Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Digital Peer Review

Academic peer review is one of those things that everybody hates but nobody knows how to change. It is cumbersome and time-consuming and can delay the publication of scholarly articles for months or even years. It depends on the willingness of professors to work without pay, and while some do it because they are interested or care about the state of their fields, some do it because they have axes to grind. Smaller journals rely on small pools of reviewers, and once you know who they are you can slant your piece to get their quick approval. Editors can also game the process by sending articles to people they know will like or dislike it. A friend of mine who has taken a public position against a certain kind of research was recently sent an article in exactly the vein he has spoken out against, and he asked my opinion about whether it was even ethical for him to review the article. I said, the editor wouldn't have sent it to you unless he wanted to reject it.

Now some journals are experimenting with electronic review, posting articles online and inviting comment. One of the experimenters is Shakespeare Quarterly:
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.
This seems promising to me, although it raises the question of why we need journals at all.

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