Several months ago, the Media Anthropology Network of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, was the site of an informal discussion on journals and open access publishing. It was a wide ranging debate, involving issues of delays in the peer review process, to the nature of peer review, the origins of peer review, the question of anonymity in the review process, issues of prestige, independent publishing, etc. One of the questions I raised was whether open access publishing–and here I mean free, full text access managed independently by academics themselves–might “solve” a number of the problems raised by the participants in the dialogue.
In particular, I wrote there:
I have mixed feelings about the role of peer review in the social sciences, and in some ways this really is connected to the question of open access electronic publishing….In my case, I have had very rigorous, fastidious, detailed, and demanding reviews undertaken by anonymous reviewers. I have also received the same high quality of critical commentary from friends. I have had very amateurish, dismissive, hasty reviews done by anonymous reviewers. In some cases, in interdisciplinary ventures, editors who failed to clean up the digital properties of the Word files they forwarded to me betrayed the identity of the reviewers. After a quick Google search, I discovered that two individuals in one project were in business communication & public relations, and management studies, and they were lecturing me about what makes ethnography ethnographic. I have also received some rough treatment by friends, who were not impressed with the ideas and purposes of a particular piece of work, and tried their best to convince me that I was producing rubbish. In one case, a very close friend told me: “I thought this sucked bad on page one, and to my surprise it actually kept getting worse!” as an opening line. Sometimes friends can feel most comfortable in speaking plainly and directly, and one might be tempted to respect their negative opinions more and with less defensiveness.
With that kind of background, I am simply not convinced of the merits of peer review, or its demerits. Peer review, I think–but please tell me if I am wrong–like the journal report, is an import of the natural sciences. If you are boasting of a new technique for brain surgery, yes, I can imagine having experts examine and validate your claims would be absolutely essential. Is what we write comparably sensitive or threatening? In some cases, maybe yes…but in most?
I also do not think that anonmyity necessarily leads to high quality, or prevents nepotism (at least not on an intellectual level…hence those journals with numerous articles that all sound like they were written by the same Foucauldian person). What I find most disconcerting is the notion that peer review is done once, and never again, and it all happens prior to publication.
We have many peers, most of whom will read our work *after* it has been published–I want to hear their opinions too. We also have potential public constituencies, those that some of us might call “lay persons”–I want to hear their opinions too. I want to be able to respond, and I want a record of the dialogue as it might be edifying to readers and researchers with similar interests. I also want to revise again some time in the future. Rubbish can and does get published anyway, but I would love to have the chance to clean up my own.
Electronic, open access publishing is especially useful for achieving these last aims, and putting them into practice. Revision should be ongoing; it should not appear with a time or date stamp. In addition, we are allowed the freedom to implement our models, to manage our affairs in the ways we deem best, when we are not constantly being “partnered” as dependents of some multinational publishing corporation, whose ultimate interests are always profit and the anti−democratic monopolization of information. I can imagine being subordinate to such interests when one has little choice…but this is not an activity that should demand our subordination.