Peer Review in a Digital Age

This week’s readings touched on many aspects of publishing digital scholarship from the formal (Ayers’ and Thomas’ work) to the more informal- blogs and twitter. One of the underlying tensions between works produced for a digital environment and traditional scholarship is perceived difference in authority. In one of the earliest class readings, Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that “[e]very source appearing on the screen has the same weight and credibility.” With digital scholarship providing a contrast to the rigorous system of peer review used by academic journals and publishing houses.

As described in Cohen and Rosenzweig, Hitchcock, and the authors of Writing History in a Digital Age, the cost of publication and distribution on the web approaches zero. Thus the professional machinery that limited traditional scholarship to the best and brightest that would fit in a physical journal or UP monograph is no longer a concern over resources or cost of production. The premier journals are still limited to what would traditionally fit in the “dead tree” version- 3-5 articles, book reviews, front and back matter.

Digital publications are not constrained in such ways, but often do lack what is at the bedrock of many professional journals, a system of peer review. But this lack of peer review is recognized by online practitioners and systems are beginning to be put in place to address the problem of “authority.” As such, online peer review exists on a continuum of approaches.

Joan Troyano described the peer review process used by the Journal of Digital Humanities. The reviewers were usually graduate students or the journal’s editors, not necessarily scholars in the fields being discussed. This is a “peer” review, but not of one’s peers in a particular academic discipline. Without the stamp of approval of the gatekeepers of a discipline, the perception of “authority” is diminished, even as access to the public is far increased over gated articles open to academics at Universities. Yet, the JDH did offer “an astounding” level of interest in a virtually new journal. And I think Joan’s description of the material as a “middle state” serves a very useful purpose. They “collect the good” which generates interest and hopefully can press those publications to a final level of peer review before publication in a disciplines most prestigious journals. It’s a very effective way to “filter” the flood of  online publications.

The peer review system for Writing History in the Digital Age provided an interesting mix of newer open methods and traditional “experts” (who even had the opportunity to send anonymous comments). As a result, Writing History in the Digital Age might have a level of polish that exceeds the JDH (to be fair, the projects have very different aims). I also think their authors are correct that in the digital environment authority is much more fluid and based on reputation. Gertrude Himmelfarb is wrong that authority is thrown out the window on the web, but historians are correct to be worried about authority. In an online world of billions, a dozens views has little authority.

In the digital world, reputation is just as powerful, but also more fleeting. Within the “publish-then-filter” model described by Cummings and Jarrett, the usefulness of the “filter” determines its value for the reader. We trust the New York Times to “filter” the most important news and conversations for  us, just as I trust William Cronon to “filter” the best environmental history and news on his twitter feed.

The other pole of peer review for digital projects are articles like Ed Ayers and William Thomas’ “The Differences Slavery Made.” This went through a formal peer review process and was published by the AHR. It had all the “authority” and professional recognition of traditional scholarship, but some scholars did not treat the web companion project similarly to the published article by not interacting with it. Though Ayers and Thomas had high aspirations of changing the form of scholarship, the traditional peer review and gate keeping made their work very recognizable to the profession- a good and bad outcome.

Digital Scholarship needs all of these levels of peer review, but I believe that the most successful peer review will mirror the best practices on the web where “expert” users are described as such, but all users are open to comment on work. A system similar to Writing History in the Digital Age could plausibly work for journals in some fields if given a chance.

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