Monday, October 12, 2009

Publishing, Peer Review, And Professional Matters

Believe it or not, I began the following on 8/15, when I was in danger of becoming caught up on posts in queue. For what it's worh, here it is.

Several items over the last year have come across the proverbial desktop(s) concerning publishing and the needs and concerns of academic publishing especially as related to online publishing. One in particular came up a few months ago as Matt Gabriele posted some thoughts on the question at Modern Medieval. Shortly after that, I was catching up on some journal reading and was looking at PMLA 23.3 May 2008.

In that issue is a short article by Kathleen Fitzpatrick entitled "Obsolescence" in the "Changing Profession" section (pp. 718-722). Fitzpatrick makes some comments in this piece that I'm not sure about. She says in part "...the current system of peer review is part of what's broken, part of what's made a vibrant mode of scholarly communication undead." She attacks whatever the current system of peer review as "gatekeeping" of a type that prevents intellectual exchange and has to do with the "economics of print."

But is it? As the editor on an online journal, my second, I have to say that peer review has nothing to do with the economics of print. Nothing at all. Peer review doesn't prevent publication: since ancient times in order to publish, one needed simple access to the tools of literacy: paper, papyrus, parchment and pen and ink. In the age of print, one simply needed Kinko's and a typrewriter. And if peer reviewers prevented publication, the simple solution was to go to a vanity press and have it printed and published. Peer review might prevent publication in a particular journal or at a particular publishers, but has never prevented publication per se.

And of course peer review is performed by humans, so is subject to all the things that humans are subject too: pettiness, political maneuvering, mistakes, stupidity as well as moments of keen insight, publishing an excellent work. And everything in between on the spectrum. And nothing is going to change that: we're humans, and getting rid of peer review isn't going to change anything.

In the Internet age anyone can put up anything. So why have peer review? The same reasons as always: at least to make the effort that whatever bears the stamp of The Heroic Age or Blackwell or what have you may be trusted. Sure, mistakes are made. Sometimes the venerable Oxford Book of... for example isn't quite up to par or there's an article that seeps through into say JEGP or Notes and Queries that isn't earth shatteringly original. And of course there's the famous "theory" case where a chap made up the whole article packed with jargon and got it published in a high end literary theory journal. Peer review sometimes fails because we humans fail.

But it also often succeeds. Not everything should be published, regardless of the author's own passion and love for his/her work. And the author is often not the best person to make such a determination, nor would someone who for one reason or another have a vested interest (friendship, partnership, dislike, departmental pride, etc). Like democracy, peer review is the worst system in the world until we compare it to any other system.

Further, just putting it on the Internet is fine, no harm in that, and might even be good. The advantage of a journal or other organ practicing peer review however is that if one is looking for information, one simply isn't at the mercy of the search terms in the search engine that may or may not yield someone's self published web page on an issue. Like vanity publishing, there some good material and bad material there, but the trick is finding the good that is there if outside the normal channels.

Perhaps I've misunderstood the issue. But I don't think so. It just seems to me that criticisms of peer editing are unfounded. Yes there are certainly problems with the system. But the system is us. So like anything we create and do there are abysmal failures and soaring successes and everything in between. And this like many issues should be constantly revisited, self awareness and autopolicing are desireable activities. But abolishing peer editing and just letting anything out there both misunderstands publishing and peer editing as well as does a disservice to academia as a whole. Them's my thoughts...yours?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was just dealing with one edge of this question on my blog, in fact: someone asked whether I thought being a real historian necessarily meant being an academic, and while I think the answer is no, there is an element of peer review both in being admitted into and in operating within an academic community that does set some kind of guarantee on the expertise of those involved. Back in the day of course it would have been membership of learned societies, and there might still be room for professional organisations there in performing that function of authentication. Because there is lots wrong with peer review: it assumes that sufficient expertise exists to check someone whose work is however required to be new, for a start; if they genuinely have something new, how can anyone know whether they made it up or not? And secondly it perpetuates the whole 'who you know not what you know' injustice because of course editors primarily consult people they know for reviews. 'Double blind' is just a fiction in fields as specialised and monopolised as ours, and there are disincentives to allow new researchers into a field in which one is expert. The whole thing proceeds on a basis of assumptions of goodwill and universal availability of expertise that can't work all the time, though many academics do try to make it, seeing I suppose that it underpins their discipline's credibility.

But, for all that, as you say, there is no better way. If we don't respect expertise and even defer to it, there is no point in acquiring it and everything becomes relative. The question I suppose is one of where one puts the gates, how big they are and what it takes to get through them; as long as there are gates there must be keepers for them, and I think there must be gates; but, as long as there are gates there are always going to be injustices at them and I wonder whether we can't, in this day of world-wide communications, work harder at avoiding that.