Guest Post: More Babies in that Bathwater

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.

 

Con­sider the His­tory of Sci­ence Society’s cur­rent want ad for an editor

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.

34 Comments

  • Zach,

    On the issue of hon­esty and civil­ity in a pub­lic peer review, I don’t see those as being in con­flict. One can hon­estly review in pub­lic and be civil. And, there are some mean­ies out there. If a scholar is not being gen­er­ous in tone (not nec­es­sar­ily in analy­sis) then per­haps they should be called out in pub­lic. We are pro­fes­sion­als after all.

    Have you read through any of the com­ments in Writ­ing His­tory in the Dig­i­tal Age? There is def­i­nitely some civil dis­cus­sion gen­er­ated and it isn’t fraught with pleasantries.

    I also want to com­ment on Amer­i­can His­tory Now and Press For­ward. (Dis­clo­sure: I’m not work­ing on these projects even though I do work at CHNM.) Cur­rently there aren’t his­tory jour­nals that accept short arti­cles or that pub­lish open-ended, in-process research arti­cles. As Mike notes, we all have lit­tle bits of research on dis­creet top­ics that would be great to pub­lish but there isn’t a great place to share it, or we would like feed­back on it in a timely man­ner. Addi­tion­ally, if a Amer­i­can his­to­rian is inter­ested in pub­lish­ing in an open-access jour­nal there are vir­tu­ally no options avail­able at this time.

    Blogs are great plat­forms for writ­ing and shar­ing, and Amer­i­can His­tory Now can be a means for push­ing those mini-articles out to a larger audi­ence, while giv­ing the author feed­back and cri­tiques to improve the article–perhaps for pub­li­ca­tion at a later date in another medium.

    These pub­li­ca­tions are exper­i­men­tal and are not going to bring down Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press. Who knows how well they will be received. But, there seems to be room for other types of open-access, peer-reviewed pub­li­ca­tions in the his­tory world.

  • I have to agree with Sheila on this. There’s no rea­son that peer review can’t be hon­est and civl and there’s every rea­son it should be. Part of my inter­est in mak­ing peer review pub­lic is pre­cisely and intertest in con­struct­ing modes of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing that can exist in pub­lic and do good in public–to make his­tory and his­tory writ­ing more engaged in the pub­lic sphere

  • Rosemarie Zagarri wrote:

    I share Zach’s views. Of course peer review can be civil and hon­est. Zach’s point, as I read his piece, is that crowd-sourced cri­tiques will have a ten­dency to be polar­ized, writ­ten by those who are either very crit­i­cal or very enthu­si­as­tic about a par­tic­u­lar piece of schol­ar­ship. (As we all know, this is exactly what hap­pens on Rate My Professor.)And I really can’t imag­ine many peo­ple tak­ing the time and care to do a rig­or­ous analy­sis of a piece of schol­arly writ­ing unless they have some kind of investment-personal or professional–in the issue. Most his­tor­i­cal writ­ing does not address issues of inter­est to the larger pub­lic and need not do so. It’s the dif­fer­ence between the the­o­ret­i­cal and applied sciences.

  • For the life of me I fail to see why you think the read­er­ship for an online aca­d­e­mic jour­nal in Amer­i­can his­tory would look any­thing like the user base for “rate my pro­fes­sor!” Other than being more or less in Eng­lish and online, they have really noth­ing in common.

    Take a look at Steve Barnes’ Russ­ian His­tory blog here. (http://russianhistoryblog.org/2011/10/gulag-boss-railroad-region-and-memory/)

    Does it look ANYTHING like “rate my professor?”

    What exactly is your per­sonal or pro­fes­sional invest­ment in writ­ing a peer review now? How would it be dif­fer­ent if some­one asked you to write one for an online journal?

  • Thanks to Zach for point­ing out the evo­lu­tion in Mike’s vision, from “exactly the same process” to a “no edi­tors” sys­tem, which puz­zled me, and per­haps oth­ers who are fol­low­ing CHNM’s PressForward.

    But I’m not entirely con­vinced by Zach’s claim that “Edi­tors improve man­u­scripts.” Read­ing more closely, he pri­mar­ily cred­its “the peer review process” for improv­ing the qual­ity of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing, and sec­ondly, one highly influ­en­tial jour­nal edi­tor, who clearly played an impor­tant role in help­ing him sort out the con­flict­ing demands of the peer reviewers.

