A continuum of peer review

Open Access venues need a business model and long term planning if they are to achieve sustainability. The perennial question of “Who pays for OA?” can be answered in a variety of ways. Each method of financing OA has its pros and cons, and not every path is equally feasible for every discipline. PLoS was able to grow to world-wide prominence fairly rapidly because it was funded with generous grants at infancy and now it sustains itself with high author-fees (n.b. these can be reduced or waived in some cases).

What worked for PLoS isn’t necessarily going to work for cultural anthropology, generous funding is less abundant in the humanities and social sciences. One option that should be given more thought is library supported publishing as a variety of green OA. I will describe some publishing models from China and Japan that produce publications through a different kind of peer review process. This will be a challenge for some readers who hold that peer review as we know it is the defining quality of serious knowledge production, if something is not peer reviewed than it must be of less value or no value at all. In fact there are shades of peer review, if we see peer review as existing on a continuum new possibilities for OA publication present themselves.

Currently most American universities have or are in the planning stages to have a library managed institutional repository. When faculty self-archive by depositing publications, pre-prints, and working papers into the IR this is called green OA. The result is scholarly information that is free to use. But the majority of IRs all share a serious problem, people don’t use them. Some campuses have a mandate to persuade faculty to make deposits but mostly these are toothless, include opt-out language, and there are no consequences for faculty who do not comply.

The result is that a lot of IRs are like ghost towns, they are not the kind of vibrant sources of new knowledge that would attract readers. What we need is something that will fill up our IRs with content and get faculty in the habit of making deposits.

As institutional repositories have gone mainstream the next big thing on the horizon are publishing programs housed in university libraries. If you are currently at an elite American university you probably already have publication support through your library, if you’re at a large state school you’re probably in the planning stages to get one in the next couple of years. Small schools with tight budgets like most liberal arts colleges just aren’t there yet.

These library publishing programs are designed to forward the university’s mission by helping faculty put out new OA journals (the excellent Museum Anthropology Review is produced with the support of U. Indiana libraries), convert established journals to an OA model (Cultural Anthropology, while put out by Duke U. Press while published by the SCA receives a lot of technical and staff support from Duke libraries), and much, much more: student run journals, campus magazines, digitizing rare materials — the sky’s the limit. The funding for these programs typically come right out of the library’s regular operations budget or are the result of some special initiative at the university level.

So basically your key funder and key stakeholder is the university itself. You want to keep those dollars coming in? Use the library publishing program to raise the profile of the school. That’s where these different publishing models come in. Xia (2009) calls them institutional journals. In the Chinese model the institutional journal would have faculty at one university responsible for all phases of knowledge creation, from research to peer review and editing. This means that the journal’s thematic content encompasses the entire university, in theory this supports every department.

An issue of concern is how this business model, a university sponsoring a journal that only publishes the same university’s faculty, would effect the quality of the scholarship. And that is a fair concern to have. You would have to think that being peer reviewed by your colleagues would be very different kind of experience! What if the venue became an instrument of departmental politics? Even if you expended a significant amount of energy insuring the politics were kept in check there would still be some. Right?

And then there’s the matter of having your work reviewed by non-specialists. Ordinarily when you submit your work to a journal the editors and their assistants put some degree of thought into selecting the persons most qualified to review the material. Are Joe from the psych department and Jane from the business school really the best people to be reviewing your study of the effects of neoliberalism upon how seal hunters raise their children in Greenland? You would be justified in thinking this may result in a lower quality article than one sent outside the institution to disciplinary journal.

However, it is also possible that an institutional journal would serve to integrate the faculty. There is so much lip service paid to being interdisciplinary, more is said about it than actually done. As a faculty member it is easy to stay in your silo. You might have a departmental picnic, but when are you going to have the occasion to work with the probably very talented in their own right faculty from other departments? In the right social environment an institutional journal could be great for morale and make the university a better place to work.

Moreover, learning to write for a nonspecialist audience could be a good thing. The writing style would have to rely less on jargon and debates of minutia in order to address that broader readership. The result would still be of high caliber (or rather, it would be reflective of the caliber of faculty at the institution) but yes, it would be qualitatively different than the kind of articles published in disciplinary journals.

