Eight Crowded Paragraphs Collaborating Openly
Martin K. Foys, Department of English, Drew University, Madison, NJ
1. Jen Boyle, my partner-in and inspiration-for this brief break into the vault of academic peer review, has elsewhere in this forum covered the theoretical grounding for our endeavor (and I also encourage you to check out our introduction to the Becoming Media volume for related grist). The motivation for our foray into alternatives to traditional review practices comes from our belief that the modes by which we as scholars produce and vet the work we do is becoming increasingly contraindicated by the ways in which the world around us operates. The cracks in the foundation of our intellectual production radiate out from several faults; one being how outmoded the logic of traditional methods of peer review appears when measured against the potential of new communication technologies at scholars’ disposal.
2. That the way scholars publish, and are allowed to publish, has now reached a point of crisis was driven home to me by the realization that I actually agree with some of the points in a recent Chronicle column written by Mark Bauerlein (the author of The Dumbest Generation, a work whose arguments for the negative effect of digital technology upon the intellectual culture of American youth are diametrically opposed to my own). Contending that we have hit a ‘research bust,’ Bauerlein concludes that the sheer output of academic literary studies has become inefficient, and less read than it might be, notwithstanding quality (Bauerlein, 2011). This is a sobering accusation, and despite flaws in his methodology and analysis, Bauerlein’s conclusion has some merit given the ever-burgeoning mass of scholarly output.1 Academic writing has exploded in the past few decades: from 1986-2002, the number of scholarly journals has increased 58%, while publication of monographs has doubled (‘Scholarly Communication: Crisis and Revolution,’ 2010). Likewise, media has diversified to increase production; consider, on a larger scale, how in 2002, new information produced on paper, film, optical and magnetic media was “equivalent to the amount of information in a half-million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress’ print collections” (Lyman, et al., 2003). And since 2002, we can factor in no small scale of content and information generated through digital micro-content: social media, blogs, micro-blogging and email. So, how can technologies that facilitate such massive increases in content (academic or otherwise) also become means to help us continue to produce new and useful scholarship and to ensure that others encounter it in meaningful ways?
3. An early benefit of my decade-long foray into the world of media history and theory was to be disabused of technological determinism – the view that technology is the root and cause of the cultural and even intellectual change that occurs in modern society. Rather, technology has always developed in response to a need and a production that was already there. This is especially true with regards to information technology, where the growth of data and communication eventually saturates existing modes of exchange and storage and demands new ones. Once new information technologies arise in response to precedent need, a feedback loop of media content and method occurs that determines, in the words of Lisa Gitelman, ‘some of the local conditions of communication amid the broader circulations that at once express and constitute social relations’ (2006, 5).
4. The trope of the Humanities scholar laboring, Samuel Johnson or Spinoza-like, in splendid isolation becomes more posthumanly suspect with each passing year. So too, perhaps, does the model of reviewing scholarship in a closeted and closed fashion run along a similar route. We are all becoming digital scholars in one way or many, and it is important now for Humanities scholars to look around in the world and take some cu(r)es from other intellectual, cultural or economic productions. For example, Martin Weller’s recent study of how digital proliferation has transformed the newspaper and music businesses provides some provocative analogies for the future digital scholarship (Weller, 2011). For a large sector of the popular music industry, what even defines the basic unit of recording is thought to be in transition, shifting from the collective album to the individual song, or, more radically, from recorded music to live performances (Weinberger, 2007, 9). Should, could, a parallel shift in the way our knowledge is packaged and proliferated be happening in Humanities scholarship?
5. One of the compelling aspects about postmodern theory is that, like new information technologies, it developed as a cultural response to what is already there. Whether producing or arbitrating, a singular figure of intellect goes hand in hand with the grand conceit of the individual author (as, confoundingly, you are about to see with my entirely un-ironic use of the monolithic ‘Foucault,’ who neatly fulfills his own functional thesis). As most readers of this forum well know, Foucault argued decades ago that the single, functional author was a contingent ruse (albeit it a continuing and powerful one). Foucault used the binarism of Science and Literature to show how non-essential individual identity has been historically to the meaning of a text. In some historical periods (like the early Middle Ages) individual authority is more likely to be attached to a scientific text than a literary one; an inversion of today’s relation of author to discipline (Foucault, 1979). Science has also played the alter ego to literature in terms of collaborative modes – scientific work is more often generated and published as the work of a team.
6. Today, while we are seeing more collaborative scholarship slowly happen in the Humanities, it does not transpire in older media, but largely in digital publications (Spiro, 2009). Where we see almost no change in the model is in the way individuals still control the review of scholarship. We need, I think, to view the individual (and hidden) reviewer as we might the figure of the author – s/he too today has a function of control not quite in step with how contemporary knowledge is formed, processed and broadcast. The emergent cultural theories and the technologies from the past half-century suggest there is a contemporary space in Humanities study for collaborative modes of both scholarly production and evaluation. But the sluggish pace of change in the way we do things suggests that, for now, we mostly remain unable or unwilling to occupy it.