    A more per­sua­sive argu­ment might be that “Peers improve man­u­scripts,” with edi­tors play­ing a valu­able role in facil­i­tat­ing this process. In Writ­ing His­tory in the Dig­i­tal Age, co-editor Kris­ten Nawrotzki and I have tried to har­ness some of this energy by design­ing a hybrid peer review model, draw­ing largely on Rowe & Fitzpatrick’s expe­ri­ence with Shake­speare Quar­terly. Our man­u­script, which began as a col­lec­tion of nearly thirty essays, is cur­rently under open review by two groups: a small team of experts con­tracted by the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan Press and gen­eral audi­ences who visit our web-book and vol­un­tar­ily offer their input. As vol­ume edi­tors, we set up the process, offer our feed­back, and make deci­sions about what to include, but the process depends pri­mar­ily on the col­lab­o­ra­tion of peer reviewers.

    We all appre­ci­ate CHNM’s inno­v­a­tive spirit, but per­haps the Press­For­ward ini­tia­tive might con­sider a range of hybrid edi­to­r­ial mod­els between poles of tra­di­tional peer review ver­sus a no-editor system.

  • I don’t have time for a full com­ment on this, so some quick thoughts. The main point I would make is that in my talk I tried to give a com­plete pic­ture of the costs and val­ues of the entire schol­arly com­mu­ni­ca­tion process, while Zach has myopi­cally focused on the most obvi­ous part, and the one with the great­est direct costs: edi­to­r­ial. I think that’s a huge mistake.

    Any­way, to focus on the edi­to­r­ial process: Over the past 30 years, vir­tu­ally all sci­en­tific, not anec­do­tal, stud­ies of blind peer review as a mech­a­nism for effec­tive fil­ter­ing have shown an extra­or­di­nar­ily high degree of ran­dom­ness in accep­tance and rejec­tion that is the oppo­site of the pos­i­tive anec­do­tal expe­ri­ence described by Zach. I hear sto­ries like Zach’s a great deal, but of course there is a strong sur­vivor­ship bias in such sto­ries, among other prob­lems (also: peo­ple with bad expe­ri­ences with edi­tors tend not to talk about it).

    As an edi­tor of JAMA put it, “If [jour­nal] peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the mar­ket,” because it has a sur­pris­ingly low cor­re­la­tion with long-term impor­tance or per­ceived qual­ity. Most of the crit­i­cal peer review occurs before a paper is even sub­mit­ted to jour­nal edi­tors (as the APS rep noted at our OA talk, because schol­ars send each other drafts or give talks that are cri­tiqued), or after a paper is pub­lished, as the schol­arly com­mu­nity assesses it over time.

    Hav­ing a great edi­tor is indeed a won­der­ful thing, and I have no doubt that Zach had a good expe­ri­ence and learned much; but hav­ing a bad edi­tor is a dread­ful thing, and you can find jour­nals that suf­fer from an editor’s selec­tion biases, which hurts a field and indi­vid­ual schol­ars. Per­haps Press­For­ward will fail, but I think it’s worth explor­ing other sys­tems that fil­ter for qual­ity while leav­ing the judg­ment of the fil­ter­ers open for judg­ment itself. And leave more open schol­ar­ship on the web in the process with­out trans­fer­ring $1 bil­lion in profit to schol­arly pub­lish­ers each year (which they get from our free labor).

    I should note (given Rosie’s com­ment) that what I’m doing right now is in-kind labor that’s 1) part of schol­arly debate; 2) on my own time because I’m inter­ested in the sub­ject (and I hap­pily com­ment in more nuanced ways on many other blogs); 3) not going to be sold back to the uni­ver­sity by a pub­lisher; 4) eas­ily linked to and eas­ily found by oth­ers on the web; and many other virtues that are strongly related to the core val­ues of schol­arly com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I think we’re sell­ing schol­ars short if we think that the only way that our col­leagues can com­ment and cri­tique in-depth is under the stric­tures of the cur­rent system.

  • Another quick note: Nowhere in the plan for Press­For­ward do we say that there will be no edi­tors. I’m not sure where that mis­con­cep­tion came from. What we’ve said we’re doing is pro­vid­ing a mod­u­lar plat­form that allows for mul­ti­ple kinds of edi­to­r­ial work­flows, rang­ing from (yes) per­haps purely algo­rith­mic (e.g., for orga­ni­za­tions that just want some “top news” to be dis­sem­i­nated and don’t have some­one to run it) to var­i­ous forms of human fil­ter­ing, includ­ing modes that look fairly tra­di­tional (e.g., some of the Press­For­ward jour­nals have edi­to­r­ial boards).

