There 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 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.

There’s no reason why reviews at American History Now could not be ranked by readers in terms of usefulness, which would very quickly weed out the poor uninformative reviews from the useful reviews. More important. review would be a live process rather than the static model we have now. The work of writing the review would be validated in exactly the same way it is now (that is, barely at all), with the additional attraction of the review being part of a larger dialogue with peers, as seen in the model at the Russian History Blog.

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.

9 Comments

  • Mike, I am excited about the new journal and will be interested to hear how it develops. I have two questions about it.

    For readers, how will this journal be new? A new edition of Common Place was just published, and I wondering how your journal will compare to that one. Will the difference lie mainly in the ‘back-end’ of the writing, reviewing, and editing? Or is there a difference that readers might expect?

    Also, I am wondering if the “American History Now” name is the official name. I’m not sure if you are aware, but Jim Cullen blogs under that title, and there was a recent collection of essays (co-edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGerr) just published under that name. I realize that it might be too far along in the process (since a grant is involved) to change the name, but I thought I would throw it out there.

  • These are really good questions. Common-Place is in some ways very successful. I’ve published there and read a lot of good stuff there. To my mind, it doesn’t allow enough depth. You can’t have citations. It doesn’t foster discussion, and it doesn’t have peer review as we are imagining it.

    The name–I actually don;t have an answer on that

  • This is a lovely, eloquent call for civil coexistence and shared exploration, undercut somewhat by your exaggeration of the time it takes for a review to appear in a scholarly journal (Gulag Boss was reviewed by Foreign Affairs, the New York Review of Books, and History: Reviews of New Books months before The Russian History Blog got to it); your derisive swipes at “The Journal of Highly Specialized Studies” and (in a comment on my post) “the Journal of Ossified 19th Century Practice”; and your apparent endorsement (also in comments on my post) of a wish for “the wholesale destruction of journals.”

    Anyway, thanks for giving me the space to rant. And I do appreciate your comparing me to Pete Townshend, though of course I get that a lot.

  • Congrats on getting DH Now started! Two points:

    1. The “long tail.” DH Now could be an ideal place to sustain discussions currently happening in the jour­nals of “Highly Spe­cial­ized Stud­ies” (a lot less economically viable than Isis and the AHR), the way Amazon helps disseminate specialized books. Is there a plan on how to do that?

    2. Brevity. Exciting as it is to read the interminable DH debates here, on twitter, and on the many DH blogs and online publications, I found Steve’s Gulag Boss exchange especially valuable because it was curated: the participants were invited, given specific directions, and they expressed their points in the most succinct way possible. Will curating happen in DH Now? How?

  • […] “More Babies in That Bathwater,” appeared on Monday, and Mike’s reply, “There Can Be More Than One,” appeared yesterday. To sum things up, Mike thinks that the questions facing scholarly […]

  • I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how American History Now will coexist with the lively book-reviewing threads on active H-Net lists like H-SHEAR. For a recent example, see Rachel Hope Cleves’ review of Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America. I’m not a member of the Society for History of the Early American Republic, but I subscribe to the list partially because the book reviews are a good way for me to find out what’s new in the field.

    IMO, if anything’s lacking in H-SHEAR’s book reviews, it’s a good way of finding them, because H-Net’s archives interface is less than ideal. As far as I can tell (as a nonmember), SHEAR’s pretty far along in its efforts to be a professional organization 2.0, just by having an active and well-moderated mailing list with book reviews. Perhaps you’d consider collaborating with SHEAR in some way?

  • H-SHEAR is a particularly is a good example of a vibrant community that can and should take advantage of new social media. But even it has suffered from H-Net’s stagnation–the vibrant exchanges that used to take place are more and more infrequent.

    I keep hoping that H-Net will find a way to migrate to something more progressive than the listserv model.

  • Mike,

    Thanks for the positive comments on what we’re doing at Russian History Blog. The Gulag Boss conversation was an experiment with which we are quite pleased, and we are now moving toward making this a monthly feature on the blog. We will not be trying to handle the quantity of book reviews in the traditional journals. Rather, we will seek a deeper review of a small number of books involving, as Elena highlighted, an invited group of participants. Thus it is not as de-centered a model as yours. Further, timeliness will not be a key criterion for success.

    The de-centered nature of your (and even our) plans for book reviewing imposes certain constraints. For example, Zach mentioned in his comment above that Gulag Boss had been reviewed in numerous places before we got to it. We could have gotten to it sooner if we had already established this type of blog conversation, but for any books that will have a wider audience than the narrow academic monograph, we will be unable to match the publications Zach mentions, as they likely got pre-publication copies. In a de-centered model of review, it is unlikely that this would be possible (though your model helps in this regard as you will point to these kinds of published reviews).

  • As an editor grounded in print journalism and excited by the promise of interactive digital platforms, I have been delighted by this discussion. Though there are several important subtopics being explored here (revenue streams, the merit of book reviews, the peer review process, etc.), I will limit my comments to the role of editors in the equation.

    I believe that academicians in the humanities are by definition custodians of our culture. Professional scholars should set the example for unimpeachable quality in their published writings–not only at the epistemological level, but in the technical accuracy and clarity of their prose as well. If scholars don’t do it, who will?

    Mike wants to do away with the manuscript (copy) editor. “Here I think I’ll end up beng [sic] guilty of relaxing standards,” he says. “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. … I notice typos on the web all the time, but they rarely interfere with the construction of meaning.”

    I certainly hope there’s a middle ground here. I am deeply concerned about excusing sloppiness on the grounds that such errors are commonly found on the web and “rarely interfere with construction of meaning.” This lowers the bar when we should be raising it. Have you perused Eats, Shoots & Leaves lately? Writers, editors and publishers labor in the service of the reader. Clarity is the ultimate goal, and clarity is undermined as much by poor editing as it is by pedantry.

    If we dispatch copy editors, typos and misspellings will be accompanied by flawed grammar, syntax, and usage (peer review notwithstanding). And yes, it matters. I’ve seen (and corrected) some absolutely atrocious prose produced by PhDs.

    I too am willing to accept typos in blog posts (as in Mike’s comment cited above) and other forms of casual intercourse, but IMHO it is troubling to accept the willing oversight of such problems (and others) in academic publishing simply because they are the common currency of the web. Professional editors have a legitimate and necessary role in publishing, whether print or digital, and if you have to remunerate them for their expertise, so be it.

    There also seems to be some confusion about the roles of various types of editors: Developmental editors serve a very different function from copy editors, and managing editors are something else again. Mike postulates (and I concur, to a point) that crowdsourcing the DE’s role is possible in the digital journal format. Many of the ME’s traditional duties have also disappeared in shift from print to digital (only to be supplanted by others); indeed, based on his own description, I would characterize Mike’s role in American History Now as more of a “content curator” than managing editor, but we’ll leave that for the time being. I’m not at all convinced that you can produce a quality publication without the intervention of copy editors. This task can certainly be outsourced to trim in-house staffing requirements, but it should not be eliminated entirely. Securing editorial services is increasingly relegated to the author, but the wisdom of this approach is dubious. Authors will understandably strive to keep their costs down, and when it comes to editing, you get what you pay for.

    I am an ardent advocate of the open model of academic publishing being spearheaded by PressForward and I wish them success in this endeavor. Still I can’t help but feel that relaxing the standards of scholarly communication is a slippery slope.

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