7. Our ‘crowd review’ was nothing more than an exploration of an empty space where a scholarly crowd eventually should live and work. How the review functioned and the means by which it developed was largely of the moment – a cocktail shaken with technical limitations and lack of sure precedent. As Jen Boyle notes in her forum post, it was renamed a ‘crowd’ instead of an ‘open’ review for good reason; but open remains a fitting descriptor too. In this exploration, we wanted to see what happened when we opened things up; we wanted to create multiple openings into these essays and for responses to them. The blog-and-comment architecture of the review (a necessity of what kind of technical environment Palgrave was able to host) encouraged fluidity in the way reviewers could be as focused or general as they wished, and allowed paths of discourse to develop organically in successive responses of authors and reviewers. For the born-digital infant that it was, the crowd review succeeded. Over the two months of the online review, close to fifty reader reports were posted for six essays, many in conversation with each other, and cumulative comments reached a total length of over 20,000 words – half the total length of all the essays together. Some authors joined in the calls and responses throughout the threads generated, furthering the feedback, and all of the final essays in the published volume bore healthy marks of the constructive opinions the process generated. And as editors, Jen and I were able to listen to criticisms to individual essays that became choral in their repetition. This opportunity in turn guided our own sense of what needed work in each essay, as well as helping to refine and filter our own particular biases for what we encouraged the authors to revise in their essays. Perhaps the coolest thing about the crowd review was how, in a small but pioneering fashion, the process collapsed the distinction between the reader/reviewer and the author. All of the participating crowd to some degree became collaborators on these essays in immediate and transparent ways. By writing more at the end of each draft, each crowd reviewer extended the essays into longer, collaborative and recursive versions of themselves. Such activity folded acts of reception into textual product, and resulted in on-line, ‘published,’ compositions that differ from what appears in postmedieval.
8. As one should expect, much remains unsatisfying and unfinished about the process of crowd review, given both its immature status and the remediating scholarly environment in which it operated. On one side, not all authors were equally comfortable with the idea; some chose not to engage at all with the online conversations happening, and the degree to which authors addressed or accepted the feedback provided (even when gathered and re-filtered through the editors) varied greatly. From the other side, the ‘crowd’ here was also mostly an affinitive clique, with many readers related to each other as much by ideology and digital predisposition as by discipline or interest in the topics at hand, and so less open in some ways. We need to consider the degree to which a lack of diversity and vertical modeling –where the general similarity of one’s peers does not allow for a truly contrastive dialectic –informed the generally positive nature of the criticism provided. While there was some degree of constructive criticism in the reviews, it generally felt very cautious and tentative, and I wonder what affect the combination of the public nature of a crowd, and the sensation of permanence that putting views into writing had upon the discourse. The space for real negativity, of course, is one of the greatest weaknesses of traditional blind peer review (most of us, at some point in our careers, have received that reader’s report). But the freedom to ‘go negative’ (constructively, not ad hominem) also can be a very valuable tool that feels rather missing from our experiment. Early on in the review, I asked one senior colleague in my field to assess one of the essays, as I thought he could address some of its failings. He did, but then wrote back privately that while he thought the author was a smart scholar, he so disagreed with the essay’s premise and execution that he would not respond to it inside the structure of a public review. On the positive side, had this scholar been a traditional reader for such a submission, it may have been rejected outright. But I also know this essay would have been richer for some serious criticism in this vein, and was sorry not to have this kind of feedback – here or elsewhere in the crowd review. Our crowd review was, in the end, an overwhelming positive experience; I also wish it ended up being a bit more negative as well (pace Joy, 2012).
Bauerlein, M. 2011. ‘The Research Bust.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Research-Bust/129930/), accessed on December 8, 2011.
Cohen, J.J. 2011. ‘Stop the Research Machine! ‘/ ‘We need Shakespeare Book #16,772!’ In the Middle (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2011/12/stop-research-machine-we-need.html), accessed on December 13, 2011.
Foucault, M. 1979. ‘What is an Author?’ Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Edited and translated by J. Harari. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press: 141-160.
Gitelman, L. 2006. Always Already New; Media, History, and the Data of Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press.
Joy, E. 2012. ‘Fuck Pessimism: Embrace Youngsterism.’ In the Middle (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2012/01/fuck-pessimism-embrace-youngsterism.html), accessed on January 18, 2012.
Lyman, P. et al. 2003. ‘How Much Information 2003?’ (School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley). (http://www2.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/), accessed on January 20, 2012.
Spiro, L. 2009. ‘Examples of Collaborative Digital Humanities Projects.’ Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/category/collaboration/), accessed on December 8, 2011.
‘Scholarly Communication: Crisis and Revolution.’ (UC Berkeley Library, Library Collections) (http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/Collections/crisis.html/), accessed on January 24, 2012.
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Weller, M. 2011. ‘Lessons from Other Sectors.’ The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice. Bloomsbury Academic: n.p. (http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/DigitalScholar_9781849666275/chapter-ba-9781849666275-chapter-003.xml;jsessionid=46707918CBDC90D29595205DF11172BA), accessed under Creative Commons license on December 8, 2011.
Weinberger D. 2007. Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York, NY: Times Books.