    In gen­eral, I’m both­ered by Zach’s “step­ping on the neck”; we’ve even said that we can imag­ine a world with a mar­riage of tra­di­tion out­lets and Press­For­ward “live” out­lets. Please see my intro­duc­tion to Press­For­ward for a bet­ter per­spec­tive than what it has been reduced to here.

  • Thanks, Zach and Rosie. We need your skep­ti­cism. How­ever, I think Dan’s last point is the most impor­tant one. I don’t think we’re aim­ing to kill or replace entirely tra­di­tional modes of schol­arly com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Press­For­ward is designed to pro­vide space for inno­va­tion and exper­i­men­ta­tion (some­times rad­i­cal, some­times incre­men­tal) free of insti­tu­tional and busi­ness pres­sures. Suc­cess can take one of two forms. In some cases, we hope to estab­lish last­ing out­lets for qual­ity schol­ar­ship to stand along­side tra­di­tional out­lets. There’s no rea­son Amer­i­can His­tory Now and the Jour­nal of Amer­i­can His­tory can’t live or even work together. In other cases, our par­tic­u­lar prod­ucts will be short-lived, but may pio­neer new tech­nolo­gies, new edi­to­r­ial work­flows, new labor arrange­ments, and new busi­ness mod­els that can be adopted or adapted by other, even more tra­di­tional pub­li­ca­tions. Our THAT­Camp “uncon­fer­ence” series, another exper­i­ment in reform­ing schol­arly com­mu­ni­ca­tion, pro­vides a good anal­ogy: far from killing the tra­di­tional schol­arly con­fer­ence, THAT­Camp is now an offi­cial part of the AHA annual meet­ing, a way for AHA to bring some much needed inter­ac­tiv­ity, spon­tane­ity, and diver­sity of voices to its program.

    We cer­tainly don’t want to inflict the kind of vio­lence the mod­ernist pro­gram some­times inflicted on urban land­scapes in the 20th cen­tury. At the same time there was *plenty* in the 19th cen­tury city that needed chang­ing. Every­body agrees the exist­ing sys­tem of schol­arly com­mu­ni­ca­tion can be improved and that new tech­nolo­gies present new oppor­tu­ni­ties. I don’t think we want to live idly with the cur­rent inad­e­qua­cies and inequal­i­ties of schol­arly com­mu­ni­ca­tion any more than we want to live in 19th cen­tury cities.

  • One last point, in response to Jack, who advised Press­For­ward to “con­sider a range of hybrid edi­to­r­ial mod­els between poles of tra­di­tional peer review ver­sus a no-editor system.”

    In fact, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Each of our pro­to­type jour­nals will employ a dif­fer­ent submission/identification process, a dif­fer­ent set of peer-review mech­a­nisms, a dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tion of tools, and a dif­fer­ent edi­to­r­ial process. Pro­ceed­ings of THAT­Camp, for exam­ple, is going to have a fairly tra­di­tional edi­to­r­ial process, roughly par­al­lel to that of an edited vol­ume, but the things it pub­lishes will include some uncon­ven­tional prod­ucts (blog posts, col­lab­o­ra­tive Google Docs, Twit­ter threads). This is truly exper­i­men­tal work, a rare thing in the human­i­ties and even rarer in the bru­tal busi­ness of schol­arly pub­lish­ing. For this oppor­tu­nity we have the Sloan Foundation—which more com­monly funds the exper­i­men­tal sciences—to thank. Sloan fund­ing has pro­vided the oppor­tu­nity for us to iter­ate, to fail, and, in doing so, to iden­tify the things and com­bi­na­tions of things that may work more broadly. These results will be writ­ten up in a set of white papers for con­ver­sa­tion and comment.

  • I’m largely in agree­ment with the argu­ment that a superb edi­tor is invalu­able, but I think we also all know that that par­tic­u­lar edi­tor is most often found not at the press but rather on a con­fer­ence panel, in a depart­ment meet­ing, or next to me in bed (sorry, not avail­able for out­side work).

