Academic Editor 2.0

Continuing thoughts on what would professional associations 2.0 look like, what would the job of editing look like? Let’s look at what it’s like now.

Right now the editor of, say, the American Historical Review gets lots of submissions. He/she reads them ( I assume) and then decides whether or not to send them to reviewers. The reviewers agree to review, then read the article, comment and return the article to the editor, who then tells the author either forget it, congratulations, or “revise and resubmit.”

The process can take, literally, years. As a reviewer, your labor is basically uncompensated. You don’t even get much intellectual satisfaction, because typically you make your comments and then you’re done. You might see the article in print and recognize your uncredited contributions, but just as likely you never see the work again.

The editor can choose to hide behind peer reviews, and use them to dismiss work that’s not congenial, or choose to ignore them, both of which seem reasonable. In some traditions at least an editor is supposed to edit, to shape taste and to shape their field: that’s the good part of being the editor.

But peer review is a crushingly slow, turgid process. Established in the age when mail was delivered in horse cars, and no one expected or anything like fast communication, it coasts along on an earlier generation’s low expectations.  Peer review is hard work for the reviewer, and more important, it’s both uncompensated and, for the most part, extremely unrewarding. You get nothing for your efforts except perhaps some books and a thank you. It’s a professional obligation, not a professional pleasure.

Book reviews are the same thing—not only do they take your precious time, they offer you no intellectual rewards. You get asked to write the review, you put it off, you finally write it, and then sometime far down the road, it appears in the journal. That’s it. Maybe at a conference, someone tells you they liked/hated your review of that new book about the pipefitter’s union. But most likely, that’s the end of it.

What should we get? We should get what we most want: participation in a lively intellectual discussion. And what should the editor get? The capacity to shape the nature of the debate.

Suppose the editor were more like a moderator–someone who set an agenda, or a subject, and then oversaw discussion?

Take a look, for example, the Civil War blogging done by Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic. Most of the posts are collected at this link. Coates is not an historian, but he’s a smart guy committed to learning. He often blogs on classics of Civil War history, like Roll Jordan Roll or Battle Cry of Freedom. He establishes a topic, or a problem, or a point of view, and then lets commentators have at it. If you’re skeptical, just look at some of the threads in that link. Or this one. Or this one, on the well-known Jourdan Anderson letter.

Coates actively moderates the discussion, pruning out cranks and the uncivil, commenting frequently. The result is not academic history, but it’s a stunningly high level of historical discourse conducted in real time. The reviewers—the people who post comments—have the satisfaction of participating in a live dialogue rather than a dead archive. Coates, the “editor,” gets to foster real collaborative education.

Suppose the job of editing and commenting looked more like this? Moderated, live interactions, and an ongoing discussion among peers. An editor  might choose one article a week. He or she would post the article with a comment on its merits/weaknesses. Readers could then comment in real time, acting as peer reviewers, with the editor acting to “prune” and police the comments.  All readers would see opinion evolving, and see the process of  peer review in action.

Or suppose the profession adopted the model used in “layer tennis.” Dan Cohen has blogged about this: in this model a graphic designer sets up a problem in design, an then two graphic designers bat designs back an forth.  Designer one posts his version, designer two posts his: they engage in a dialogue about the design and their goals. The exchange is moderated, designs commented upon; new versions submitted, and the process continues.

In this model, three main participants would engage a question in history: the moderator/editor and two contributors. The “audience” could comment as well, offering critiques an suggestions. The moderator/editor would keep things civil and weed out useless comments.

Imagine, for example, two leading historians with divergent accounts of  a given subject, publicly engaging each other and their field in this way.  Things we now do in the slow slow print form–reconsiderations  of famous historian X’s career; anniversary of famous event Y retrospectives;  “forums” on topic Z: all these things could be accomplished in a more dynamic from, with input from peers making a real visible difference.

Exactly what advantages does the present model confer?


