I like “open.” And I like “review.” But do they need to be fused?

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about “open review.” Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo have drafted a thoughtful and polished white paper on the topic, with input from many other hands. Alex Reid also commented insightfully.

“Open Doors,” Federica Marchi 2007, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Though my assessment of print scholarship is not as dark as Alex’s, I do share a bit of his puzzlement. To me, the concept of “open review” sometimes feels like an attempt to fit a round peg in a square hole.

I’m completely convinced about the value of the open intellectual exchange that happens on academic blogs. I’m constantly learning from other people’s blogs, and from their comments on mine. I’ve been warned away from dead ends, my methodology has improved, I’ve learned about sources I would otherwise have overlooked. It’s everything that’s supposed to happen at a conference — but rarely does. And you don’t have to pay for a plane ticket.

This kind of exchange is “open,” and it has intellectual value. On the other hand, I have no desire to claim that it constitutes a “review” process. It’s better than review: it’s learning. I don’t feel that I need to get credit for it on my vita, because the stuff I learn is going to produce articles … which I can then list on my vita.

As far as those articles are concerned, I’m more or less happy with existing review structures. I don’t (usually) learn as much from the formal review process as I do from blogs, but I’m okay with that: I can live with the fact that “review” is about selection and validation rather than open dialogue. (Also, note “usually” above: there are exceptions, when I get a really good reader/editor.)

To say the same thing more briefly: I think the Journal of Digital Humanities has the model about right. Articles in JDH tend to begin life as blog posts. They tend to get kicked around pretty vigorously by commenters: that’s the “open” part of the process, where most of the constructive criticism, learning, and improvement take place. Then they’re selected by the editors of JDH, which to my mind is “review.” The editors may not have to give detailed suggestions for revision, because the give-and-take of the blog stage has probably already shown the author where she wants to expand or rethink. The two stages (“open” and “review”) are loosely related, but not fused. As I understand the process, selection is partly (but only partly) driven by the amount of discussion a post stirred up.

If you ask, why not fuse the the two stages? I would say, because they’re doing different sorts of work. I think open intellectual exchange is most fun when it feels like a reciprocal exchange of views rather than a process where “I’m asking you to review my work.” So I’d rather not force it to count as a review process. Conversely, I suspect there are good reasons for the editorial selection process to be less than perfectly open. Majorities should rule in politics, but perhaps not always in academic debate.

But if people want to keep trying to fuse the “open” part with the “review” part, I’ve got no objection. It’s worth a try, and trying does no harm.

6 thoughts on “I like “open.” And I like “review.” But do they need to be fused?

  1. Too far down that road, and you get dangerously close to the Third Rail of the Academy: collaboration…. If people are unable to draw clear edges around their own research, how will their credentials be verified??!1! Decay of the self-contained isolated scholar model implies people would have to read all their work rather than merely relying on social cues to evaluate it, like what journal it was published in, or how long it is….

    To be serious for a moment, what I hear whenever I encounter an academic responses to openness seems to come more from the prevalent view that scholarship is produced by a Waterfall Model, in discrete and well-formed stages of some sort.

    • Yes, I suppose I am offering a Waterfall Model here. But I would want to admit that the flowchart can get more complicated. I.e., while some blog posts will produce articles, I’m also perfectly happy with those that don’t (like this one, probably!). Discussion is a good thing in and of itself, even if not peer reviewed.

      But you’re right that we would only get credit for “discussion” if search/promotion committees started reading carefully. And let’s be realistic: they won’t. So … (shrug) … we won’t get credit. At least not under “publications.”

  2. Flattery will get you everywhere, and so for obvious reasons I think you’re right that the model of JDH, by making a clean break with traditional forms of closed review, might be a path forward. In short, give each publishing venue the peer review form that matches its environment. With PressForward, we’re trying to think about the natural form of review that occurs on the web, and build from that, rather than trying to import the form of review that had its genesis in print culture.

    Having said that, I think the report shows that we will have some difficulties with this completely new model, especially in terms of participation and validation from faculty used to the closed system.

    • I can see that. I suspect the JDH model is going to work very well for digital humanities, but be a bit challenging to export to other subfields.

      The advantages of blogging your scholarship are enormous in a subfield that is inherently collaborative and changing rapidly. In those conditions, you can get your work out there, get feedback, and actually have changed the conversation before your article would have passed review in a print publication. So it becomes self-defeating to spend too much time worrying about “the prestige of the venue.”

      I think that’s the state of affairs in DH, and in many of the sciences. But the situation is different in other subfields of the humanities, because the pace of change is much slower. I understand why scholars in those subfields don’t yet see an advantage to blogging.

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