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As is being discussed a good bit around the academic blogo-/twittersphere this morning, Jennifer Howard reports in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education on a new report soon to be released by a committee organized by the National Humanities Alliance, entitled “The Future of Scholarly Journals Publishing Among Social Science and Humanities Associations.” This report seems to have a couple of compelling findings: first, that the per-article cost of journal publishing in the humanities and social sciences is more than three times as much as in the science, technical, and medical (a.k.a. STM) fields, and second, that this increased cost is due in no small part to the increased selectivity of those journals. Where the STM journals under study (which seem to be primarily the official journals of learned societies) have an acceptance rate of around 42 percent, the humanities and social science journals publish about 11 percent of submissions. Journal articles in these fields also tend to be about 50% longer, meaning fewer articles per journal issue. The tighter pre-publication filtering needs of these journals results in an extremely heightened expense for peer review in humanities and social science journals, resulting in a per-published-article cost nearly four times that of STM journals. And given that, as the Howard article notes, the author-pays model of journal funding will never work in the humanities, where the vast majority of research is either self-funded or funded by the author’s home institution, something else has got to change if journal publishing is going to remain feasible.

So here’s a wacky thought, one I’ve been writing and talking about for a while now: what if we stop doing pre-publication peer review? It’s of course the economics of print that require such gatekeeping — because there can only be so many pages and so many issues of any given journal, we end up only being able to publish a little over a tenth of the material submitted. But if the primary venue for the journal is the internet — and really, honestly, how many of a journal article’s readers come to it first through the print version? — then those economics radically shift. We’re no longer constrained by the bounds of what we can print and ship, but instead by what we can put into our publishing format. In that case, we’d be much better served, I believe, by eliminating pre-publication peer review. Perhaps the journal’s editorial staff reads everything quickly to be sure it’s in the most basic sense appropriate for the venue (i.e., written in the right language, about a subject in the field, not manifestly insane), but then everything that gets past that most minimal threshold gets made available to readers — and the readers then do the peer review, post-publication.

It’s those readers, after all, who are the article’s true peers, not the two or three editor-selected reviewers who now give the article the up-or-down vote. It makes no sense for the labor of the same small set of reviewers to be drawn upon again and again when there’s the potential for more broadly and fairly distributing that work. And it makes no sense for article publishing to be subject to the crazy delays that now hold a lot of work hostage, first waiting for the peer reviews to come in, and then waiting for the journal’s backlog of accepted articles to clear out. Why shouldn’t readers be able to read and respond to that work right away, and why shouldn’t that reading and response constitute the article’s peer review?

This of course depends on the assumption that readers will actually bother to respond — that they’ll be sufficiently committed to the maintenance of the collective enterprise of the publication that they’ll take the time to comment on and review submitted articles (as opposed to the mostly anonymous peer reviewers of today, who have proven themselves willing to do that work). One way to ensure such participation might be a pay-to-play model, in which readers are asked to do a certain amount of reviewing in order to earn the “credit” required to submit an article.

But another, even more basic, assumption made by such a model is that the “journal” function will continue to exist in a fully networked publishing model. After all, there would be no particular point in waiting for some arbitrary moment to release an “issue,” when new material could be made available as it is ready. A more likely scenario is that we develop either institutional or disciplinary publishing systems that function like blogs, featuring new articles (or texts of whatever length, as those restrictions fade away as well) as they appear, but keeping the archives available and in play in perpetuity.

This is the kind of publishing model we’re attempting to build at MediaCommons. It’s been very slow in developing, but the tools we need to put such peer-to-peer review in place should be ready for testing very soon. I hope that all of you with a vested interest in developing new publishing models — in ensuring that scholarly publishing in the humanities can survive — will keep talking about these issues, will join us when we start testing our new systems, and will find ways to help us build a working structure for the future.

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