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In my opinion

Time to rethink peer review

Evaluating scholarly work in the Internet age.


It’s time to rethink peer review and the definition of scholarly work in light of the Internet. The current system of peer-reviewed scholarly work was established in an era of typewriters, postage stamps and the printed page. The Internet has made this system largely anachronistic. It needs to be replaced with a more humane form of review, along lines pointed out recently by Rosanna Tamburri in University Affairs (“Opening up peer review,” April 2012 issue). And newer forms of dissemination need to be recognized as scholarly work and made subject to peer review.

Anonymous peer review is rarely anonymous. By the time one’s research reaches the level of sophistication necessary to attract scholarly interest, one’s identity is known to peers. Nor is peer review always objective. Reviewers often hide behind anonymity to deliver unwarranted attacks. (And authors rarely have recourse to a vehicle by which to respond to the reviewer.) For these reasons, anonymous peer review has been called unjust and inhumane in some quarters.

It doesn’t have to be so. The Internet allows for timely and humane forms of exchange in scholarship. In the hands of an editor, peer review could become a form of colloquy, an exchange between author and reviewers. “Open peer review” and “open peer commentary” should become fully accepted practices of scholarly review.

So, too, the peer-reviewed scholarly book and article no longer remain the principal vehicles by which research is disseminated. Their main drawback is time, the time necessary to bring ideas to press. In their stead, scholarly work is now disseminated via the web in the form of blogs, webinars, wikis, webcasts, Ted Talks, and even emails, Facebook comments and tweets. I call these forms of scholarly dissemination digital ephemera: they are ephemeral, responding to changing circumstances, rapidly decaying, supplanted by new ephemera. Despite their ephemeral quality, they are fast beco-ming legitimate vehicles for new scholarly ideas.

New forms of dissemination such as digital ephemera, then, should be taken into account as scholarly work. And peer review of digital ephemera should allow for an exchange between reviewer and author, anonymously or otherwise. Here is how to do this:

First, allow a scholar to assemble digital ephemera for peer evaluation for the purposes of tenure, promotion and scholarly funding. In lieu of a published book or article, a scholar seeking tenure might create a blog comprising dated copies or records of emails, webcasts or other digital- media publications that have contributed to the formation and dissemination of their research. Preface the blog with a description of the research developed through these ephemera, how, for example, an email exchange led to the emergence of a new scholarly idea. Let the blog and its contents then become the object of peer review.

Second, open up the process of peer review by allowing the author to respond to reviewer comments (and the reviewer to respond in turn), under the auspices of an editor or moderator. Retain the judgment of the reviewer as ultimate, for peer review is the cornerstone of evaluation in academia. But make the process a true exchange between peers.

Among the reasons for doing so, an important one is to make better use of scholarly capital. Too much good scholarly thought is lost through bad peer review and glacially slow print publication schedules. Consider the new university economy, where tenured professors are replaced with overworked and underpaid part-time, adjunct, or “teacher” professors, who lack workload time for traditional forms of scholarly publication. Recognizing ephemera would enable these scholars to sustain their research career in more flexible forms through timely interventions in online discussions and workshops.

Consider, as well, that small scholarly presses are being replaced by large e-publishers, who profit from publishing and republishing digitally a limited number of “key” articles, or from charging authors exorbitant fees. This constricts scholarly research and publication. Recognizing ephemera would retain the context of the small publisher, where scholarly ideas are not restrained by the need for profit. Consider the new digital classroom, where social media and other ephemera are vehicles for learning. Research dissemination should reflect this new classroom reality.

In summary, let us hope for the demise of the wall of anonymity behind which reviewers all too often behave irresponsibly. Let us see a humanization of peer review as open and responsible scholarly dialogue. And let us develop suitable forms of scholarly work with which to foster such exchange.

Murray Dineen is professor of music in the faculty of arts at the University of Ottawa.

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