Open Peer Review and Generative Attention
I’ll begin by thanking Kathleen, Avi, and the rest of the Mellonaires for posting Open Review, and providing a nice hub for this conversation. Honestly, I have other things I should be doing, but upon reading Alex’s thoughts on the matter, and waiting for the aftermath of today’s root canal to come and go, I hunkered down and did a little reading. Now that I have enough focus to write, my thought is that if I don’t post something now about it, I probably won’t ever. So…open peer review.
I’m not opposed to it in any way, so like Alex, I may not quite be the audience for the piece. That being said, my own rhetorical disconnect differs a bit from his. Alex asks, “What is the problem with existing scholarly review procedures that the open review process seeks to solve?” and his answer is that “The humanities publish work of little interest.” There’s a lot more to his comments, so they’re worth reading in their entirety, but I want to pull out one thread and take it in a different direction. Among other things he notes:
For most humanities scholars (and when I say most, I mean 99%+), review feedback is the most substantive (and often only) conversation they encounter regarding their work. We know something like 95% of humanities articles go uncited. Even when an article is cited, there’s no assurance that the citation represents a substantive engagement with one’s text. So there is rarely much intertextual conversation that would be akin to editorial feedback. Be honest: have you ever published an article that received the degree of attention I’ve given this white paper here?
This was a little jarring to me, because honestly, my answer is yes. In fact, I’d say that just about every article I’ve published has received that degree of attention. I’ve gotten plenty of substantive conversation, engagement, and even some intertextual conversation. However, I’ve gotten that attention before publication, not after it. And although I do my share of reviewing for journals and tenure cases, most of my “generative attention,” if I may turn a phrase, is shared with those friends and colleagues who seek my feedback.
For example, the piece that I published in JAC on posthuman rhetorics way back when (PDF) actually began as a review essay of Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, drifted towards Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, and I can still remember sitting with my writing group at ODU, talking about it, and feeling the click as we all realized that it was actually something else entirely. I remember that click better than I remember the essay itself, honestly. And just about every memory that I have of having received generative attention is similar–I remember the attention and engagement more than I do the final product. Insofar as open peer review might provide that, sign me up.
But I guess it feels like it’s almost a little backwards to me. My first reaction upon reading
They impact publishing, of course, but also the ways scholarly work is assessed beyond the moment of publication, from hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions to funding applications, and the development of a scholarly reputation.
was to mad-lib it, and to ask what about “the ways scholarly work is [encouraged] [before] the moment of publication…”? It seems to me that we do a better job of providing generative attention at conferences, research network fora, workshops, and the like. So, OPR feels a bit like we’re asking about how we can get X (peer review, publication) to be more like Y (conferences, writing groups), when it might be just as fruitful to ask how we can build upon Y to the point of making X less of a chokepoint.
It’s entirely possible that I’m inventing a difference where none exists. None need exist, certainly–the obvious answer to this concern is that there’s nothing to stop both kinds of projects from happening. And I buy that to a degree. But when I read through some of those recommendations, I felt exhausted by them. One obvious problem of starting from X is that you have to deal with all of the accumulated and varied baggage that the traditional peer review system brings. And honestly, I wonder a little about how these publication-style experiments would scale up if a significant portion of any community (much less lots of them) tried to implement them. I’m sympathetic to turning over a rock or two, but I can also imagine a world where every single site comes with its own set of rocks that have to be lifted over and over and over. I pity the first people who have to prepare their tenure committees by explaining each of the peer review schemes behind their various publications.
Maybe it’s just a push-pull thing for me. A site like Digital Humanities Now feels like a much more intuitive way to build upon the kinds of attention that we want than trying to chisel away at the gigantic ice block of publication. The more I say about this, the more I realize that this is more of a prepositional difference than a propositional one, so maybe I should stop writing at this point. Heh. If nothing else, I like the idea of generative attention, and I certainly agree with the goals behind the idea of OPR, enough so that I’m planning on experimenting with it for my second “book” project. More on that story as it develops. Now? Now I have deadlines to dispatch.