Today's front page Times story by Patricia Cohen, about using the Web to modernize peer review, has repeatedly captured my attention. First my friend InfoDiva posted it on Facebook, then I saw it in the Atlantic Wire, finally I re-read parts of it when I picked up the paper. I must be interested in this topic.
Cohen recounts an interesting experiment in open peer review, conducted by Media Commons on behalf of the Shakespeare Quarterly. The Quarterly posted four unfinished articles online, and invited a selected group of reviewers to post signed comments on the Media Commons platform. (Media Commons is a very groundbreaking platform for "transforming what it means to 'publish.'") Then the gates opened wider, and anyone could comment as long as they registered with their own names. This is not quite Wikipedia--in which anonymous edits are allowed--but it does tend more toward the "wisdom of the crowds." The authors responded to many of these comments and made revisions. The final arbiters of what will appear in the journal, appropriately, are the editors.
What a brilliant model! It balanced respect for expertise (inviting selected reviewers first, leaving the final decision to the editors) with the capability of the Web to generate discussion among a broader range of people. It facilitated rapid real-time improvements to scholarship, and didn't allow reviewers to hide behind a veil of anonymity. What's not to like?
Plenty, perhaps. Professor Michèle Lamont notes that "knowledge is not democratic" (although by my lights, Media Commons accorded sufficient respect to experts.) And the simple fact remains that, no matter how innovative something is, most young academics won't do anything to jeopardize tenure. The real-world consequence of this trepidation is that knowledge grows more slowly than it should in the Internet age.
What does this mean for librarians? As several panelists argued at the Medical Library Association panel on "informal publication methods" this year, we have the luxury of being able to dabble in much more flexible publication venues. Our promotion isn't tied to publishing a traditional book or getting an article in a particular journal. We have freedom, and we should use it. (Hmm...maybe I should inquire about getting involved with Media Commons...)
As peer review evolves, we'll also have the responsibility to inform students and faculty about this new and ever-shifting landscape. Sometimes it's OK to go to Wikipedia, sometimes it's not. The critical skill is recognizing your information need and matching the level of source to it. We'll always know more about this than other people, so we should continue to take the lead on our campuses and in our institutions...especially if we strive to discard old rules of thumb as time marches on.
Finally, somebody will have to preserve all the digital scholarly bits (or at least the critical bits) forever. Here too we can play a critical part, with our partners in IT. We'll have to bring old-fashioned selection and archiving skills to bear in this entirely new realm. It's a daunting challenge, but a worthy one.