Update: Further Thoughts after hostile comments



  • […] The Aporetic: But peer review is a crush­ingly slow, turgid process. Estab­lished in the age when mail was deliv­ered in horse cars, and no one expected or any­thing like fast com­mu­ni­ca­tion, it coasts along on an ear­lier generation’s low expec­ta­tions. Peer review is hard work for the reviewer, and more impor­tant, it’s both uncom­pen­sated and, for the most part, extremely unre­ward­ing. You get noth­ing for your efforts except per­haps some books and a thank you. It’s a pro­fes­sional oblig­a­tion, not a pro­fes­sional pleasure. […]

  • I wholeheartedly agree, Mike, that “forums on topic z” and the other sorts of things you mention in the last paragraph ought to be done in something much closer to real time.

    But (and I’m sorry to be such a repetitive crank on this) I really hope this doesn’t replace existing forms of scholarly communication. Historians make long, sustained arguments on the basis of a ton of research. You can’t do those in blog posts or real-time debate. Moreover, I’d argue that the type of knowledge we produce is partially constructed by our solitary engagement with, or invention of, the topic. In many cases, before the book or article is published there is no debate that can be had. There is (hopefully) an audience that will be interested, but no one else has done this research. If the models you’re proposing simply replace journals and books, won’t there be much less of this sort of heavy lifting?

    I love Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I agree that historians ought to participate in and curate these sorts of discussions. But these are conversations in well-researched fields in which there are already thousands of books and articles. I would argue that the vitality and effectiveness of these discussions depends on the existence of this old-fashioned scholarship. (Coates, after all, comments on the classics.)

    We need to think not only about generating new modes of scholarly communication but also about how (perhaps by using the new technology) we can preserve what is valuable about the older modes.

  • For the life of me I do not understand your position here. Let’s imagine I labor five years on a deeply researched project, and send it to the AHA. The editor could just decide: “Wow, this is interesting” and post it, then let people comment on it. He could exercise some editorial function over the comments, to keep them civil and to the point.

    What’s lost?

    Or if you like, the editor could say “hey this is interesting” and then solicit two people to comment on it, and post it right away, with the explanation that comments are coming soon. Make them anonymous if you like.

    I really do not understand what would be lost here, other than the tedious and mostly unrewarding process of doing the peer review. My peer review would be not a judgment dropped in secret and never revisited, but part of an open dialogue. It’d be no less “deep.”

    We have these thing sin the AHR now, they’re just, like everything in the AHR, needlessly slow and turgid, and structurally designed to send a message of hierarchy rather than a message of dialogue

  • So, just so I’m clear, you see absolutely zero value in revising your work based on the comments of experts in your field before you make it available to the world.

    In any case, your latest proposal now seems much less radical to me. I’m also not sure what problem it’s meant to solve. The problem that I don’t get to read articles that the AHR has rejected? If your concern really is that when you peer review, your cut out of the dialogue, why don’t you just ask the editor to reveal your identity to the author and have her email you? This won’t ease the drudgery of doing peer review but neither will your model; it will still be uncompensated (and sometimes unsatisfying) labor.

    Again, I’m not opposed to any of these new models. I just don’t see why they can’t coexist alongside some elements of the traditional approach. Perhaps our difference is just that while I share some of criticisms of the current approach, I also think there’s something valuable in it.

  • What is lost through the “blog” model of scholarly publishing? The entire part of the process that makes history a profession rather than an amateur avocation. Noone I know disputes that people without history doctorates can do excellent history or have great historical insights. But publishing in scholarly journals is about far more than the exchange of new ideas. It is part of the process of academic credentialling–a way of paying your dues, achieving status, and asserting authority. You may not like this side of the process, but don’t be naive or simplistic about the multiple functions of academic publishing. And by the way, I’m not wedded to scholarly publication via print. However, I am committed to articles reflecting deep research, rigorous argumentation, and peer review. And to the way an editor can shape a field and provide a coherent vision for a journal, whether it be in print or online.