    Since I don’t have much to add to the area of human resources, let me tackle instead the issue of money, which seems to have become con­flated here with tra­di­tional modes of schol­arly pub­li­ca­tion. Yet the sim­ple fact of the mat­ter is that “open access” doesn’t have to mean “no money” any more than “open source” does in the soft­ware world. Beyond Press­For­ward, there are a vari­ety of poten­tially viable mod­els emerg­ing now, such as OpenEdi­tion (http://www.openedition.org/), run by RR/CHNM friend Marin Dacos.

    OpenEdition’s busi­ness model essen­tially boils down to giv­ing the con­tent away for free but sell­ing the medium, that is to say the nicely for­mat­ted PDFs or Kin­dle– and iPad-friendly ver­sions that most researchers pre­fer. If insti­tu­tions are will­ing to sub­scribe to OpenEdi­tion to pro­vide these for­mats to their users, then the con­tent remains freely avail­able world­wide in HTML form while OpenEdi­tion then kicks back sub­scrip­tion money to the par­tic­i­pat­ing journals.

    Press­For­ward clearly involves a more rad­i­cal restruc­tur­ing of the upstream pub­li­ca­tion process through a reimag­in­ing of peer review, but that doesn’t auto­mat­i­cally mean that we’re all liv­ing in a fan­tasy world where money won’t exist and tal­ented staff can’t be paid.

  • Thanks to every­one for these comments.

    @ Mike. I agree that Steve’s Gulag Boss posts are awe­some. Please note that they ben­e­fit from an edi­tor, des­ig­nated for­mal peers, and a board of review at the blog level, plus ear­lier edi­to­r­ial work by Oxford UP, which pub­lished the book itself.

    @ Jack Dougherty. I have no prob­lem with the for­mu­la­tion, “‘Peers improve man­u­scripts,” with edi­tors play­ing a valu­able role in facil­i­tat­ing this process,” except that it would have wrecked the par­al­lel con­struc­tion of my sub­heads. More seri­ously, my point is that the editor’s role is not merely valu­able, but also very time-consuming. For one-off projects, like an edited book or the spe­cial issue of a jour­nal, a scholar may be will­ing to take the needed time away from his or her own research. (I have.) But com­mit­ting to pro­duc­ing around a hun­dred arti­cles (and declin­ing many more) in a five-year term as edi­tor of a quar­terly jour­nal is some­thing else. I haven’t heard from the Press­For­ward folks how many hours over how many years they expect their edi­tors to devote, or what com­pen­sa­tion in time or cash they will receive.

    @ Dan. I am glad to learn that “no edi­tors” is not part of the offi­cial Press­For­ward pro­gram. The quo­ta­tion is from Mike’s Octo­ber 26 post, “Press­For­ward and Amer­i­can His­tory Now.” True, he used the word “might,” and he may not be speak­ing for the Press­For­ward enter­prise. Per­haps such slip­per­i­ness results from the absence of edi­to­r­ial controls.

    Your own hos­til­ity to editors–or at least, to well-funded edi­to­r­ial offices–was more implied than stated in your talk, and I am glad that you have made it more explicit here. I don’t know what “sci­en­tific, not anec­do­tal, stud­ies of blind peer review” you refer to, but I will go ahead and say that in fif­teen years, I have worked with a lot of edi­tors in one capac­ity or another, and I have yet to meet a bad one. So that’s a 100% sam­ple. I’ve met good edi­tors who made what I thought were bad deci­sions. I’ve made changes that I thought weak­ened my writ­ing to sat­isfy good edi­tors whose sense of the lan­guage dif­fered from mine. I just had a man­u­script rejected by a good edi­tor who had a dif­fer­ent vision for the jour­nal in ques­tion. And I have yet to meet Staudenmaier’s equal. But I haven’t met a bad edi­tor. Can you point me to some stud­ies of his­to­ri­ans’ sat­is­fac­tion with their edi­tors? And where do you stand on man­ag­ing edi­tors, copy edi­tors, book review edi­tors, and grad­u­ate assis­tants? Do you their work is unnec­es­sary or overpaid?

    I do think the real issue is money. Yes, some schol­arly pub­lish­ers are prof­itable, and I would like to see some of the inef­fi­ciency squeezed out of the sys­tem. But that’s like com­plain­ing about waste in fed­eral spend­ing when it’s the trans­fer pay­ments that make up the bulk of the bud­get. In schol­arly his­tory pub­lish­ing as it now exists, we see large trans­fer pay­ments from research libraries to edi­to­r­ial staffs of the sort described in the Isis ad. In other words, trans­fers from read­ers to edi­tors. You did not men­tion these in your talk, and I still don’t know where you stand on them. (@ Sheila: Are you sure Dan doesn’t want to bring down Oxford?)

