The Future of Peer Review?

Jeff Rogers
August 26, 2010
Image of a question mark made of many people.

The writing may be on the wall--or the web, rather--for the sacred academic rite of peer review.  That, anyway, is the prospect posed by a piece that ran on the front page of Tuesday's New York Times.

For decades, publishing in peer-reviewed journals has been an essential part of the increasingly difficult road to securing tenure as a professor. The time-honored process, in which submissions are evaluated by a select group of expert scholars, can be an arduous one, grinding on for months in many cases.  But that may be changing.

A recent experiment by the Shakespeare Quarterly was suggestive of the new possibilities.  Four submitted essays were evaluated in an "open review" internet forum hosted by MediaCommons.  Ultimately, 41 reviewers posted more than 350 comments under their own names, and the authors of the essays were given a chance to revise their work before it went on to the journal's editors for a final evaluation.

While scholars in the sciences have been experimenting with web-based collaborative review for a while now, this is a profoundly new wrinkle in the humanities and may be indicative of a real shift in the way that academic knowledge is produced, codified, and communicated and in the way that expert and layman are distinguished in scholarly discourse.

The degree to which any opening of the traditional review process will actually democratize the production of knowledge is debatable, but it seems certain that the process itself will be radically accelerated and will be welcoming a number of new voices.  The likely and potentially very interesting upshot of all of this is that the established elite publications may very well face the choice of opening their review processes or seeing some of the most exciting and cutting-edge scholarship migrating to other, more forward-thinking venues.