There was a time when I thought the internet could save us all. It was probably somewhere in the middle of the 2000s. There was a sense then, as Web 2.0 emerged, that the great democratization of data had finally arrived and that by nature of everything being open and shareable and social and free, many of the problems we’d been saddled with because of traditional media would suddenly disappear.
I was thinking of these days of wonder while reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, published in 2009. The book’s focus is the future of the academy, particularly in relation to emerging technologies. In the first chapter, Fitzpatrick takes on the problem of peer-review, which, she notes, is employed “in almost every aspect of the ways that we work, from hiring decisions through tenure and promotion reviews, in both internal and external grant and fellowship competitions, and, of course, in publishing.”
Peer-review, Fitzpatrick notes, is a feature of “a closed system of discourse,” which stands in direct contrast to the very open and public nature of writing for the web, for example. It is propagated by the curmudgeonly stance of “the way things have always been done.” I have no doubt that there is room for change — and indeed improvement — in the system of peer-review, particularly as more and more academic journals make their way online, but I have some concerns about the way Fitzpatrick seems to put her faith in the already fading dream of Web 2.0 to bring about that change.
The major shift, as Fitzpatrick sees it is, relates to positions of authority. In the old, peer-review model, authority is vested in traditional hierarchies within academia. But on the web, “the nature of authority is shifting, and shifting dramatically, in the era of the digital network.”
As an example of the shifts that the internet has precipitated, Fitzpatrick notes the work of scholars in media studies who focus their work on “the extent to which, for instance, bloggers are decentralizing and may even be displacing the authority structures surrounding traditional journalism.” She goes on to cite other instances such as mash-ups, fan vids, and file sharing.
The problem here, reading just five years after Fitzpatrick made these initial observations, is that her examples are dated in that they’ve either gone away, or have been proved wrong. Bloggers have not displaced the authority structures of traditional journalism. If there was any question that this prediction failed, the damage done by “citizen journalists” during the Boston Marathon bombings and the events that followed, in contrast to the excellent reporting by traditional media (The Boston Globe) should settle that debate.
Beyond that, remember mash-ups? They had a brief, and highly theorized, moment in the spotlight. Mash-ups, as well as their cousins “fan vids,” turned out to be just not that interesting. And while the debate over content ownership and file sharing is nowhere near settled, it is clear we will never go back to the anarchic wild west of the web’s early days.
The internet will not save us, after all. The “process of radical democratization in the Web 2.0 era” that Fitzpatrick observed in 2009 was already perched at the beginning of its decline. Some things changed, but mostly they just stayed the same.
But, there is a bright spot ever on the horizon. That is, to cite Alan Liu’s idea about encounters with new media as occurring not across a border, but in a contact zone or “pagus,” we’re still wandering, still figuring things out. To that end, I like where Fitzpatrick goes toward the end of her chapter on Peer-Review. She writes, “we might all be better served by separating the question of credentialing from the publishing process, by allowing everything through the gate, and by designing a post-publication peer-review process that focuses on how a scholarly text should be received rather than whether it should be out there in the first place.”
I like this idea of post-publication peer-review. Especially with work published online, editors and publishers are no longer constrained by financial or spatial commitments. So, they should feel more free to take risks, publish pieces they are unsure about, or perhaps even those they are sure won’t be popular, and let those pieces rise or fall based on the reactions of readers.
But, even here, Fitzpatrick falls back into a little bit of Web 2.0 optimism. In discussing a peer-to-peer review system, in which the quality of reviews is measured in addition to that of the text itself, she suggests, “peer-review needs to be put not in the service of gatekeeping, or determining what should be published for any scholar to see, but of filtering, or determining what of the vast amount of material that has been published is of interest or value to a particular scholar.”
Again, I like this idea of filtering over gatekeeping, but the overall idea rings with some of that mid-2000s optimism regarding the ability of the crowd to accurately determine what is of interest or value. I think the solution may actually be somewhere in the space between the traditional authorities and the determining mob. The authorities are necessary, but perhaps not as gatekeepers, but indeed as filters. If this is modeled after anything, it is not the Web 2.0 dream of the previous decade, but the model of publishing as it exists today. That is, there are traditional publishing houses, smaller houses, academic presses, and self-publishers and they can all get a book out onto the market. Whether that book is any good or not is determined, typically, after it is published, by readers, critics, and award juries.
Certainly this is not a perfect model either—marketing plays an oversized role in publishing and is generally contingent on the budget of the publisher, to identify one obvious flaw. But if the problem, as Fitzpatrick describes it, is a reductive system with outmoded metrics, making peer-review a post-publication process should help. This review, however, should not be left to the clicking masses, but to recognized scholars — shift the gatekeepers from their post at the gate to someplace just outside it. In a sense, this is what Fitzpatrick and her colleagues are trying to accomplish with the peer-to-peer review system, but it feels a bit too much like reducing the merits of scholars to Yelp reviews.
At the end of Chapter One, Fitzpatrick returns us to a sense of what peer-review is supposed to have been, “part of an ongoing conversation among scholars.” It is clear that, even if at one time the traditional peer-review system functioned in just that way, it no longer does. Change is needed, but lasting change won’t come from jumping on the latest internet trend. Rather we should employ the long game, recognizing with Liu that we are in a contact zone in our journey to a new media, and as our perspective changes from within that zone, so, too, can our practices — including peer-review.