  • This is such a strange response–what in the suggestions made here precludes deep research? What precludes a high quality of work? Nothing! It’s simply a way to make part of the process more rewarding for all involved. As I wrote to Matt,n the comments above, I’m constantly astonished by the claim that somehow “deep” work will be disabled.

    It’s just a way of taking the review that now takes place in secret, and in one direction, and making it more like what you do when you ask friends to read something: that is, more like an intellectual exchange and less like some kind of bizarre, ponderous star chamber

  • Mike Bottoms wrote:

    What Mike’s describing here is really about using the internet to broaden the conversation that normally takes place before an article is submitted to a journal. The first footnote of any journal article is normally devoted to acknowledging the helpful criticisms of earlier drafts by a handful of colleagues. Instead of passing a hard copy to a colleague down the hall (as I am about to do to Mike and some others), we might post the draft on a website and solicit a wider range of criticism. The draft would then be revised in light of that criticism. It’s hard to see how this is really any different from the current peer review process, except that it’s faster, more open and transparent, and actually encourages real dialogue. The result would be a community of scholars in active conversation–far more active than any conversation a traditional journal is capable of fostering. That’s a pretty big upside.

    Moreover, as I keep hearing, the journal process Mike describes is more of an ideal than a reality–articles in major journals are often solicited from senior scholars with the promise that the peer review process will be either truncated or waived entirely.

    In this light, it’s hard to see what the journal in its current form really adds to this process beyond printing. At best it’s a quaint relic of olden times, at worst it’s a bottleneck that drastically limits scholarly conversation.

    Even so, I have two reservations: first, it’s hard enough to get college committees to recognize the scholarship involved in digital history–how do we win recognition of “2.0”? Second and more important is the issue of institutional continuity or permanence. The AHR and JAH have been around for a century, while websites run by academics, no matter how good, tend to have a short shelf life–witness the recent demise of the excellent Edge of the American West. How does this vision of 2.0 rise above the fly-by-night nature of the intertubes?

  • That’s a fair question–Dan is applying for a grant to work with the AHA on a “junior varsity” journal that would do something like what’s described. The stamp of the AHA would reassure the nervous and provide some degree of permanence.

    I’m delighted to see you understood what’s being imagined here! It’s nothing particularly radical

  • What Mike writes about here is not purely speculative. It’s worth looking at what’s going on in the sciences with respect to new modes of publishing, including post-peer review, open formats, and blogging—e.g., PLoS, PLoS ONE, PLoS Blogs, and PLoS Hubs, to take just one slate of many prominet examples, or the now venerable, which has been posting scientific works without pre-peer review for over a decade and has had a huge impact on scientific publication and science in general without much fuss.

    The sky has not fallen in the sciences because of these efforts, and indeed, they have deeply engaged scientists and the general public. To argue against these new—complementary—forms of publication is to say that somehow scholarship in history and the humanities is better or deeper than the sciences or somehow requires a traditional editorial process. There is nothing in the new forms that say they must be shallow or informal or lacking in revision due to comments. Just ask the scientists.

  • john theibault wrote:

    As Dan notes, there are already precedents for this kind of work. And not just in the sciences. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s work Planned Obsolescence and the site she founded Media Commons Press promising initiatives that push this publishing system.

    The peer review system with flagship journals creates an artificial scarcity of space to communicate scholarly work. An open peer review system has the potential to eliminate that artificial scarcity (though it doesn’t erase the problem of competing for people’s attention in order to generate responses).

  • As an Associate Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly and guest editor of a special issue on performance that is currently undergoing an open peer review on MediaCommons, I want to chime in only briefly, to make a couple of points. One, if you do want to see what this looks like in a humanities publication, you can see it happening now ( and the archive of when SQ did it for our issue on New Media, guest edited by Katherine Rowe (

    There were absolute benefits that we saw in the New Media issue that were direct results of the open peer review, including instances of authors being able to convincingly talk back to reviewers to point out where the reviewers’ criticisms were wrong, and instances of the debates that happened in the comments demonstrating the importance of the article being discussed. Neither of those things can happen in the same way in traditional peer review, in which those conversations either are spread out over a very long time frame (and thus often don’t happen) or are not visible because they can only emerge in the midst of a populated conversation.

