While we’re at it: #acwri, #twittergate, #twitterstorians, #highered, #phdchat, and #gradhacker, too.
A few months back Katherine had a brainstorm. In the wake of conference season last spring, we became increasingly interested in the role of social media, and particularly Twitter, in furthering discourse amongst scholars at every level. We did some checking around and discovered that while numerous blogs were thinking through uses of Twitter in the conference environment, and it had been treated in general terms in some social science journals, there was no conventional history literature dealing with the emerging trend towards microblogging tools. So Katherine decided we should fix that. She proposed a forum piece to the editors of Acadiensis about Twitter, social media, and its use at the Atlantic Canada Studies conference in May.
That was sometime in June. The editors were not only open to the notion but also eager to include it in their upcoming fall number. We submitted the article by the end of August, addressed some queries and edits in October, finalized it in November and received our complementary copies (and of course the PDF version linked here) in early December. In the grand scheme of academic publishing the whole process took place in the blink of an eye—Mach speed. This was only made possible because the article was not conventionally peer reviewed.
For me this was a process through which I learned a great deal about academia and explored some ideas about the developing place of social media within it. Not surprisingly, both the content of our article and the experience of publishing it left me with some questions about how we do the work we do, and the various conventions of publishing and conferencing through which we do it. But the real sticking point for me was actually what the completed article did not contain.
A month or so after we completed and submitted the draft of the piece, #Twittergate happened. You can do a Google search for “#Twittergate” that will likely as not yield a pretty good picture of what went down—though tracing the exact origins of such things can be tricky (Adeline Koh’s Profhacker post provides a nice collection of links to bring you up to speed). Bloggers blogged, tweeters tweeted, there was some hand-wringing on all sides and eventually it caught the attention of the Inside Higher Ed news team.
Essentially it was a debate about the ethics and practicalities of the very practice Katherine and I had written our article about. Was broadcasting someone else’s words and ideas from a conference presentation through Twitter akin to theft of intellectual property—even a form of passing off the ideas of others as your own? Did it stifle the scholarly forum wherein we can reveal uncertainty, underdeveloped thinking and half-formed thoughts within a safe context? Did it open us up to inappropriate criticisms from audiences we weren’t actually addressing? And was it just plain rude, unethical, and at odds with accepted scholarly etiquette? Not surprisingly the answers to such questions were many and varied. Those who voiced concerns about Twitter use were labeled traditionalists woefully out of touch with the new generation, while those avowing the benefits of live tweeting were maligned as short-sighted, fad-happy, and naïve. And while much of what was said and who was saying it seemed to defy efforts to chalk the controversy up to strictly generational rifts, at the end of the day that’s pretty much what we did. Perhaps out of a perceived need to seek common ground, the discussion morphed into one of ground rules and establishing a Twitter etiquette for conference live tweeting—essentially imposing a form of scholarly order on the backchannel. This addressed the concern that live tweeting took power away from the presenter and granted it to the tweeter by effectively giving the presenter the right to declare a moratorium on live tweeting. I have some pretty strong views about this which I’ve voiced in a few conversations both in person and on Twitter itself. But believe it or not, that’s not actually what I want to talk about just now.
What is more interesting to me at the moment is what the inability of our article to capture the dynamics of #twittergate says about the nature of academic publishing generally. There are other conversations going on out there about the nature of academic publishing and how the landscape of scholarly knowledge dissemination is shifting to accommodate new media. But still the academic career is built and maintained on peer reviewed publications in elite paper journals, even while their numbers decline, making us wonder about the degree to which influence equates to, well, actual influence! Our article appeared in a paper journal, but it was not peer reviewed. And yet even with the dramatically accelerated cycle to publication, still our article was, in some respects, dated before it even went into make ready. Had it been a conventionally peer reviewed article in the same journal it might have been two to three years before our ideas saw the light of day, virtually guaranteeing that anything that might have been new when we wrote it would not be by the time anyone read it. In fact we even debated including an additional section, or even a footnote in the text when it came back to us with edits and queries from the editors that would engage with some of the questions that animated the #twittergate conversation that had taken place in the intervening weeks. Ultimately we decided to maintain the text as it was—as a product, not unlike tweets themselves, of a very specific time—and turn back to our blog to address not only questions raised by #twittergate but also questions that #twittergate raises about the nature and relative speed and maneuverability of academic publishing. With social media tools, including blogs like ours, not only accelerating the pace but expanding the reach of idea-making and sharing, does the conventional paper journal with the ever-dwindling audience still have a role to play? I think it probably does, but it will need to adapt to pick up the pace and reach new and broader audiences. Failing that, I think the emergence of team blogs and open access online journals will quite rightly reshape the way we think about peer review.
Critics will posit that there is value to the contemplative, long-term process of reflection, revision, and negotiation that traditional approaches to peer review entail. I don’t disagree with that. There are at least two things here. There’s a bunch actually, but I’ll just mention two. One is discipline specific. I think history journals, for a variety of reasons, move slower than those in other disciplines. On the surface that may be fine, but as more and more positions are created in interdisciplinary programs, projects, and departments we put historians at a serious competitive disadvantage compared to those coming out of fields with more rapid cycles to publication. Additionally, the steady, grinding gears of the history journal wouldn’t pose such a problem in the absence of new media tailored to reach informally convened audiences in a matter of moments. Many co-authored and team blogs like ours have instituted quality assurance regimes that range from basic proofreading to oversight of content, arguments, use and citation of pertinent sources, and shaping of prose to limit jargon and appeal to various audiences as they are understood. We might like to believe that traditional peer review is more thorough, or at least more “expert.” But when blind referees have no particular stake in the publication or the work they’re reviewing, what incentive do they have to review it in a timely manner? A team blog, on the other hand, can be an editorial unit of like-minded scholars (dare I say peers) with a common goal of meeting obligations to audiences and maintaining regular streams of content for interested readers.
I would never argue that our scholarly commitment to quality work should be thrown asunder. But I think the time may be upon us to rethink what we do and how we do it—and as luck would have it, technology seems to give us more tools to host that conversation every day.