Getting Serious About the Online Part of Research Online

kfitz's picture

Today’s Inside Higher Ed features an opinion piece by Sara Kubik, urging academics to “get serious” about online forms of research publication.

While it once made sense to equate print with quality, it’s time to embrace newer forms of communication as valid. If they need academically sound forms of verification and procedures for citation, let’s get to work.

I could not agree more — and yet it’s important to note, in the comments that follow, one of the reasons why such getting-serious is easier said than done: in response to Kubik’s insistence that online publishing would help to alleviate the horrific time-lags between the completion of research and its dissemination, Sandy Thatcher, Director of Penn State University Press, responds by saying that it’s peer review that takes so long, and thus the digital won’t speed things up all that much.

This kind of response is precisely the reason a project like MediaCommons is so necessary, I believe: if we are really going to get serious about online scholarly publishing, we have got to get outside the paper-based model of what publishing is. What Thatcher’s response misses (and what I’ve attempted to follow up with in a comment myself) is that it makes no sense to port paper-based procedures into a digital publishing process. In conventional publishing, peer review has to come before publication, due to the material scarcities involved, whether the limited number of pages that can be published in a journal or the limited number of volumes that can be published by a press. These scarcities do not obtain in networked environments; there are no limitations on the number of texts, or the length of texts, that can be published. What is scarce, instead, is time and attention. What we need is a peer review process that works toward maximizing those scarcities, rather than using paper-based models of gatekeeping.

What I’ve been arguing for some time now is that we need to let everything be published, and transform peer review into a post-publication filtering process. Right now, a monograph that will only reach a dozen interested readers simply can’t be taken on by a traditional press — but why shouldn’t that monograph be able to find its dozen readers online? Isn’t it imaginable that those dozen readers might gradually, through their resulting publications, persuade many more that they’d overlooked something important in that original monograph?

So open the floodgates. Let’s develop a system that helps that dozen readers find the texts they’re looking for, and vice versa. And in the process, let’s crowd-source peer review. Right now, the process is slow in no small part because of how the “peers” involved are determined — they’re a very small number of hand-selected, overworked, and undercompensated readers. Why shouldn’t we allow any reader who genuinely engages with a text to become a “peer”? In so doing, we not only spread the labor of peer review out in a more just fashion, but we also recognize that readers and readings change, and thus that review should be an ongoing, rather than a one-time-only, process.

I’m hopeful that MediaCommons, by creating a new publishing process from the ground up, might be able to help transform our ideas about online publishing, to help us work with rather than against the net-native modes of producing “authority.” But in order to do so, we need your help. Publish things here, whether as blog posts or uploaded documents. Help us imagine the projects we should be taking on. Give us your feedback about the site, its structure, the features you’d like to see, and how we might develop and implement a genuinely peer-to-peer review process.

We’re getting serious. We hope you will, too.