    I do want to point out, as a qualifier, that this is a very time-consuming process. Perhaps that might change once more people get used to open peer review. But until that day comes, it’s a lot of work getting people to participate. We are not trained to respond to each other’s work in this sort of open, archived manner. Even when a reviewer is named to an author, those comments aren’t visible beyond that reader. In SQ’s process, comments are visible to anyone who wants to see them, and become part of the debate around new ideas. This is, as Mike suggests, an exciting thing that can lead to wonderful dialogues. But it’s a lot of work. I can’t begin to imagine how much time Ta-Nahisi Coates spends on cultivating his community of readers and shaping their comments.

    But, finally, the most important thing is that there isn’t anything in this process that precludes long-form, deeply researched scholarship. Nor is there anything that prevents successfully revising and archiving the product for future generations.

  • I think this last note suggests something maybe we’ve overlooked so far — documented, published, open commentary on scholarly material, in genres ranging from short tweets to Ta-Nehisi’s virtual salons to Shakespeare Quarterly’s open peer review, doesn’t just help create or publicize new scholarly work. It’s also creating future scholarly content.

    Imagine yourself as a scholar 20-200 years from now — wouldn’t you love to get your hands on an archive like that, featuring dynamic commentary between an author, his/her peers (including both friends and enemies), and the wider public? Couldn’t that be something new and valuable worth attempting?

    Sure, much of it will be useless. A lot of it certainly won’t look pretty. Some of it we won’t be able to make sense of using the critical tools widely in use now, and we’ll have to come up with new kinds of data analysis. But that’s how archives have always worked. And scholarship has always adjusted, given up extraordinarily little, and grown richer for it.

  • Fascinating discussion! Tim’s point here is something that came up during the discussion after a talk I gave yesterday: the kinds of discussion and versioning made possible by digital scholarly publishing practices could lead to a really exciting future mode of genealogical criticism. Scholars could find themselves able not just to surmise influence but to trace actual lines of descent, to see critical controversies play themselves out within the scholarly process, to trace ideas back to sometimes unexpected origins. As Tim says, much of what will be produced through these processes may not be valuable in that particular way, but there’s value nonetheless — not least for our students, who often have the idea that our work springs fully formed from our fingertips, rather than being the result of an often difficult process of drafting and revision — in the opportunity to see critical processes in action.

  • Here’s a very specific example, particularly important to my work on modernism. The typewriter, carbon paper, the modern post office, and vertical/loose-leaf filing all completely changed author’s archives. They changed authorial and publishing practices too, and the intellectual life of the period, too, just like the printed book did, but let’s set that aside for now. We also have photographic and phonographic archives from that period — also completely unprecedented, and transformative.

    We’re seeing that changing again with generation-old digital technology (hard drives, floppy disks, computer printouts) making their first appearances in scholarly and author’s papers. And we will see that change again, with e-mail and web pages and recordings and yes, blog posts and course syllabi and project notes and everything else.

    And if we as scholars don’t get out in front of that change, we’re going to wind up without a voice at the table — when companies like Twitter can change their TOS without notice to prevent exporting archives, scuttling active research projects — and we’re going to wind up fumbling to preserve and understand material that matters while we dodder around trying to preserve our own moss-covered seats at a rapidly-crumbling table.

  • Sorry to burst the utopian bubble, but I would like to assert once again that academic journal publishing serves a number of functions beyond the intellectual exchange of ideas. These functions relate to the sociology of the discipline, academic credentialling, and the hierarchical structure of academic life. I understand that many of the participants in this debate would like to eradicate these aspects of the profession entirely. Doing so, however, eliminates the need for your job. Good luck with all that.

