- Peer-to-Peer Review and the Future of Scholarly Authority
For the last two years, I have worked in collaboration with the Institute for the Future of the Book, my colleague Avi Santo, and a range of prominent scholars in media studies, on the development of MediaCommons, an all-electronic scholarly publishing network. We have planned, we have blogged, we have held meetings, we have tested some small-scale implementations of the technologies the full network will employ, we have published a few test-run articles—and in all of the feedback that we have received, in all of the conversations we have had with scholars both senior and junior, both beginning and established, one question has repeatedly resurfaced: What are you going to do about peer review?
I have suggested elsewhere that peer review threatens to become the axle around which the whole issue of electronic scholarly publishing gets wrapped, like Isadora Duncan's scarf, choking the life out of many innovative systems before they are fully able to establish themselves.1 This is a flippant response, to be sure; concerns about peer review are understandable, given that peer review is in some sense the sine qua non of the academy. We employ it 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. The work we do as scholars is repeatedly subjected to a series of vetting processes that enable us to indicate that the results of our work have been scrutinized by authorities in the field, and that those results are, therefore, themselves authoritative.
But, as authors including Michael Jensen of the National Academies Press have recently argued, the nature of authority is shifting, and shifting dramatically, in the era of the digital network.2 Scholars in media studies have avidly explored such shifts as they affect media production, distribution, and consumption, focusing on the extent to which, for instance, bloggers have decentralized and even displaced the authority structures surrounding traditional journalism, or the ways that a range of phenomena including mash-ups and fan vids have disrupted the previously assumed hierarchies that existed between media producers and media consumers, or the growing tensions in the relationship between consumers, industries, and industry regulators highlighted by file-sharing services and battles with the RIAA. These changes are at the heart of much of the most exciting and influential work in media studies today, including publications such as Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Anarchist in the Library, Henry Jenkins's Convergence Culture, and Yochai Benkler's [End Page 124] The Wealth of Networks, projects that have grown out of an understandable interest in the extent to which the means of media production and distribution are undergoing a process of radical democratization in the Web 2.0 era, and a desire to test the limits of that democratization.
To a surprising extent, however, scholars have resisted exploring a similar sense in which intellectual authority might likewise be shifting in the contemporary world. One might see such a resistance manifested in the often overblown academic response to Wikipedia, which often indicates a serious misunderstanding about the value of the project. Treating Wikipedia like any other encyclopedia, by consulting only the entries, as John Seely Brown has been heard to say, runs the risk of missing the point entirely, as the real intellectual heart of the project lies in the history and discussion pages, where one can see the controversies inherent in the production of any encyclopedia entry enacted in public, rather than smoothed over into an untroubled conventional wisdom.3 Centralized projects like Citizendium, which seek to impose traditional, hierarchical modes of authority on a site like Wikipedia,4 ignore the fact that, first, the wiki is in its very architecture a mode of ongoing peer review, and second, that not only the results of that review, but the records of its process are available for critical scrutiny. Failing to engage fully with the intellectual merits of a project like Wikipedia, or with the ways in which it represents one facet of a far-reaching change in...