    And another word on Steve’s Gulag Boss reviews. Again, great stuff, but the cur­rent quar­terly issue of Slavic Review fea­tures 50 book reviews plus five “fea­tured reviews.” So I think it’s a false com­par­i­son to ask (as you tweeted) if one would rather have a tra­di­tional review in a jour­nal or six timely com­ments by lead­ing schol­ars on the Russ­ian His­tory Blog. Of course the lat­ter is bet­ter, but very few book authors can hope for such atten­tion. And to scale up his oper­a­tion to more than four books a week, I would think Steve would need a course release or two. Who will pay for that?

    @ Sean. I would love to read some pro­pos­als for a sus­tain­able busi­ness model for Press­For­ward, espe­cially if they involve pay­ing tal­ented staff.

  • This reads like every cri­tique of Wikipedia that explained why, with­out the pro­fes­sional stan­dards and paid edi­tors of Bri­tan­nica, the project was doomed to an obvi­ous fail­ure. And yet, even as early as 2005, the qual­ity of both pub­li­ca­tions was found to be equivalent.

    I pre­dict that Amer­i­can His­tory Now will fol­low a sim­i­lar curve: the first few years will be rocky, crit­ics will point to a few hilar­i­ous exam­ples of qual­ity con­trol prob­lems and declare the exper­i­ment failed; and then, within 5–10 years, it (or some­thing like it) will have prac­ti­cally replaced the sta­tus quo com­pletely, with only insti­tu­tional iner­tia pre­vent­ing the whole­sale destruc­tion of journals.

    As I see it, this is a new, more effi­cient tech­nol­ogy step­ping in to replace an aging and inef­fi­cient one. To be sure, not *every­thing* about the new sys­tem will be an improve­ment, but then, we still drive auto­mo­biles now rather than ride horses even though horses have the wis­dom not to let you ride them off a cliff. The other advan­tages are just too substantial.

  • This seems to me to put it exactly right. Nicely put

  • Rosemarie Zagarri wrote:

    Tech-savvy his­to­ri­ans tend to under­es­ti­mate how resis­tant most work­ing his­to­ri­ans are to the the kind of changes they are propos­ing. The Wikipedia com­par­i­son is not apt. His­to­ri­ans don’t read–or publish–exclusively to dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion. Rob Townsend’s arti­cle in the AHA Per­spec­tives for Nov. 2010 demon­strates the exis­tence, not sur­pris­ingly, of big gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ences in recep­tiv­ity to dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tions. What tran­scends gen­er­a­tions, though, is a resis­tance to dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tion unless it brings the same kind of pres­tige and rep­u­ta­tion as print. Only if the print option col­lapses com­pletely (i.e., becomes finan­cially impos­si­ble to sus­tain) will online pub­li­ca­tions gar­ner the same pres­tige as print within the next decade. (I will say, though, that I won’t haz­ard any guesses about what will hap­pen in a more extended time frame.)

  • You couldn’t have pre­dicted Wikipedia by tak­ing a sur­vey of work­ing ency­clo­pe­dia edi­tors, or Linux by tak­ing a sur­vey of work­ing UNIX work­sta­tion resellers. I think it’s equally silly to try to pre­dict the suc­cess of a dis­rup­tive replace­ment for the exist­ing jour­nal struc­ture by ask­ing the peo­ple who write in exist­ing jour­nals what they think. They may write for rea­sons of pres­tige, but does the gen­eral pub­lic, or our soci­ety, really care whether they can accrue pres­tige or not? Research and dis­cus­sion and the advance­ment of knowl­edge can all take place with­out any­one get­ting rewarded for it with any par­tic­u­lar ceremony.

  • I think in the dig­i­tal jour­nals, “silly” should be filed under “unhelp­ful criticism.”

  • Rosemarie Zagarri wrote:

    How is it “silly to try to pre­dict the suc­cess of a dis­rup­tive replace­ment for the exist­ing jour­nal struc­ture”? I think the results may or may not reflect what actu­ally hap­pens, but it’s hardly “silly” to take into account what “the peo­ple who write in exist­ing jour­nals” think. Many of them, after all, will be the ones that the new online jour­nals need to enlist as both read­ers and authors. And many of those peo­ple occupy the posi­tions of power that deter­mine whether what gets pub­lished in those new for­mats “counts” in terms of the reward struc­ture within the schol­arly dis­ci­plines. What you all should be think­ing about is how you can con­vince the schol­arly estab­lish­ment that such pub­li­ca­tions rep­re­sent a legit­i­mate and valu­able means of dis­sem­i­nat­ing schol­ar­ship. And just count­ing “hits” isn’t going to do it.