  • Actually, I’d argue that undermining this kind of credentialism, recognizing that there are in fact many kinds of intellectuals both inside and outside the academy who have important contributions to make to the development of scholarly thought, and engaging in our work in public is actually vital to the continued existence of our jobs. Unless we can demonstrate to the taxpaying public why what we do matters, they’re going to continue to think it doesn’t. And if we’re not brave enough to talk directly with those folks outside the ivory tower who want to engage with our work, maybe we ought to think about why.

  • Rosie, hasn’t the sociology of the
    discipline changed over time?
    Isn’t that what
    Rob Townsend’s diss/book is about–changing definitions of scholarship and criteria for judging and defining historical work?

    Professional associations once drove that and shaped those definitions, but now they are trying to catch up.

    One of the advantages to publishing digitally and by making the process of creating scholarship more open, and perhaps even less linear, is that the review process is also more open. As a result, historians can respond more quickly and revise, as necessary, and have a published, reviewed work available in half the time that it would take to print something.

    Historians are capable of writing and assessing the quality of work in different formats, which is also why there are guidelines for judging public history work. Museum exhibits are not the same as JAH articles but an exhibit will most likely be revised than any JAH article and may take twice or three times the amount of work but can be weighed as scholarship for the sake of P&T.

  • I’m not sure where the concern about credentialing and destroying academic jobs is coming from. Mike’s post seems to be calling for a conversation among peers; SQ’s practice is, again, understood to be a conversation among peers. How do we define peers? I would say that anyone who can contribute meaningfully to a conversation is a peer of the other contributors. If this is an early-stage professor, or a graduate student, or an informed “amateur”, I’m not at all sure why it matters. One of the reasons SQ has commentators name themselves is so that everyone–the author, the editors, other reviewers–can identify what sorts of biases might be useful in understanding a comment (and we all have our biases, let’s not kid ourselves). We’ve not been inundated by ignorant masses, nor has the quality of the reviewing been undermined. And, as Kathleen points out, there’s a valuable opportunity here to let folks outside of academia to see what’s at stake in our fields and to argue publicly for why we matter. How is that a bad thing?

  • Jesus Christ, Mike. The horrible formatting of this comment thread is pretty much prima facie evidence against your entire argument for going digital.

    I don’t think it really matters whether any of us are in Mike’s camp or not–though of course I am. I know as historians we’re not supposed to predict the future, but who can say in good faith that journal articles and monographs are a remotely effective means to sustain scholarly dialog today, right now, let alone that they will be five or ten years down the road?

    It seems to me that a lot of the motivation behind the digital humanities isn’t just from disgruntled outsiders who are outside traditional tenure track, though there’s some of that, disgruntled and not. We’re also, and perhaps mostly, talking about people who have been entirely “successful” publishing and otherwise disseminating research via traditional vectors: dreadful three-papers-and-a-comment conference panels, speaking engagements, revolutionary manifestos, etc. This isn’t iconoclasm driven by utopianism or insecurity, it’s driven by the failure of traditional publishing to feel socially and culturally relevant and not even particularly intellectually satisfying.

    One last thing: I get extraordinarily uneasy every time I hear phrases like “paying your dues,” which seems to be becoming a theme on this blog (time for a title change?). But if I put myself in the shoes of a student, a book buyer, an attractive person at a cocktail party (these shoes fit easiest), do I want to learn about somebody’s research because of the “dues” they paid? The set of people who have paid their dues may in fact correlate very closely to the people whose ideas and methods I admire. But correlation need not imply causality, and I see no reason to suppose that said dues-paying has anything to do with the quality of intellect and caliber of scholarship.

  • Wow, I go to bed early and look what happens. I don’t understand my friend Rosie’s concern here–rethinking the profession to fit the technology available seems like a way to keep jobs, not lose them. And the goal is to make the pleasant parts of the life of the mind–intellectual interchange–easier and quicker and more effective.

  • Ok, I took another crack at it

    Hopefully more clear and more judicious

  • […] Editing, 2.1 My post on “aca­d­e­mic edit­ing 2.0″ gen­er­ated some heat in the com­ments, and some mis­un­der­stand­ings. What I was […]

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