Journal-isms: What Would It Take To Reform Scholarly Publishing?

August 24, 2010, 1:17 pm

Well bust my britches, if the paper of record didn’t put we scholars on the front page this morning! Reporting on the decision of the Shakespeare Quarterly decision to experiment with posting articles on line for open review, the New York Times reports that:

a core group of experts — what [Katherine] Rowe called “our crowd sourcing” — were invited to post their signed comments on the Web site MediaCommons, a scholarly digital network. Others could add their thoughts as well, after registering with their own names. In the end 41 people made more than 350 comments, many of which elicited responses from the authors. The revised essays were then reviewed by the quarterly’s editors, who made the final decision to include them in the printed journal, due out Sept. 17.

This process of online review, the Times argues,

goes to the very nature of the scholarly enterprise. Traditional peer review has shaped the way new research has been screened for quality and then how it is communicated; it has defined the border between the public and an exclusive group of specialized experts.

Well, not quite, but let’s pick this ball up and run with it, shall we? While I think this is an interesting and productive shift, and that opening up the review process is a bold thing to do because it puts a dent in the Bell of Silence that scholars erroneously believe honesty requires, the practice –as envisioned by the editors and utilized by those truly brave people who participated — adhered to tradition in important ways. First, the journal obtained promises from a “core group” of scholars that they would participate; and second, if you read down to the bottom of the article, one of the participants still felt it was necessary to secure a promise from a dean that the article would still count for tenure. (Let’s give a round of applause to this young person, shall we, for participating in something new and untested? I hope you do get tenure: we need more people like you in this profession.)
My point is that traditional gatekeepers are still in place — even though the process has become more open and, importantly, more public. Jennifer Howard’s in-depth piece about Shakespeare Quarterly last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education makes this, and other, good points.
The Times also notes that peer review, although the Rosetta Stone of the tenure and promotion process, is deeply flawed. I concur. There are numerous examples one could cite of plagiarism, or poor practice, that seem to slip right through the peer review process. Add to this the fact that many, if not most, journals are famous for vetting processes that are as slow as Cream of Wheat going down the kitchen drain. Graduate assistants and faculty editors who lose track of manuscripts; readers who are given six months to complete the review and have to be pushed to complete it anyway; and the capacious use of “revise and resubmit” rather than bluntly saying the article is poor and needs to be completely rewritten — all of these things and more are acknowledged problems with the academic publishing process that make many people reluctant to send work to journals.
Another outcome of cumbersome journal review mechanisms that many, if not most, scholars in the humanities and social sciences think are flawed, is that readers often receive manuscripts that are in horrible shape. Graduate students and young scholars are often counseled to send work out for review to — well, to put it bluntly, get free advice from top people in the field, and to get their work “in the pipeline” in hopes that a journal will commit to it at an early stage. This is particularly true of dissertations and dissertation chapters. Dissertations are not, or are very rarely, books; and dissertation chapters are not articles. And yet, they are often sent out to readers as if they were, and the privacy of the process — while it doesn’t seem to stop readers from hemming and hawing and recommending that it be “revised and resubmitted” — discourages the authors from being embarrassed about sending out work that isn’t ready for review yet.
So I see what the Shakespeare Quarterly is doing as an important step in reforming the process. Even if other humanities and social science journals do not care for the experiment as it was conducted, they need to find some way to move towards the following reforms:
The period of time from submission to acceptance or rejection, should be dramatically shortened. Eight weeks is really sufficient; and actually, for many of us, looking at our calendar might mean spotting a free day for doing the review that is even sooner. Reviewers should be held to this date, and the date should be conveyed to the author.
Eliminate revise and resubmit. There should be two categories: accept and reject. One can give cogent reasons for rejecting a piece that do not prevent it from being revised and submitted elsewhere. One could recommend accepting an article pending revision of even serious flaws because it makes a real contribution that is as yet unrealized.
Journals should not accept articles they are not ready to put into production in the next year. Having a piece fully accepted and then delaying publication for a year to eighteen months is idiotic, and a drag on the system. It means that the value of article for the bean counters (those who are “counting” publications for merit raises, tenure, promotion) is often greater than the value of he article to scholars, or at least those scholars in the field who ought to be reading it. If it is worth reading, it is worth reading now.
All journals should begin enhancing their web presence immediately. Paper journals, at least in the humanities and social sciences, will eventually be dead — you know it, I know it, and it is just a matter of time. Cuts in library budgets are damaging journals, but the problem is larger than that. Newspapers who spend around 80% of their gross revenue actually getting the newspaper-as-object to the reader, and I suspect this is true for journals as well. And what happens to those objects? I belong to three professional associations (two history, one interdisciplinary) who, between them, send me twelve journals a year. I just weighed the pile of journals pictured at the top of this post, and now know that 13.8 pounds of extremely good quality paper comes into my house on an annual basis in the form of journals, paper that is even more expensive because it has to be printed, transformed into a book-thing and mailed. Within the next twelve months, these high-quality and very aesthetic objects, sadly, will end up in the recycling bin, because who wants to accumulate over a foot a year of journals when they are searchable and readable on line? And when much of the material in them is not in one’s field?
As an example, I would pay the same American Historical Association dues to not get a paper copy of the American Historical Review. This is not because the AHR isn’t good, although there are entire i
ssues that pass filled with beautifully researched and written articles that are so tangential to my work that I can’t prioritize them in an already over-taxed reading life. But even if I did read them cover to cover, it is ecologically unsound and an utter waste of the organization’s money. I have adapted to doing a significant portion of my professional reading on line and really, I wish they would use my dues some other way, like lobbying state legislatures to restore cuts in higher education and hire faculty full-time. The AHR might even consider paying the people who they engage to do peer review so they would do it in a timely manner.
Finally, moving to an all-web presence over time would permit articles and book reviews to be published in a more timely manner. They could go up when they — or a cluster of like articles — was ready. A regularly updated book review section could review books (gasp!) when they come out as opposed to, say two to four years later. Journals could respond to political and cultural developments in a more timely manner — and perhaps even become relevant to a broader, educated audience.

Since you are too busy getting ready for the new students to check out my constantly updated toolbar, before you stop reading today, check out this brilliant post on cultivating “beginner’s mind” at Roxie’s World. It’s especially aimed at veteran teachers who might be taking too much for granted at the beginning of the semester — and missing the joy.
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