Writing History in the Digital Age: Rethinking Peer Review

by Korey Jackson on October 25, 2011


There’s already been a flurry of activity since the recent announcement of Writing History in the Digital Age’s online open review process. So far, over 2,000 unique visitors have posted more than 250 comments.

“Our digital forum promotes scholarly dialogue that normally wouldn’t happen until long after a publication was finished,” observes co-editor Kristen Nawrotzki, a lecturer at the University of Education in Heidelberg.

What’s so different about how the book is being written and distributed? Jack Dougherty, co-editor and associate professor in educational studies at Trinity College, Hartford, breaks it down this way: “The web-book experiments with scholarly communication in three realms: it’s born-digital, open-access, and open peer review.”

“But,” he adds, “it’s the latter that faculty find most noteworthy.”  Open review strikes a chord because, says Dougherty, “inviting Press experts and general readers to comment in public on the manuscript” transforms the typically solo acts of researching and writing history into a public dialogue. Nawrotzki agrees, adding, “The most engaging interactions occur when readers and authors respond to one another.”

“Open review transforms

the solo act of research

and writing into a

public dialogue.”


Looking to the comments themselves, it’s been fascinating to witness not only the range of observations—from sentence-level typo-spotting to broad-reaching questions about research and pedagogy—but also the degree of self-awareness and self-reflection that commenters are bringing to the digital table.

Author Amanda Seligman’s comment about her own review process offers an earnest and introspective example:

“One thing that intrigued me,” she writes, “was how I would experience myself as a reader-reviewer. In particular, I wondered, would I just comment on something interesting the moment I saw it, the way I would on some other public interface like Facebook or the Chronicle of Higher Education discussion forums? Or would I wait until I read the whole essay and then—with the bigger picture in mind—more thoughtfully go back and add in comments, like I do when I write a report for a Press?”

Seligman’s musings offer a personalized take on the challenges and questions posed by the changing interface and scope of peer review.  What happens when review moves from a (semi-) private to a public sphere, from blind to named (or at least tied to a public persona), from being the first stop on the editorial workflow to becoming an ongoing, post-publication conversation?

These questions might help us see another ‘value added’ of public commentary vs. closed-circuit editorial review: open conversations like these can productively foster new ways of thinking about the value of commentary itself, and can offer a new slant on the different genres of response lumped under the general heading “review.”

Of course, this kind of meta-awareness can reveal the drawbacks as well as the rewards of public commentary.

Take this comment from Jason Jones, who notes “how both the discussion and the platform [Writing History in the Digital Age uses CommentPress to host response entries] seem to imagine comments as the ne plus ultra of web writing.  A paragraph with a lot of comments is better, or more interesting, or more provocative, than one without.”

Jones goes on to suggest that we need to be careful about assigning too much value to public commentary—that we risk turning a bloated comments section into a false benchmark of quality, a la Facebook or YouTube. Whether this kind of caveat (or, really, any analogy to YouTube’s comments section) is fair remains to be seen. But the point is well-taken: if public review simply (and uncritically) replicates validation structures that already exist—either on the web or within current forms of academic publishing—then writers and publishers will have missed a rich opportunity to do some productive soul-searching and redefining of the point and process of review.

It’s exciting to see commenters on Writing History in the Digital Age taking this opportunity seriously.

If you’d like to join the conversation, visit http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/. But hurry! Open review ends November 14th.

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