The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Two certification systems

April 18, 2012

The keynote address for this year’s NITLE Symposium was delivered by Dan Cohen, a major voice in the “digital humanities” movement and one of the leading figures behind Zotero, the open-source free EndNote killer research tool. Cohen outlined a vision of ‘Net-enabled scholarly publishing that I can only think to call the aggregation model: editorial committees scanning the ‘Net to find the most interesting scholarly content in a given field or discipline, and highlighting it through websites and e-mail blasts that hearken back to the early days when weblogs were literally just collections of links with one- or two-sentence summaries attached. (An example, edited by Cohen and some of his associates: Digital Humanities Now.) Some of that work consists of traditional books and articles, but much of it consists of blog posts, online debates, etc. This model gives us scholarly work from the bottom up, instead of generating published scholarly work by tossing a piece into the random crapshoot of putatively blind peer-review and crossing your fingers to see what happens. It also gives us scholarly work that can be certified as such by the collective deliberation of the community, which “votes” for pieces and ideas by reading them, recirculating them, linking to them, and other signs of interest and approval that can be easily tracked with traffic-tracing tools. And then, on top of that editorial aggregation — Cohen made a great point that this kind of aggregation shouldn’t be fully automated, because automated tools reward “loudmouths” and popular voices that just get retweeted a lot; human editors can do a lot to surface novel insights and new voices — an open-access journal that curates the best of those linked items into published pieces, perhaps with some revisions and peer review/commentary.

In many ways I find this a compelling vision of scholarship in a networked world. The multi-layered system of certification means that there is some “quality control” — a completely crowdsourced solution would, I think, quickly devolve into flamewars and the other horrors of the Wide Open InterNet — but the bottleneck of the peer-reviewed journal (and the academically respectable book publisher) would be broken. Interesting insights could be collected regardless of their origin, put through a gauntlet of scholarly evaluation, and the best would end up re-presented for a critical scholarly audience in convenient forms. Heck, we do some of that here on the Duck already, pointing to stuff that we find interesting and contributions that we think worth noting.

But there’s a flaw in the reasoning, or an important oversight, that I think important.
The peer review system is not, and perhaps not even primarily, about certifying scholarship; it is about certifying scholars. The fact that someone has managed to publish in a “top” journal or with a “top” press is an important part of their journey to being formally accepted as a full member of the scholarly community; that certification system starts with one’s graduate training and the awarding of the Ph.D., but through the tenure-and-promotion part of a scholarly career, publication in ranked places is critical since the Ph.D. is thought to be an insufficient barometer of quality. Getting an article into the top journal in the field, regardless of what the article says, is a sign that one belongs to the community and deserves a place at the table — which is why young scholars bust their butts trying to do just this.

Now run a thought experiment: introduce Cohen’s system of aggregated scholarship. A young scholar seeking to prove her- or himself needs to post things in a lot of places to maximize their chances of getting noticed. And the format, the language-game, of a blog post or online forum is much different than that of a journal article submission. Add into this the fact that established senior colleagues might not respect the aggregation system as much because of a general disparaging of online communication as “not serious scholarly work,” and the young scholar faces a dilemma: which game should she or he play? My strong suspicion is that the only people who would be able to play Cohen’s game are a) graduate students who are just trying to get their name out there and b) tenured scholars whose work habits were already network-enabled (you know, the kind of people who post the text of their ISA paper as a blog post). But junior scholars are not likely to play, because they’ll feel constrained to focus on the traditional certification system…and they’ll get feedback both formal and informal from their senior colleagues that this is the right choice. So they won’t develop those networked habits, and when they’re senior colleagues they’ll repeat the same advice to their junior colleagues…

My point is that Cohen’s model of digital scholarship only works if one ignores the present organizational actuality of academic careers. Unless and until we toss out the traditional certification system, an aggregation model of scholarly knowledge-production is, I think, doomed to be a bit player. In fact, this marginality is already implicit in the model itself, which Cohen quite rightly referred to as “community-sourced” rather than”open-sourced”: not everyone can play, since there is still a level or two of editorial oversight. (Even the Wikipedia has something like this, with protected pages and dedicated editors for some areas.) But this in turn requires some way of certifying people as members of the community in advance of their aggregation work — so the aggregation system supervenes on a traditional system of scholarly certification. The only way for the aggregation system to really take off would be for it to more or less completely replace the traditional system, to the point where one could reference blog posts with extensive comment threads and retweets as evidence of membership in a scholarly community. But I am having a great deal of trouble envisioning how that might feasibly happen.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.