  • It seems to me that good schol­ar­ship, if one can find it, will be rec­og­niz­able because it is, well, good. The schol­arly com­mu­ni­ties with inter­ests in a given area will know some­thing is good by read­ing it. They’ll cite it, and oth­ers will then read it and use it for its use value. We already do this. I don’t really care if an inter­est­ing piece of schol­ar­ship is pub­lished in a “pres­ti­gious” jour­nal or by a “pres­ti­gious” press, as long as the work is inter­est­ing. And, if we’re all hon­est, we know that a lot of good work is left behind in the cur­rent regime by a mine­field of x fac­tors that have noth­ing to do with the qual­ity or util­ity of a work.

    Out­sourc­ing qual­ity con­trol is in the inter­est of tenure com­mit­tees and job search com­mit­tees who aren’t vested in a given area of schol­ar­ship. And that may be a legit­i­mate aspect of aca­d­e­mic pub­lish­ing. But of course, rejec­tion rates for top tier jour­nals are excep­tion­ally high — in some cases I’ve heard like 93%. Is that 93% of rejected work really not good? I doubt it. The need for such strict fil­ter­ing is abro­gated by the infor­ma­tion econ­omy of the internet.

  • Rosemarie Zagarri wrote:

    One other thought: the issue here is not whether new online for­mats rep­re­sent a great means of exchang­ing ideas. They are. The deeper ques­tion is whether there will be any vet­ting process for qual­ity. And with­out vet­ting, the new online jour­nals and book plat­forms will sim­ply become the online ver­sion of a van­ity press.

  • I keep say­ing that there will be, but it won’t be exactly the same process as used in the “jour­nal of ossi­fied 19th cen­tury practice.”

  • […] Can be More than One My esteemed col­league Zachary Schrag’s guest post reminded me of the cable TV sta­ple High­lander, in which immor­tal char­ac­ters bat­tle each […]

  • Zach, your argu­ment seems to me to be very sim­i­lar to the argu­ment Pete Town­shend makes about Itunes

    http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2011/11/pete-townshend-rock-music-is-junk-itunes-is-a-vampire-whats-next-is-already-here.html

  • […] begins with open pub­li­ca­tion on the web and that leads to suc­ces­sive lay­ers of review. Con­trary to the con­cerns of crit­ics, this far from a stream of unvetted […]

  • Rosemarie Zagarri wrote:

    I find this commentator’s remarks thought­ful and use­ful. How­ever, like a lot of pro-digital sen­ti­ment expressed here, there seems to be a deep ide­o­log­i­cal resent­ment toward aca­d­e­mic hier­ar­chies embed­ded therein. As far as I know, no one is forced to work within the acad­emy. Why such resentment?

  • What dis­turbs me is the talk of remov­ing that hier­ar­chy when the foun­da­tion of dig­i­tal his­tory IS a hier­ar­chy. To any­one not in the DH “cir­cle,” try­ing to embrace dig­i­tal his­tory is an uphill bat­tle. The only dif­fer­ence is, now tech­no­log­i­cal abil­ity is part of who floats to the top.
    I sup­port dig­i­tal his­tory and the many pos­i­tive aspects dis­cussed in this post and the com­ments. But it’s “mag­i­cal” qual­i­ties, to me, don’t exist.

  • Inter­est­ing ques­tion with regards to Fou­cault and peer review. More gen­er­ally, do Con­ti­nen­tal presses peer review at all? My sense is no. It seems like many of these depend on the editor’s sole yes or no, based on her or his own opin­ion of the text.

    I’m not sure that Anglo­phone pub­lish­ing pro­to­cols exist on the Con­ti­nent, and this is what has made French the­ory writ­ing so fer­tile. The man­u­script to pub­li­ca­tion time frame is much shorter than the glacial pace with US aca­d­e­mic presses. Hence mate­r­ial can be cut­ting edge, since it can go more quickly from infor­mal debate to printed pub­lic sphere.