If the journal showcased the faculty’s research it would draw positive attention to the university, which would keep the university interested in funding it. So this has the potential to be a sustainable model for creating more OA content, albeit content that is produced through a different process than what has been taken for granted in the United States as THE way to run a journal.

Xia (2009) goes on to describe another kind of alternative to peer review that also results in content free to the user, the Japanese kiyo. Here one or several senior scholars supervise a departmental level venue that prints works from their current grad students as well as their former students now junior professionals. According to Xia, kiyos typically print research studies, but also lab records and field notes all produced by the students under the editorial guidance of the senior scholar. It sounds kind of like an apprenticeship for the grad students/ junior faculty with the resulting publication being a sort of vehicle to publicize the department. Being that they’re similar to promotional materials they are usually free and distributed locally, which helps to build a connection between the university and its community. So the accountability is different too, it is not the top scholars in the field who are reading and critiquing the papers but the locals.

But aren’t these just glorified student papers? Wouldn’t this business model result in a publication that is of lower quality? These are fair questions to ask. Yes, these are a lot like glorified student papers. My friend Chris reports from Japan, with kiyos “the quality is pretty uneven” but notes they “do publish some good work, and pretty timely too.” He once found a Japanese translation of an essay by Levi-Strauss about Okinawa that he was unable to find in French. That’s pretty cool!

While these are not the kinds of things that would be published in the US this model is not meant to replace high end journals. Reviewed by a senior scholar is not the same as peer reviewed but it can produce some interesting and useful information that is free to the user.

How about it? Can you imagine an institutional journal or kiyo at your university? How would you like your next essay to appear alongside a piece from the Chemistry department or a student’s fieldnotes? Can you imagine high quality scholarly communications coming out of a process that is different than what you think of as peer review?

Open Access is not going to replace the commercial publishers, but it can grow its share of the scholarly communications pie. In order to do so OA venues need a sustainable business plan. For a discipline without deep pockets like cultural anthropology we may not be able to create more than an handful of top flight OA journals. However we might make modest gains with library supported publications if we had an open mind about new kinds of journal models, even rethinking peer review.

The result would fill up those sleepy institutional repositories with more free to use content, teach our colleagues and students to produce and value OA content, and show administrative decision makers that giving faculty the resources to make homebrew publications is a worthwhile investment.

Xia, Jingfeng
2009 Library Publishing as a New Model of Scholarly Communication. Journal of Scholarly Publishing 40(4): 370–383.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

7 thoughts on “A continuum of peer review

  1. Your description could be applied to “household” journals like the American Journal of Sociology, which was completly under the control of Chicago, as the Univesity was (and still is) the publisher. Back in the 50’s, it would publish Chicago PhD students papers, based on purely internal peer review. Just ask Howard Becker about it.
    As time went by, more and more scholars wanted to have their paper published, the printing space was rare, and so it became the kind of “top tier” journal we are used to live with.

    Of course, on the other side of the process (diffusion/reading), things were different in a world without any electroning printing nor xerox machines. You had to read it in the library and take notes, then tell your colleagues how great this or that paper was.

    To come back to our time, kiyos sound a lot like megajournals post-PLOS One, which would publish lots of différent disciplines (Sage Open, BMJ Open, Peer J). Then, the outlet doesn’t matter anymore, being a transparent vehicle to undefined but numerous readers.

  2. It may be worth noting that here in Japan, the government is pushing what it calls “Centers of Excellence” as a condition for receiving public funding. One condition for acceptance as a Center of Excellence is publication in English in internationally recognized peer-reviewed journals. This approach is seen as a corrective to the common habit of building a publications list by publishing in the house journal published by one’s own institution.

    Another problem with the multi-disciplinary house journal approach is the assumption that if the chemist’s article is published alongside the anthropologist’s field notes, readers of the journal will read them both. This, I suggest, is highly unlikely and even more unlikely if the journal is in a digital format and articles are accessed by people looking for particular topics. As the old marketing maxim says, building a better mousetrap is no guarantee of catching more customers.

  3. Thanks for exploring financial options for OA. My concerns about the model you describe here include a couple of quick points.

    First, the fact is that most college and university libraries — as I understand the situation — are in deep financial trouble themselves, and have cut back acquisitions, dropped journal subscriptions, cut staff, etc. This is hardly an economic state in which many academic libraries are supporting the creation of things such as in-house journals. I may be overly pessimistic, but I’ve seen too many budget crises to imagine that options like this will be sustainable for colleges and universities.

