicit feedback.  However, most academic forums encourage scholars to demonstrate their ideas rather than to develop them.  They are rarely workshops.  At best, a presenter will get one or two solid comments or questions — and, perhaps a discussion with a colleague at the bar.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 By the time scholars send their articles to an editor, they have probably presented their topic to a conference or two and asked a few colleagues to read a draft.  The editor of a journal will send the drafts to a few peer reviewers (normally just two).  Their reports are often the most substantive feedback that a writer receives.  After an article is published, the text becomes ossified, rarely discussed, and usually referenced by only a few specialists who have access to the journal.  Limited feedback during writing and limited readership after publication certainly does not meet the aspirations of most academics.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 A significant part of the overall problem derives from workflows developed to match 20th-century technologies.  Despite the advent of mass air travel, most twentieth-century scholars went to only a few professional conferences per year.  Because of this, conferences and symposia became important forums to share one’s work with others — places to show and tell, which were very different from the model of a writer’s workshop.  On occasion, papers were pre-circulated and panels could be more akin to professional workshops, but this was unusual.  Despite the rise of mass communication technologies, it was not until the 1990s that email and the internet became a common communication tools.  And, by then, most conferences in the humanities operated according to a standardized protocol of individual presentations without pre-circulated papers.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Likewise, 20th-century publishing was limited by technology.  One of the most important methodological advances in academic publishing made in the last century was the widespread adoption of anonymous peer review.  Peer review was developed as a way to guarantee the quality and accuracy of a manuscript before publication.  Sending manuscripts to two or more experts took time even after the adoption of email, many months in fact.  Furthermore, it was a solitary exercise in which the exchange of ideas was unilateral, in the form of a report to the editor and author.  In many instances, the reports contained conflicting perspectives or different emphases for revision.  In the end, the final draft was usually a negotiation between the editor and the author.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Because the process from manuscript submission to print was slow — usually one to two years — scholars were reluctant to circulate their work too widely lest it be “scooped” by another writer.  To protect their work, scholars made it semi-private for as long as possible.  This had two serious repercussions.  It furthered the isolation of ideas, which can flourish only in an open dialogue, and it limited circulation and review, which undermined the goal of creating the highest quality, most creative scholarship.  So, the idea of being “scooped” was a logical response to the publication workflow, but ran counter to the goals of scholarship.  The methods and purposes of scholarly production  did not match.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Since academic journals relied upon the medium of print, they soon became standardized.  Most journals adopted a format that remained stable for decades on end.  Articles conformed to a similar length.  The cost of print limited the ability to allow editorials or comments, and most journals did not include them.  So, once an article was published, it often took several years before a response appeared in print.  This was an extremely slow method to develop an academic dialogue, but for the most part, the technology of print determined the process.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The workflow described above remains the dominant method of developing a publication for the humanities in the 21st century.  And, the same problems remain:

  1. Permalink for this paragraph 0
  2. The development of a scholarly work is a solitary pursuit with limited input from and dialogue with one’s peers.
  3. Conferences and symposia are rarely effective at developing a scholarly work to any significant degree.
  4. Peer review, while useful in evaluating scholarship, is a slow process through which to improve and develop a manuscript.  Likewise, this input is from only a few people.
  5. The publication process is slow, delaying the exchange of ideas and information.
  6. Scholarly ideas are limited to the form of print publication.  Shorter or longer essays, editorials, comments, and scholarly conversations rarely have a place in print.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 However, these problems need not remain.  To the detriment of our scholarly goals, our methods have not kept pace with changing technology.  If we wish to produce the highest quality, creative scholarship and to reach the largest audience possible, then it is time to explore alternative formats.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Jason M. Kelly and Tim Hitchcock

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