|The Wikipedia Homepage on Jan. 18th, 2012|
But what caught my attention was another story in the Times, about a website called ResearchGate designed to encourage scientists to collaborate, share ideas and data, and publish their results. Check it out. This is just the newest installment of many similar efforts to make the web into a platform that encourages scientists to collaborate and share results, intended to bypass traditional academic institutions like conferences and peer reviewed journals. Others include arXiv.org and PLoS.
Supporters of online platforms such as these claim the traditional system of peer reviewed journals is too slow, too expensive, too cumbersome, too entrenched, and too strongly tied to an outdated medium (print) to be of any real service anymore.
There are at least two questions worth thinking about here. One is historical whereas the other is more historiographical. First, the modern peer reviewed journal has a history going back to the 19th if not the 17th century (depending on whom you ask and how you choose to interpret the words “modern” and “journal”). It seems reasonable to suspect this history would have something to add to the current discussion about the place of publication in the modern scientific enterprise if not our intellectual culture more broadly. I can think of at least two historians whose work is relevant to these issues in some way or another. One is Adrian Johns who recently published a big book on Piracy. Another is Alex Csiszar, who is now writing a book about origins of the modern scientific journal as the primary vehicle to document, disseminate, and legitimize scientific results. You can see a précis of his argument here.
Second, here is an admittedly speculative historiographical question: what would happen if we got rid of the peer reviewed academic journal entirely? What would be lost and what would be gained? One things seems obvious: much would be gained indeed! The results of our research would be free. University libraries and independent scholars would no longer have to invest scarce resources so we can access each other’s work. It would also reduce the delay between writing and publication considerably.
But what would be lost? Good copy-editing and layout perhaps. (Although I’m not so sure. Historians really ought to be able to write reasonably well. After all, writing is what we do. And it’s not asking too much that we also learn to use software like InDesign or LaTeX.) Anything else?
One thing I’ve heard people say is that the academy would become even more of an insider’s game. That’s an interesting argument, one that’s worth thinking about. Roughly, the reasoning goes as follows: Most good journals practice blind peer reviews. This means that anyone can submit, and the quality of their work will more or less speak for itself. That’s the assumption anyway. A further assumption is that if you manage to place your work into a highly regarded journal, it will be widely noticed and read.
The alternative, an online database like arXiv.org, does not have a mechanism to dampen what we might describe as the academy’s epistemic stratification. People will only read what comes to their attention, meaning that they’ll end up reading the work of the people they already know, either in person or from what they’ve previously read. Despite all the talk of how the internet flattens social hierarchies and promotes egalitarianism, it may actually do the opposite.
I pretty much buy this argument, but only about half way. It seems plausible to me that most people primarily seek out the work of people they already know, except I think this is what most of us already do anyway, in print or online. I for one rarely if ever pick up Isis, the BJHS, the JHB, or any other academic journal just to see what catches my eye. Rather, I usually read something because I saw the author give an interesting talk, because it was recommended to me by a friend, because I came across it in a footnote, or because I found it through a search engine.