Today we feature a guest post, a critique of American History Now from my esteemed colleague Zachary Schrag.
I love my iconoclastic colleagues, but oh, how they provoke me!
First, Hacking the Academy comes out. Then Dan Cohen gives a talk for Open Access Week. Then Mike O’Malley announces his plans for American History Now. (Not to mention Mills’s attack on the five-page paper.)
These folks seem to want to destroy the current system of scholarly communication in history, or at least change it beyond recognition. They are quite correct to point out real problems with the status quo, most notably book and journal prices that deny easy access to scholarship to anyone not affiliated with a university, and publishing conventions that leave few choices for stories best told in more than 10,000 but less than 70,000 words.
But just as city planners who aimed at the slums ended up demolishing irreplaceable achievements of architecture, so do my colleagues risk destroying what’s good about the structures we have inherited.
Back in March, Mike invited our saner colleague, Matt Karush, to argue that “it would be a mistake to design a new system on the basis of an exaggerated critique of the old one.” Matt defended traditional journals on the grounds that they provided important quality control and credentialling for tenure and promotion.
I agree with Matt’s eloquent post, but it does not directly address the related issues raised last week by Dan and Mike: the role of money, and the role of the editor. So I would like to add to three points to Matt’s observations about what we might want to preserve in the current system of scholarly journals by emphasizing the importance of a good editor.
•1. Editors improve manuscripts
Mike claims not to believe this. He writes,
Talking with a friend about peer review, it occurred to me that the stuff which has been most influential in my intellectual life, the stuff that’s been most profound and useful, is profound and useful in ways that have nothing at all to do with peer review. Was Foucault’s Discipline and Punish peer reviewed?
I wouldn’t know; I don’t read Foucault. I read and teach and love books whose authors have tested some of their ideas as journal articles and whose books have passed through peer review at university or trade presses. I work with colleagues who–as Mike well knows–credit the peer review process for helping their own work. I treasure the thanks I have received from authors whose work I refereed or edited.
And, most of all, I think back to my first scholarly publication, an article in Technology and Culture. Turning that piece from a seminar paper into a journal article meant wrestling with the thoughtful yet conflicting demands of three or four anonymous referees and the editor, the maginificent John Staudenmaier.
By the time I was done, I had learned lessons about research and writing that I still apply today, and which I try to teach my students. (Most important: know your villain. Even in the finished article, I didn’t get inside of Mayor Hylan’s head as much as I should have, but I did a lot better than at the start.) If today I get less intense criticism when I go through peer review, it’s because T&C taught me so much about how to get it right before submission.
Working with Staudenmaier on that piece was one of the most valuable experiences of my graduate education, and I had a superb graduate education. And I don’t think my experience is all that unusual.
•2. Editors make filtering work
Theodore Sturgeon claimed that ninety percent of everything is crud.” As a referee, I have found that only seventy percent of what I am sent is crud; apparently there’s a screening process doing some good work. But that’s still a lot of crud.
Mike and Dan know this, but they think “the crowd” will do the crudraking for them. I have my doubts. As social psychologists have shown, we suffer from a “bystander effect“: the more people there are to witness something bad, the less likely anyone is to intervene. Conversely, if someone is singled out in a request for help, they are apt to respond.
Trashing a cruddy manuscript isn’t fun, so the easiest response to a bad or troubled piece of writing is to ignore it. This may be why the crowd does not always respond when needed; I was one of only two academic historians in Virginia who took the time to read the revised drafts of some notoriously problematic elementary school textbooks. (Think of the children!) It can take a good journal editor to persuade reviewers to read the crud and tell the harsh truth. Indeed, am writing this response to some pretty offensive statements only because Mike asked me to. (And no, my usual referee comments are not as snarky as this. I’m trying to match the general aporia of this blog.
Mike seems to want to replace the process of editor-solicited comments with comments that are unsolicited. I fear he will get extremes of praise and spite, but not the tough, fair critiques that authors most need.
Worse still, Mike’s imagined unsolicited comments will be public and non-anonymous, the last a requirement to discourage “nasty” remarks. But taking the nasty out of an honest review of crud–i.e., burying one’s true opinions in pleasantries–means that reviewing will be more work, not less. And, for that matter, it will mean more work for the author, who now must distinguish between honest praise for a manuscript and the lies and jest added mostly to avoid earning the reviewer a reputation as a meanie.
•3. Editors cost money
In his talk, Dan showed a check for 87 cents and claimed it represented typical royalties for a historian’s work. Maybe that’s true for books, but it is a misleading figure for a talk about journals.
The History of Science Society expects to be able to support the editing of Isis by providing funding for the salaries of a Managing Editor, a Manuscript Editor, for office supplies, and for part of the course release for the Book Review Editor. The Editor’s institution, in turn, is expected to support the Isis editorial office to a significant degree.
There are no numbers here, but clearly editing Isis is an expensive proposition, with salaries for a managing editor and manuscript editor, course releases for the book editor and–presumably–editor, and funds for office supplies and perhaps graduate assistants. While the editor’s university must contribute significantly, the HSS membership and institutional subscription income is apparently enough to cover a good chunk of the operation. I’m guessing that’s more than 87 cents.
If that money disappears under an open-access model, journals will need to 1) raise funds some other way, 2) sweat labor out of editors who will do the same work but without the same compensation in cash or course releases, or 3) relax standards.
As I understand it, PressForward is doing all three. Some money is coming in from the Sloan Foundation, editors are not getting course releases, and–faced with the impossibility of editing a journal in the traditional way given such scarce resources–editors are not going to do the hard work of manuscript editing and review.
We can see this in Mike’s evolving plans for his new journal, American History Now. In March, Mike described a version of online academic editing as involving “exactly the same process [as used by today’s journals], with all the same credentialing and standards and depth of scholarship, except that the peer review is visible.” Now he’s imagining a journal with No editors, no designated formal ‘peers,’ no boards of review.” Instead of “exactly the same process,” he will offer not at all the same process.
None of this is to say that the current model is ideal or even sustainable. I am sure there are tweaks we can imagine, such as opening access to scholarly journal articles after an interval sufficient to discourage major libraries from dropping their subscriptions, lowering per-article charges to something a real person might pay, or adding discussion forums to the online versions of journal articles.
Moreover, I expect American History Now and other PressForward projects to be exciting, innovative, inspiring, provocative, and occasionally infuriating. In other words, something like this blog.
But they will best be all of those things if they can draw from a steady flow of solid, peer-reviewed scholarship published elsewhere. I suspect the real function of projects like PressForward will be to supplement, rather than replace, traditional journals. Databases and sites such as Historical Abstracts, America: History and Life, H-Net, and new publishers’ ventures like socialsciencespace.com offer ways to find and discuss peer-reviewed scholarship, but they don’t produce it themselves.
Thus, I don’t see why Dan and Mike must begin new, exciting projects by disparaging others’ scholarly achievement or seeking to diminish the job of journal editor to match a treasury impoverished by open access. As I tell my grad students, you can stand one someone’s shoulders without stepping on his neck. I hope that my colleagues will take a closer look at the tremendous contribution today’s editors make to our profession, and the resources that make that contribution possible.