[snip] Now some humanities scholars have begun to challenge the monopoly that peer review has on admission to career-making journals and, as a consequence, to the charmed circle of tenured academe. They argue that in an era of digital media there is a better way to assess the quality of work. Instead of relying on a few experts selected by leading publications, they advocate using the Internet to expose scholarly thinking to the swift collective judgment of a much broader interested audience.
That transformation was behind the recent decision by the prestigious 60-year-old Shakespeare Quarterly to embark on an uncharacteristic experiment in the forthcoming fall issue — one that will make it, Ms. Rowe says, the first traditional humanities journal to open its reviewing to the World Wide Web.
Mixing traditional and new methods, the journal posted online four essays not yet accepted for publication, and a core group of experts — what Ms. 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.
The Shakespeare Quarterly trial, along with a handful of other trailblazing digital experiments, goes to the very nature of the scholarly enterprise. [snip]
Each type of review has benefits and drawbacks.
Clubby exclusiveness, sloppy editing and fraud have all marred peer review on occasion. Anonymity can help prevent personal bias, but it can also make reviewers less accountable; exclusiveness can help ensure quality control but can also narrow the range of feedback and participants. Open review more closely resembles Wikipedia behind the scenes, where anyone with an interest can post a comment. This open-door policy has made Wikipedia, on balance, a crucial reference resource.
Ms. Rowe said the goal is not necessarily to replace peer review but to use other, more open methods as well.
The most daunting obstacle to opening up the process is that peer-review publishing is the path to a job and tenure, and no would-be professor wants to be the academic canary in the coal mine.
The first question that Alan Galey, a junior faculty member at the University of Toronto, asked when deciding to participate in The Shakespeare Quarterly’s experiment was whether his essay would ultimately count toward tenure. “I went straight to the dean with it,” Mr. Galey said. (It would.)
Although initially cautious, Mr. Galey said he is now “entirely won over by the open peer review model.” The comments were more extensive and more insightful, he said, than he otherwise would have received on his essay, which discusses Shakespeare in the context of information theory.
Advocates of more open reviewing, like Mr. Cohen at George Mason argue that other important scholarly values besides quality control — for example, generating discussion, improving works in progress and sharing information rapidly — are given short shrift under the current system.
“There is an ethical imperative to share information,” said Mr. Cohen, who regularly posts his work online, where he said thousands read it. Engaging people in different disciplines and from outside academia has made his scholarship better, he said.
To Mr. Cohen, the most pressing intellectual issue in the next decade is this tension between the insular, specialized world of expert scholarship and the open and free-wheeling exchange of information on the Web. “And academia,” he said, “is caught in the middle.”
A version of this article appeared in print on August 24, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.
Letters To The Editor > 08-30-10
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The Scientist > August 2010 > Peer Review Rejected