Peer-to Peer Review and Planned Obsolescence

Hi all,

I realize this is a little belated, but our discussion on Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence really got the gears a-grinding, so to speak. Perhaps this is woefully ignorant of me to admit, but I was unaware that peer review forms such a cornerstone of modern scholarly publishing. As far as Fitzpatrick’s historicization of peer review, I am interested in the ways in which she locates it within systems of authority, but remain leery of much historical postulation about the history of the discipline, especially after reading Graff’s tome which completely neglects to locate any historicity within colonial England’s cultural imperialism of India. Furthermore, I am concerned by the larger implications of laziness within the academy, as peer review seems to be a sort of outsourcing of the evaluation of tenure candidates and doctoral students. If evaluation of my merit is to be outsourced to the system of peer review, I am deeply troubled by the flaws inherent in this system.

I was interested in the points brought up in class discussion about the concept of “blind review” regarding the construction of peer relationships — who are our peers, really? And could a misunderstanding of peer relationships, especially when conducted anonymously, lead to a biased review of an article, resulting in a rejection of material because your review operates under different theoretical methodologies than the ones which frame your work? Fitzpatrick notes that “blind review,” rather than rectifying these issues, “cannot compensate for the reviewer who operates within a cloud of intellectual bias, dismissing any arguments or conclusions that disagree with his or her own” (29). It reminds me of a Louis C.K. interview in which he discusses children text messaging each other — the layer of anonymity, though slight, enables harshness due to the lack of profoundly human interaction. These concerns gendered by blind review, however, seem to be echoed in the systems of online peer-to-peer review, causing Fitzpatrick to appeal to “consider[ing] the ways that network effects bring out both the best and the worst in the communities they connect, and the kinds of vigilance that we must bring to bear in guarding against the potential reproduction of the dominant, often exclusionary ideological structures of the Internet within the engagements between scholars and readers online” (36).

That being said, it is quite exciting to consider the opportunities opened by peer-to-peer review in the facilitating of discussions of scholarly work in real-time. I appreciate the way that Fitzpatrick consistently circles back to the idea of academia as a community, and her solutions seem to work against what Graff calls “patterned isolation.” I also appreciate the way in which she calls attention to authorship as a dialogic process, in which no text is an island, so to speak, and locates texts in their connection to and conversation with other texts. I am excited by the potential inherent in a system of peer-to-peer in which more people have access to the conversation taking place (which – imagine!- takes the form of an actual conversation where the text is not an uninterrogable lump of paper that shouts “I am authoritative,” but rather a space of conversation where the author can literally be held accountable in real-time for disjunctions in clarity as well as questions engendered by ideas and their implications – yes, I’m thinking of Homi Bhabha) and in which the digital world can mediate between spaces of exclusivity and inclusivity, thus perhaps unprivileging the position of the traditional scholar, which I think can only be a good thing as far as the project of humanizing the academy is concerned. I am also drawn to the ways in which such a system might be useful in expanding our notions of who our peers are, as reviewing across disciplines could be intensely helpful in certain kinds of work. I know my own work could potentially benefit in ways I probably can’t imagine from the comments of anthropologists or sociologists who would be capable of dispelling ignorances I am not even aware of. I am further thrilled by the thought of submitting work for review at earlier stages and hope to find an environment in which I can do so — it seems a low-stakes and less anxiety-ridden alternative to only submitting finished work in a make-or-break sort of setting. This kind of work could also help younger scholars be rid of the notion that scholarly works spring fully formed from the forehead of the author. As far as my own scholarship is concerned, I envision a technological utopia in which I am able to connect immediately to the texts which the text I am reading cite and/or obliquely refer to, however such a vision seems too labor intensive to be economically viable.

