Digital Peer Review

cross-posted at MediaCommons

In the last few days, I’ve been running across a bunch of activity around the question of peer review in digital publishing, thinking that’s extremely important to MediaCommons as we begin the project of building our peer-to-peer review network. I’ve also been writing about such questions a log, in particular in my book project, which I plan to begin posting excerpts from in the coming days. For the moment, however, a few links:

On “Academic Evolution,” a very strong argument by Gideon Burton indicating that our insistence that peer review is the thing that keeps academic publishing from turning into vanity publishing may be entirely wrong.

Urbis, a creative review engine for aspiring writers, using networked structures to help them develop and improve their work.

And, perhaps most significantly, if only because of its potential reach, Google Code’s GPeerReview project, which enables a network of colleagues to review and sign one another’s work, and to use statistical analysis to determine the connectedness of that work.

Are there other projects and experiments of which we should be taking note as we plot our peer-to-peer review future?

Campus Collaborations

I’m in the midst of a section in the project in which I’m discussing the potential for strategic collaborations within universities around the issue of digital scholarly publishing. Among such collaborations, I point to a number between university presses and university libraries, including those at the University of Michigan and the University of California. Numerous other such library-press collaborations exist — but what I’m not currently finding is such a collaboration in which the university information technology center is an explicit and active participant. Do any of you know of such a program?

The Contract

If you’re a Facebook status watcher and a friend of mine, you may have seen the recent update in which I announced that I have a contract. It’s an advance contract for Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, which will, if all goes according to plan, be released in commentable draft form here and at MediaCommons, revised, and then published simultaneously in electronic form by MediaCommons and in print by NYU Press.

It’s phenomenal news, of course, and enormously exciting. As a friend of mine pointed out to me, though, all good news in academia comes with more work attached, a pricetag of sorts. This one’s a bit daunting: the entire thing is due in just about a year.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, needless to say, but it promises to be an exciting year. More about the project here, of course, as the process becomes clearer…

Collaboration

Just before plunging back into my chapter this morning, I took my usual tour of the RSS feeds, and discovered DR’s post about collaborative authorship and its benefits. And just in the nick of time: the section of the chapter that I’m working on today is about the benefits of collaboration and other forms of socially-situated scholarly writing.

Most of the time, when scholars (outside rhet-comp, at least) discuss the benefits of collaboration, the first claim that gets made for it is “increased productivity,” a phrase that cannot help but raise specters for me, on the one hand, of some old forgotten joke about the new tractor and the Soviet five-year plan, and on the other, of Bill Readings’s assessment of the Fordist enterprise that higher education has become: “Produce what knowledge you like, only produce more of it, so that the system can speculate on knowledge differentials, can profit from the accumulation of intellectual capital” (164).

So I resist thinking about collaboration as a means of getting more work done. What I’m interested in is the ways that collaboration and other social modes of writing, and particularly those enabled by digital networks, might allow us to get better work done. (I say “other social modes of writing” because I want to include in the category that I’m thinking about not just literal co-authorship but also electronic extensions of phenomena like writing groups, in which the input of respondents can become as important to the process as the work one does in solitude.)

I’d really like to hear about your experiences: if you’ve worked in such a collaborative environment, how did it improve your work, either on the level of process or of product? What were the benefits of working, as DR describes, in a conversational framework? What, if any, were the drawbacks?

(And if there’s particular stuff in the literature about collaborative writing that you would feel a section of a chapter on digital authorship to be incomplete without referencing, I’d really love to hear about them…)

The Blob

The peer review chapter that I’ve mentioned a few times of late is a key element of the big project I’ve been working on since January (or more accurately, given the last couple of months, gearing up to work like crazy on this summer). I’ve said several times that I want to start blogging some pieces of the project, both to get some of the ideas into preliminary circulation and to get some early feedback. I’ve held off on doing so, though, partially out of an ongoing nervousness about putting unfinished material out into the world — a deep irony, I recognize, given that I’ve been at this blogging thing for nearly six years now, not to mention all the talk I’ve done at MediaCommons about shifting the center of gravity in scholarly publishing at least slightly away from finished products and toward process.

Another part of my hesitation, however, has to do with my ongoing uncertainty about the mode of production of the project itself. On the one hand, I have some strategic reasons for wanting the project to have a print existence, not least among them that the argument I’m making could otherwise very easily fall into the trap of preaching to the choir; the argument, about the institutional change that will be required in order for the academy to move into the digital publishing future, has to reach those most resistant to that change, and they’re unlikely to read it online. On the other hand, I want the text to have a primary existence online, to put its metaphoric money where its mouth is, to show what that digital future might look like.

