Books in a storefront window.
23
Jan
2012

In Search of the "Peer" in Peer Review

In this article for the Guardian, George Monbiot calls academic publishing “economic parasitism” and academic publishers “monopolists,” which brings up a broader discussion about the purpose and promise of peer review. The academic publishing peer review process is an institution, and as an institution, it has a set of tenets or laws that undergird its existence. While investigating the institution itself is a useful endeavor (see Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s excellent work in Planned Obsolescence), perhaps a new alternative to academic publishing is better off to cast itself as far as possible from this (overly stable and politically-charged) institution.

Responding to Monbiot, Martin Paul Eve argues in this article on PHD2Published for “a proliferation of specialized niche journals which operate independently” so that “academic communities could thrive on collaboration, rather than competition.”  He continues, “Rather than standing on the shoulders of giants, with all their prestige, communities of academic practice could offer one another leg-ups and still see farther.” Eve’s work invites us to think carefully and critically about the traditional steps toward academic publishing.

Charlotte Frost, the founder of PHD2Published, argues in this entry that “if we want to get a foothold in academia we do still have to jump through some predetermined hoops. However, what’s special about the era we’re living in is that digital technologies offer us a real opportunity to rethink those conversations and our places within them.” Hybrid Pedagogy is inspired by exactly this sort of thinking, a move toward a different conception of the “peer” in peer review.

The word “peer” suggests a person of similar age, education, ability, etc. The word also means “to look closely” (to peer inside something), suggesting that peers are those people close enough to us (in whatever way) that they directly observe and have a vested interest in what we do, think, or say. In an academic sense, who are our peers? Are they the small set of individuals who have similar expertise? Are they our localized, departmental colleagues? Our students? (Here’s a pedagogical litmus test: have you ever brought an in-progress paper into class for your students to observe, discuss, critique? If no, then why not?)

An alternative to the process of peer review, which we suggest is due, requires an investigation of these questions. To be clear, what we are looking for is an alternative to peer review not an alternative way of doing peer review, a distinction Erik Voeten makes in this entry on The Monkey Cage. We contend that peers do not have to be part of our discipline; they don’t even have to be in our time zone. Peers, in a hybrid sense are: those with whom we share intellectual connection; those who take an interest in our work; those for whom our work is useful.

Traditionally, academic peers were people who had the same expertise as us. If a person were a biochemist working on isolating a specific strand of proteins, his or her publishing endeavors were only important for other biochemists doing mostly the same work. Yes, sometimes an article in Science might get discussed in popular media, but that was not the direct goal.

In a digital, fragmented, and kinetic media environment, the boundaries around academic “knowledge” are necessarily challenged and re-designed. Depending on our subjects, we might be publishing on that strand of proteins, or an obscure anthropological moment in history, or a nuanced definition of psychosis, but in a hybrid environment we should also consider broad relevance. How is our work connected to, impinging on, initiating (conscious or unconscious) conflicts with, or buttressing the work of others, academic or non-academic? Who cares, or should care, about the content and narrative of our work?

“Publishing” is not what it was a decade ago, and that’s a good thing. We should not cling to means of production that grew out of different economic circumstances. Like Clay Shirky observes in Here Comes Everybody, the “authority” of any media venue before the Web was a product of economic scarcity, and now that scarcity does not exist. We should, rather, look forward to modes that encourage and invite collaboration, open-source content, remixing, etc. By collecting interested parties and making the writing process public, we invite a new kind of peer — one who is a stakeholder in the consequences of our writing, whether or not they are inside our field or even a “scholar” in any traditional sense.

So here’s an idea: gather a group of people interested in a writing project and drag them into an electronic space so that they can look over your shoulder. So to speak. Pick people who care; people who will both collaborate and contribute. What we mean to suggest is that, between the informality of most blogging and the stultifying environment of academic publishing, we can find a middle ground to solicit feedback publicly as we work toward new modes of publication. Think of it as an open source writing group. We endeavor to start an online publication review process like that here.

For our purposes, this entry is both philosophical and pragmatic. Our desire is for Hybrid Pedagogy to be a journal, in the academic sense, but also a true community, in which ideas proliferate more freely and openly. What model of peer review (or, even, something new with another name) would be appropriate for this space?

Dan Cohen’s “The Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing” (in http://hackingtheacademy.org/) describes the move from a model of “publication” to one of “curation,” where the job of editors is to cull together and make connections between works that might otherwise get lost in a sea of content available on the web. Our goal in publishing (or curating) articles here is to help build a larger audience for and community around ideas about teaching and experimentation with pedagogical practice. Another goal is to honor works in progress. Thinking about pedagogy is never finished, especially thinking about digital pedagogy, which relies on ever-shifting tools and methodology.

In a job talk today at Georgia State University, Genevieve Critel a Rhet/Comp candidate suggested that “community” is not always the best metaphor to use for the composition class. She is looking for something that concentrates more on the performative aspects of the classroom experience. Similarly, other metaphors may be more appropriate for academic publishing, ones that capture the fluidity of community and the rigor of academic investigation. Perhaps what we are imagining is a collective, one in which members are attached not just by identity (“that’s my field”), but by mutual contribution.

Some thoughts on possible options for peer review on Hybrid Pedagogy:
1. A Google-inspired +1 model, in which articles start off as “works in progress,” under continuous revision, before being elevated by the community to “featured” status.
2. Separate, and sporadic, curated “issues” (perhaps, created with Apple’s new iBooks Author tool) that assemble content published and discussed on the site.
3. A team approach, where rotating, invited “editorial” groups collaborate on review and recommend publication (consider In Media Res).

At this point, our first (and only) requirement for the peer review process on Hybrid Pedagogy is that the process itself be peer reviewed before being set in motion, so help us by offering questions, feedback, etc. in the comments and/or in the commons.

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