  • […] to write and argue more effec­tively has recently been con­sid­ered by the his­to­rian Zachary Schrag in a blog piece wor­thy of consideration. If you’re in the anthro busi­ness long enough, you’re likely to be burned by […]

  • […] col­league Zach Schrag wrote a guest post on Mike O’Malley’s blog two weeks ago with some sig­nif­i­cant crit­i­cisms of what we are […]

  • I’ve writ­ten a long response to this post on my blog: “What Will Hap­pen to Devel­op­men­tal Edit­ing?

  • […] for this para­graph 0 Fol­low the healthy debate between Zachary Schrag and Dan Cohen on the “devel­op­men­tal edit­ing” of schol­arly work in tra­di­tional journals […]

  • Nabeel Siddiqui wrote:

    I fig­ured that I would place a student’s per­spec­tive on these issues in case they may be help­ful to oth­ers. This is actu­ally some­thing that would be impos­si­ble, in my opin­ion, with­out an open forum such as this—of course, oth­ers may find that the per­spec­tive is unwanted in the first place and a stu­dent has lit­tle to offer for a broader dis­cus­sion of aca­d­e­mic edi­to­r­ial processes. Still, I am inter­ested in the issue and would like a lit­tle clar­ity on what this means for future academics.

    The idea that Wikipedia seems to be more accu­rate than Bri­tan­nica, from what I can tell, emerged from a small arti­cle in Nature, which was then dra­mat­i­cally praised by all want­ing to embrace wikis. The research only used forty two entries and Bri­tan­nica claimed that the errors in Wikipedia’s entries were of a more dra­matic nature. Mov­ing for­ward with an open model, there seems to be an idea that there would remain a small group pro­vid­ing an edi­to­r­ial process. Wikipedia has employed a sim­i­lar model and cur­rently has around fif­teen hun­dred admin­is­tra­tors that have gained an increas­ing amount of power as the site grew.

    The rea­son I men­tioned this is because it begs the ques­tion if any of this is really new or a dra­matic shift away from tra­di­tional schol­arly work. Few, I believe have argued for a com­pletely open model and sim­ply allow­ing an open model of schol­ars gets to an old The­seus para­dox. It seems that schol­ar­ship is mov­ing online with a small group of schol­ars still left in charge of the edi­to­r­ial process. The cre­ation of a wiki or online model sim­ply brings the edi­to­r­ial process into a more pub­lic space. Wikipedia pro­vides some­thing that didn’t already exist in the Web 1.0 tech­nolo­gies: a way for infor­ma­tion to be peer reviewed. In schol­arly lit­er­a­ture, how­ever, this is already present. The idea that a par­a­digm shift is occur­ring where the infor­ma­tion is then online pre­sup­poses that schol­ars do not have a peer review process that is anony­mous through the dou­ble blind peer review. Will Press­For­ward be pro­vid­ing a sim­i­lar sys­tem for future schol­ars? Will their be anonymity and if so, is this much dif­fer­ent from adding the amount of edi­to­ri­als in a tra­di­tional model? If not, does this actu­ally impede schol­ars from com­ment­ing and edit­ing online? With names given, will the issues present in open peer review also exist?

    For schol­ars, the issue really becomes then if they are more will­ing to allow open access to jour­nals. It is a much older debate and although I know that many in the dig­i­tal human­i­ties have stated they are not doing any­thing new. A pro­fes­sion like his­tory that is mod­eled on a prais­ing of the past and tra­di­tion still seems to be hes­i­tant to change. The nar­ra­tive may need, at least for a while, to be altered to pro­vide a bet­ter idea of what exactly is being bro­ken down and what is being build. More specif­i­cally, I think that dig­i­tal human­ists may be able to bet­ter move for­ward and achieve their over­all goals if they stressed the open­ness of schol­arly infor­ma­tion rather than a break­down of a tra­di­tional edi­to­r­ial processes.

  • […] view such “dis­tant read­ing” as super­fi­cial. Oth­ers, like the his­to­rian Zachary Schrag, grouse that Mr. Cohen’s pub­lish­ing exper­i­ments risk destroy­ing what’s valu­able about […]

  • […] with open pub­li­ca­tion on the web and that leads to suc­ces­sive lay­ers of review. Con­trary to the con­cerns of crit­ics, this is far from a stream of unvetted […]

  • […] to a recent exchange in the blog, The Aporetic between blog owner Mike O’Malley and Zachary Schrag about the forth­com­ing Amer­i­can His­tory Now (a new kind of pro­fes­sional jour­nal), as an example […]

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