Digital Scholarship and Peer Review– The Question of Where…

I was writing a reply to Mills Kelly’s most recent post, and realized that my reply was long enough to constitute its own post. I suppose this is exactly what trackbacks are for.

The whole pre-press peer review process is based on a different model of the economy of publishing. Review after the fact can be better used online, where we have the ability to keep everything in a perpetual beta. (And I’d argue that there’s a difference between the feedback of blog comments– which one commenter aptly likened to responses at a conference panel– and an actual critical review, like one finds at the ends of most scholarly journals.)

But this brings one to the question of how post-publication review could best be disseminated, etc. More scholarly, critical reviews of online scholarship are definitely a must, but where would they best be published? To put them in traditional print journals gives some name-brand credibility and authority, which online scholarship could definitely use. But publishing reviews in such journals closes off the dialogical potentials of digital scholarship.

Blogs published by individual scholars would seem a good vehicle, but there are many scholars who might be capable of producing great critical review pieces who don’t have the time or the inclination to maintain a blog, to foster the audience that grants individual blogs status, etc.

And then there’s the option of online journals, which might resist some of the problems of the previously-mentioned formats, but bring up a lot of their own issues. Many (most?) are too new to have built up a sufficient academic cache, especially among those resistant to digital scholarship. Many online journals don’t benefit from being indexed in subscription-based journal databases, like JSTOR, rendering them invisible to less-net-savvy scholars. Moreover, the ability of an online journal to be responsive, dynamic, and dialogical– the very advantages they possess when compared to print journals– pose a further question: when would these things really be done? Some of the advantages of review articles– that they’re relatively quick and easy to write, for example, and thus good CV-fodder for newer scholars building their publication lists– would be lost if one had to perpetually update, constantly adjusting a review to the most recent revisions of the site’s content or design.

No answer is ideal. Perhaps best answer would be a new model, some format not yet in existence. Barring that, maybe we should think about how best to use all three in tandem. The AHA’s Perspectives has both an online and a print presence. Magazines and journals like that could serve as a good bridge, giving the prestige of print with the capacity for online revision.


Another call for Open Access

Just a couple days after I talked about Open Access book publishing, the incomparable danah boyd, in her blog, calls for the elimination of locked-down academic journals and databases.

I’m all for her idea– after all, we’re all accessing journals electronically at this point anyway, and server space is far cheaper and more flexible than the current publication/database model. I know that some academic libraries– including one of my former institutions– are so cash-strapped that all they can afford to do is maintain their database subscriptions, and have had to put book purchases on hold.

One question I would pose, however: the open-access model works much better going forward, as we look to our next publication. What kind of model can be made to replace or lower barriers to the “backwards-facing” (for lack of a better term) aspect of academic journal databases? Is there any way we can open up access to the vast array of old journal articles that are, to most of us, only accessible via databases like JStor, Ebsco, or Project MUSE?


Open Access Academic Publishing

Dan Cohen’s blog has brought to my attention an interesting article by Charles Bazerman, David Blakesley, Mike Palmquist, and David Russell about the positive response to their book, Writing Selves/Writing Societies.

If the data they collected from their experience in electronic, open access academic publishing is generalizable, it presents a strong argument that this is something we should all be looking into. Their book’s been widely cited, and when one compares it’s number of full downloads to the sales of a lot of university presses, they’re doing a good job of disseminating the information. (Especially when you factor in the fact that libraries are likely not part of the equation, as they don’t need to download an electronic version of a book that’s already freely available.)

Academics aren’t exactly using publications to pay for their summer homes in the Hamptons. So one has to ask, other than providing peer review (which both the book in question and the journal the article appears in seem to do without their aid) and giving a patina of academic respectability to tenure review and hiring committees (which really only goes so far unless other things happen that are out of the hands of the publisher, like getting reviewed and being reviewed well), one could well ask what academics are really getting out of the deal. What is the added value of an academic publisher?

Well, for one thing, you’re getting a book. A real, solid book. One that will never have to be reformatted, that archives itself, that can survive a coffee spill or a trip to the beach when you’re at that summer place in the Hamptons. Academia is lousy with bibliophiles, print fetishists, technophobes, and Luddites who still resent or refuse to use their email accounts.

Sure, Sony and Amazon have both premiered their first take on the portable ebook reader, but since you can’t back up those systems and there’s no standards set, who knows if a book you purchase for either of those systems will be accessible ten years from now. As long as you have shelf space, your printed book will be accessible. Servers go down and websites disappear with a lot more regularity than entire libraries disappear. Having a physical book is an insurance policy. And sure, you could download it and print it yourself, but it’s a pain to do all that, ink costs money, and binders take up a lot more shelf space.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for open access publishing, or that we still need the current academic press setup. While print-on-demand services like have thus far been relegated in terms of publishing stature to the ghetto of the vanity press, there’s no reason that a peer-reviewed scholarly book couldn’t be published using the same means.

Assuming that the author is willing to not make any money (often the case for scholarly publication anyway) and to sell it “at cost,” (that is, after lulu recoups their operating cost and makes their profit) it’s still competitive with most university presses. I used their pricing calculator, and a 250 page, black and white, 6″x9″ hardcover with jacket should run about twenty bucks per book. That’s less than most of the books for my classes this semester at the campus bookstore. Lulu offers bulk pricing reductions, so if a buying consortium of libraries could be formed, the book could be sold to university and public libraries at an even lower cost.

Heck, if they ended up with a significant enough market share, it might be possible to convince the folks at Lulu that it’d be a worthwhile (and possibly tax-deductible) to set up a nonprofit “academic imprint” of Lulu, thus deferring cost further.

The Espresso Book Machine offers the possibility of a similar idea, with the exciting addition of on site production and pickup.

There’s something to be said for the notion of gatekeepers, but the gatekeepers seem to be more and more of a hindrance. It may be time, as publishing is already an industry in the midst of upset, to think about establishing a new paradigm, finding a new way to integrate this gatekeeper function. Peer review, like academic publishing, comes near enough to a volunteer service that academics perform for the community anyway– there’s just not enough money in academic publishing to make it affordable to put out all the good work that’s being produced. Print runs are small. Editorial supervision is shrinking. Academics talk about their work being for the public good, about enlightenment and progress. Taking the money out of the equation seems in keeping with all this.

There’s more to be gained for authors than just the high-minded ideals I’ve been discussing. It puts the reigns of design in our hands. It gives academics control over how their book looks. There’s some books I love– and I’ll avoid naming names to protect the innocent– that have suffered from being (apparently) completely neglected by the design staff at the university press. And as much as we want people to notice the content of our writing, we have to acknowledge that design matters. Ugly books are actually harder to read. Attractive things work better. Putting the author at the helm, giving him or her the reigns, is the best way to ensure that the formatting of the book will be handled carefully and with love.

By extension, making sure that students in programs that emphasize digital and new media scholarship have the necessary skills to produce well-designed print layouts should be one of the skills we encourage– or even demand– in such programs. There’s more to digital scholarship than databases and Dreamweaver. Let’s not forget that these new technologies have, in addition to new methods of analysis and dissemination of knowledge, have expanded access to “old media” as well.