My esteemed colleague Zachary Schrag’s guest post reminded me of the cable TV staple Highlander, in which immortal characters battle each other extravagantly while insisting–for no apparent reason–that “there can only be one.”
There can be more than one model, and existing journals don’t have to annihilate each other so that one may live forever.
It’s true that when I’ve written about new forms of scholarly communication I’ve mostly been imagining the big, slow moving, heavily armored dreadnaughts like the the AHR, the JAH, or the MLA. Just as smaller, more focused conferences tend to be much more effective and rewarding than big conferences, smaller journals with a more focused purpose tend to serve their constituencies better. I still think it could be possible for them to do a better job than they do now, and to maintain standards while improving the experience all around.
I want to make it clear that AmericanHistoryNow will have an editor, and the editor (me) will be choosing articles for posting, and managing the peer review process, as described here. But it will also have sections which don’t have a conventional editorial staff. Zach is entirely right to point out some of the ambiguities in my description. We are still figuring this out. And I’m deeply grateful for Zach’s criticism and the way it helps me sharpen my thinking.
Zach is concerned with the revenue stream/support system for journals, and points to the ad for an editor for Isis. The ad mentions “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.”
Digital media surely will reduce or nearly eliminate the need for an office supplies budget. And the Book Review Editor–if there is one realm where journals serve us badly, it seems to me, it’s in the realm of book reviews. They take forever to come out; space dramatically limits their utility, and they amount to mostly uncompensated labor for the reviewer. I would like to get rid of that aspect of journals, I admit it. Take a look at what GMU professor Steve Barnes has set up at his Russian History Blog. His collective of Russian historians is examining a new book called Gulag Boss, reviewing it in real time and in the form of a lively, civil discussion in which all parties are both contributing and taking something away.
This seems eminently workable as a model for a journal, and much of the work could be automated. For example, as new books come out their titles are grabbed by the journal’s search engine. Already existing reviews are excerpted and linked to; they may be terrible reviews by undergrads or they may be reviews in the New York Review, but the point is, the review process has begun. You want to know if the book is any good? Well you can read it yourself and post a review, or you can read the already posted reviews, or you can take issue with the already posted reviews and engage their point or lack of same. Or you can wait three years for the review to appear in The Journal of Highly Specialized Studies.
I think this would be a better model, because it would be faster, more informative, and more democratic–less vulnerable to old-boyism, and less static. Amazon, as far as I know, does not have a book review editor. Despite this, I often find the reviews on Amazon to be excellent.
Now many of Amazon’s reviews are terrible and useless, that’s absolutely true. But American History Now will have a smaller, more informed, more engaged, more motivated audience. We are talking about a journal that will serve an audience of professional historian and serious scholars. Clueless reviews will be much more rare. It’s not going to look like Ratemyprofessor.com. So I think that if we devise a combination of user contributions and automated rankings, the cost of a book review editor is mostly obviated.
The salary of a Manuscript Editor is also mentioned in the Isis ad. Here I think I’ll end up beng guilty of relaxing standards. Standard digital formatting catches a lot of mistakes, but obviously not all. I’m willing to accept typos and misspellings. Think of it this way–if the difference between reading articles with some typos and reading articles without typos is a $100 annual subscription, I think I can live with the typos. This may be a mistake, but I’m willing to try it. I notice typos on the web all the time, but they rarely interfere with the construction of meaning.
So we’ve dramatically reduced or eliminated three of the costs imagined in the Isis ad. As to the Managing Editor: it remains to be seen how much work is involved. As I envision my role, it will be soliciting and reviewing shorter articles and finding peers to review them in real time–again as described here. I’m being paid out of the grant. It may be that this ends up being so much work that it can’t be sustained without some steady source of revenue. Zach’s argument is that subscriptions, and royalties, are necessary to pay those costs. That may be right, and we may be grossly underestimating the long term costs. No one is imagining a world without money or without costs: we are trying to imagine ways of doing what we do more effectively and possibly more cheaply.
The existing model is massively subsidized by asking libraries to pay for journals. It leads, especially in the sciences, to obscene and scandalous profiteering by journal-publishing consortiums like Reed Elsevier, hidden costs which get passed on to taxpayers and tuition-burdened parents and students. It was a model born of paper, and paper publishing costs. It’s got to make the transition to digital. We want to experiment with how that might be done.
The other problem Zach mentioned was peer review. I’m going to argue that it is both laudable, possible and admirable to seek a model of peer review that can stand up in public: that’s critical, honest and also contributes to the increase of knowledge and the production of better work. I’ll stand on the shoulders but not the neck of Habermas, and argue that civil discourse is essential to any functioning society. Here again I’d look at the Russian History Blog as an example. The book in question was already peer reviewed before publication, that’s true. But the discussion of it is civil, contributory, and deep. I would like to see peer review look more like that. But I think it’s eminently reasonable, as Sheila Brennan wrote in her comment on Zach’s piece, that “one can honestly review in public and be civil.”
Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished: Historians should be more engaged in public life and more capable of engaging effectively. Keeping peer review anonymous and private reinforces the ivory tower. In conversation Zach and I mentioned the Michael Bellisiles case: as ugly as that was, it demonstrated the failings of peer review and the value of a more open review process.
I have certainly winced painfully and then benefited greatly from unsparing double blind peer review. It’s not that it’s without virtues: quite the contrary. But I can imagine an alternative model, which promotes a different set of academic virtues, and which can co-exist with existing practice.
Thanks again to Zach Schrag for taking the time to respond and for his trenchant criticisms.