But there’s the $64,000 question: what might it look like? I don’t want the digital version to simply replicate the printed page online: no paper under glass! The text needs to be networked and commentable, but beyond that, I’m not yet clear what I want it to look like or how I want to release it. For instance, I could, as Siva is doing, blog bits and pieces of the research and the ideas as they come together, while working on a separately produced linear text, or I could, as Noah did, release the text in chunks for comment and discussion after it’s fully drafted. Or, I imagine, I could do something inbetween, something more akin to drafting online.

I’m going to post the project proposal in the next few days, I think, so that I can start talking about the argument and its structure. For now, though I’d really like to hear some opinions about the structural possibilities for a project like this in general, as distinct from the structure of this particular project. Some of how this goes will likely be determined by the press with which I hope to be working, but I think I’ll have a pretty significant role in shaping the process, so I’d love have some discussion here about the kinds of things I should be thinking about as I move forward.

It’s the amorphousness of all this that has me unable to refer to the project as anything other than a “project” to this point: it’s not a book, or at least not only a book, but I don’t really have another word for it as yet. As Bob Stein recently told me, it’s a blob — a book-like object. And at the moment, it certainly feels all-consuming enough to qualify, even if it isn’t made out of strawberry jam.

Planned Obsolescence, Scholarly Publishing, and Peer Review

I’m back at work on the peer review chapter this morning; I started re-reading it yesterday, but was unable to make much sense of what I’d done during the spring. Yesterday, at least, I was still firmly in the scrambled-eggs-for-brains stage, in which I was pretty sure that the sentences that I was reading were written in English, but wouldn’t have been willing to swear to their meaning in court. Today’s a bit better — a second full night’s sleep! — and so I’m re-re-reading, and have a better sense of what’s going on in the draft, I think.

In the meantime, though, Miriam has pointed to a number of conversations and issues with which this chapter (and the larger project) crosses paths, all of which reminds me that I really need to get cracking — and need to get some of the material I’m working with blogged sooner rather than later. I’m hoping to sketch out a plan for the project as a whole, and the blog’s relationship to it, in the next few days.

Epiphany

I had one of those moments earlier this week, in which I suddenly felt as though the fog had lifted and everything I’d been muddling through for the last year or so became clear. I’m really hoping that this clarity isn’t temporary — I’m hoping I’m actually onto something — but I’m extremely excited about it right now. And I’m hoping that writing about it here will help make the thing that I’m thinking a bit more real.

Here’s the backstory: for the last couple of years, as those of you who’ve been hanging around here know, I’ve been writing a good bit about the future of scholarly publishing, producing a range of blog posts, manifestos, and even a couple of full-on articles. And they’ve been exciting to produce, and they’ve led to a certain kind of awareness of my work in the field that hadn’t existed before. But I wasn’t sure how much work they were doing for me, in a long-range sense. And here’s where a kind of craven careerism creeps into my thinking about my work: I need to be working on a project of the sort that one would call a “book,” not least because the second book is pretty much key to full professordom around these parts, or if not key, then certainly something somewhere well above helpful.

But I’ve been having a couple of problems with thinking about a large second project. The first is that such a project, in a lot of ways, is diametrically opposed to the manifestos and articles I’ve been producing, all of which have been arguing about various aspects of the problem that the book poses for the future of academic discourse; to be making those arguments while working on a book has felt more than a little hypocritical, and counterproductive to my real goals for the academy. And the second is that I’ve tested out a number of different ideas for that second project, and while the one I spent the summer working on seems like it will eventually come to fruition, it’s just not evolved enough yet. And every article or manifesto I’ve written has taken time away from that big project, and has made its full evolution seem that much more remote.

So when I decided this week to reinstitute the half-hour focused morning writing sessions, I had to figure out what exactly it was I was going to work on. I’ve got an article that I’m interested in writing toward that projected next big project, but I’m really not ready to launch into it. On the other hand, I’ve got another article on the future of scholarly publishing — the peer review article I mentioned a couple of posts back — that I also want to work on, and that I have the sense could be put together fairly quickly.

So I spent the first day of morning writing blocking out that article — writing the introduction, laying out the sections, figuring out how to proceed — and was very pleased with the results. And then later in the day, while thinking about something else entirely, it suddenly hit me (and with such a force that I honestly can’t believe this hadn’t occurred to me sooner):

What if all this writing about scholarly publishing is the next “book” project?

A flood of questions followed right behind that: What would the overall argument of such a project be? How would it be structured? What pieces of such a project are already in place, and what yet needs to be figured out?

And most importantly: Is the project a book, or a “book”?

I’m pretty rapidly figuring out the answers to those questions, and I’m hoping to share some of those answers here soon. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share this much: there have been few joys in my career thus far quite comparable to the moment — and I’ve now had it on four separate occasions — of realizing that all the random stuff I was doing, often not sure why I was doing it, was adding up to something coherent, and that that something coherent could actually, possibly, be really good.