The labor question is one that holds a few contradictions for me: shouldn’t scholars be excited to participate in such seemingly vibrant intellectual communities that the digital world seems capable of producing and maintaining? Shouldn’t we be interested in peer-to-peer review for the simple sake of furthering our own work and nurturing the work of others, work that could potentially become viable to our own questions? That being said, I’m sure there are many (probably including Fitzpatrick herself) that would call me naive for having such an idealistic vision of the academic community. I appreciate that we are economically in a bit of a bad state, and scholars who are underfunded and overworked already (adjuncts, anyone?) need incentive to pour their labor into other people’s projects. While I understand the need to incentivize the peer-to-peer review process, I find the necessity disturbing in and of itself, finding it yet another instance of such isolation that prevents us from doing the best, most collaborative, interdisciplinary work possible.

Like Christina mentioned, the technical and jargon-laden passages, especially those in her “Texts” chapter, failed to resonate with me as well, however I am appreciative to at least have a reference point to start if I ever become interested in digital publishing (which I imagine I might, if Fitzgerald’s predictions about the future of scholarly publishing are correct).




3 thoughts on “Peer-to Peer Review and Planned Obsolescence

  1. Lindsey Albracht (she/her/hers)

    Hi Chelsea,

    I’m similarly excited about the points that you raise, and I couldn’t agree more that opening up our mechanisms of peer review to include more interdisciplinary cross-talk could save us from a lot of our own ignorance. This is one of the things that I’ve found really exciting about my classes at the GC so far, actually. I’m finding it really helpful and generative to turn to an anthropologist classmate and say, “Hey, how do YOU do this / think about this?” But I’m curious about the last thing that you say. What is it about the possibility of incentivizing peer review that you feel might tarnish it or make it less effective? Or, am I misunderstanding you, and are you actually making the point that you find it problematic that there’s a need to incentivize it in the first place because of the absence of other kinds of structural protections for exploited members of the academic community? Just wanted to hear some more of your thoughts about this.

  2. Chelsea Wall Post author

    Hi Lindsey,

    Yes, I was attempting to make the point that I find the idea of incentivizing peer review (or the participation in any such kind of intellectual community) to be distasteful because of the absence of, as you say, other kinds of structural protections for exploited members of the academic community. The ideals that the university seemed to be founded on, or the most common cultural conception of the university as a place of learning and community for the sake of the production of knowledge rather than for the sake of raking in heaps of money, are, in my opinion, perverted by this sort of grasping for the incentivization (that’s probably not a word) of processes like peer review that are, in and of themselves, community building. Like I was saying, I picture the process of peer-to-peer review as described by Fitzpatrick to be vested with potential that outranks the need for incentive to participate. I am hopeful that academics will be drawn to participate by their own curiosity and desire to further research in their own field in the hopes that successful peer reviewed pieces will become relevant to their own work, or at least interesting enough to merit a look. Part of the process of obtaining a Ph.D. in the humanities is to become a more active and engaged reader, though I suppose that’s debatable, and the process of reviewing scholarly work online can clearly assist in that aspect, and I personally find that to be incentive enough.

    However, it is worth noting that with the absence of structural protections for marginalized members of the academic community leaves us with little to no wiggle room as far as incentivizing these community building processes is concerned. There is never enough time or money, it seems.

  3. Lindsey Albracht (she/her/hers)

    Hi Chelsea,

    I can see your point that offering money for review seems somewhat antithetical to community building. I wonder, though, if it might sit better if we weren’t talking about direct monetary compensation for work but, rather, a type of acknowledgement (which, as I understood it, seems to be part of Fitzpatrick’s argument). Tenure-track or other junior faculty (folks doing a post-doc fellowship, for example, or folks who are on the job market but who are adjuncting in the meantime because they haven’t found an opportunity yet) don’t get paid for publishing journal articles, but they do get to put it on their resume or count it toward what’s necessary to get tenure (if they’re on that track), which eventually leads to higher and more secure financial compensation. I think that people are naturally going to prioritize what they think will help to put them in a better position to keep their jobs, so we should just make review a bigger part of the work that’s incentivized.


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