¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 So, again, if closed peer review processes aren’t serving scholars in their need for feedback and discussion, and if they can’t be wholly relied upon for their quality-control functions, what’s left? I’d argue that the primary purpose that anonymous peer review actually serves today, at least in the humanities (and that qualifier, and everything that follows from it, opens a whole other can of worms that needs further discussion — what are the different needs with respect to peer review in the different disciplines?), is that of institutional warranting, of conveying to college and university administrations that the work their employees are doing is appropriate and well-thought-of in its field, and thus that these employees are deserving of ongoing appointments, tenure, promotions, raises, and whathaveyou.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 Are these the functions that we really want peer review to serve? Vast amounts of scholars’ time is poured into the peer review process each year; wouldn’t it be better to put that time into open discussions that not only improve the individual texts under review but are also, potentially, productive of new work? Isn’t it possible that scholars would all be better served by separating the question of credentialing from the publishing process, by allowing everything through the gate, by designing a post-publication peer review process that focuses on how a scholarly text should be received rather than whether it should be out there in the first place? What if peer review learned from social software systems such as Digg, and became “peer-to-peer review”? Would the various credentialing bodies that currently rely on peer review’s gatekeeping function be satisfied if we were to say to them, “no, anonymous reviewers did not determine whether my article was worthy of publication, but if you look at the comments that my article has received, you can see that five of the top experts in my field had really positive, constructive things to say about it”?
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Such a peer-to-peer system raises some potential pitfalls, of course — ask any blogger about phenomena like comment spam — but a system of post-publication comment-driven open peer review, in conjunction with technologies like versioning and trackbacks, would allow for the ongoing discussion and revision necessary to all scholarly thought.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 There are a couple of implications of this shift that bear some immediate consideration, not least that these new technologies introduce what is to some scholars an unnerving sense of collaborative authorship in intellectual work. Such collaboration, however, is only unnerving to those of us in the humanities; work in both the sciences and the social sciences is heavily (and in some fields, entirely) reliant upon the multi-author text. What a new, networked system of publishing and review implies, however, is less a move away from individual authorship than a recognition that no author is an island, so to speak, that we’re all always working in dialogue with others. Even in a radically collective and collaborative electronic publishing system, the individual author would still exist (and would still maintain some form of “ownership” over her ideas, via some means of Creative Commons licensing), but would do her work in material relation to the work of others, in a process of discussion and revision that now takes place behind the scenes, but that I’d argue is important enough to be moved out in front of the curtain.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 More importantly, however, such changes in the processes of academic publishing would return scholarly communication to the gift-economy mode within which, I would argue, it was always intended to operate, a mode in which all gains in knowledge produced by individual research are made not for the advancement of that individual, but for the collective benefit of the field as a whole.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 A second area for concern in bringing about such a radical change in peer-review, however, is the need to promote a new understanding of peer-review within our institutions, such that texts published within such a system would be taken seriously by college and university review and promotion committees. Such a new understanding is already desperately needed; one of the problems in academic publishing right now — what makes the economic hardships of the current university publishing system not merely a change but a crisis — is that, as Stephen Greenblatt pointed out some years back in his letter to the membership of the MLA, too many academic institutions rely on presses to make their tenure decisions for them. The granting of tenure should not be reliant on whether the vagaries of any publishing system did or did not allow a text to come into circulation, but rather on the value of that text, and on the importance it bears for its field. Peer-review thus demands to be transformed from a system of gatekeeping to a mode of manifesting the responses to and discussion of a multiplicity of ideas in circulation.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In order for this change to take root, however, with as little potential for damage to the careers of junior faculty as possible, tenured scholars are going to have to take the first plunge. Until institutional biases about the relative value of electronic and print publication are changed — but moreover, until we come to understand peer-review as part of an ongoing conversation among scholars rather than a convenient means of determining “value” without all that inconvenient reading and discussion — the processes of evaluation for tenure and promotion are doomed to become a monster that eats its young, trapped in an early twentieth century model of scholarly production that simply no longer works.