    Second, and more broadly, your model links the production of knowledge and scholarship too closely to academic settings. I don’t know the ratio of academic to non-academic anthropologists, but there are quite a few of the latter, quite a few of whom publish their research and scholarship, and would not have access in any obvious way to the house journal approach you describe. I would not want to push “anthropology” deeper into the academy when we need to broaden it. The model of the law school journal (my other discipline) might offer an option, typically being open to students, faculty, faculty in other universities, and non-faculty lawyers (and non-lawyers), but law schools are also (typically) financially better off than colleges of arts and sciences or libraries, so the law school journal model might not solve the financial issues.

  4. First of all, let me say what an honor it is to get a blog comment from Totoro. I’m a huge fan of yours!

    To John’s comment, it certainly is spurious to argue that juxtaposing articles is going to entice readers to cross disciplines. Even within disciplinary journals it is unlikely that readers are going to browse the table of contents after reading a piece. This is part of the diversity of research styles that exist: some people go to the journal looking for something specific while others want to explore. Putting all those articles in order is a lot of work! Is it worth it if the audience isn’t paying attention? This begs the question of whether its necessary to order articles into a table of contents at all, I mean… do we really need issues?

    While this doesn’t address the topic of business models for journals, it does get around to the broader point I was trying to make. Publishing and editing is hard work, so if faculty want to do more of it so that we can create OA resources then let’s consider thinking outside the box for what has traditionally constituted a journal. One way to do this is to rethink the workflow of editing such that when an article is ready it is published straight away rather than waiting until you have a certain number of articles and then grouping them as an issue.

    Or lets return to the point Totoro raised about megajournals. If the AAA publishes x-number of journals that reflect its members’ interests but all those fall under the heading of anthropology, do we really need the “extra” work of dispersing those articles over multiple venues? When you consider that mailing print copies is on the way out and that, from the reader’s point of view, they are all equally available via AnthroSource is the value gained by segregating the items into discreet titles worth the cost in labor?

    Obviously talented editorial boards do a good job of curating articles into issues and this is worthwhile. But if in the future we want that content to be free to users without the assistance of commercial publishers we might have to cut some corners. This could prompt decision makers to rethink the traditional “culture” of creating journals.

  5. Thanks for bringing up some important issues in this post.
    Its a shame Xia’s article is behind a paywall. If the Chinese institutional journals are what I think Xia is talking about, then there are really two models. One is primarily run in house and there is one for every institution. At larger institutions these journals are often separated into broad disciplinary spheres such as the “Journal of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Social Sciences Edition)” or the “Journal of Kunming University of Science and Technology (Science and Technology Edition). For the second model, it is true that the head editing and production is done within a single institution, but at least in anthropology and ethnology these journals also have editing and “advisory” committees (the former includes scholars based inside of China, the latter often outside of China), which play a large part in ensuring that the proper reviewers are found for the right pieces etc. The Journal of Ethnology published at Southwest University of Nationalities (surprised they still haven’t changed this to “Minzu” yet) is a good example. I’m not quite sure that the Chinese model is quite so institutionally insular as you (or perhaps Xia) describe it. Keep in mind too that both models publish pieces written by authors from outside their institution, so I’m not sure the concern about having colleagues from your own institution review your articles applies in all cases, nor would I agree that it translates into a reduction in quality. The relationship between quality and publishing is a very complex issue (not the least of all in China) which is perhaps deserving of its own blog post.

    But overall, I think it is very useful for OA to reconsider norms such as the nature of peer review or the production of “issues” and TOCs. I consider Japan Focus (http://www.japanfocus.org/home) which is organized as a non-profit, to be an excellent example of challenging the later, particularly on their home page. If I remember correctly mathematics and physics are moving away from blind peer review options and instead delving into online peer review. I would be interested if people could provide some feedback regarding the benefits and pitfalls of online peer review. Obviously there could be a spectrum here as well, online peer review could be managed, but making it public introduces some interesting dynamics which I’m not sure anthropologists have discussed much in depth (Please direct me to relevant sources if I’m wrong on that note). Could this also help address the issue Barbara brought up regarding anthropology moving deeper into the academy?

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