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Will Traditional Peer Review for Scholarship Go the Way of Slide Rules and Typewriters?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 26, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Scholarly review may evolve differently in a Digital Age..

With traditional peer review, a small group of specialized experts rule, often anonymously, on whether academic work will be published in the most prestigious journals. The process can take months or years. The wait is distressing for professors whose route to tenure is at stake, and a release of information to other scholars and the public is delayed. In the age of the internet, scholarly writing and research can be swiftly exposed to the judgments of a much broader and more diverse audience.

"Scholars Test Web Alternative to Peer Review," a New York Times story by Patricia Cohen, describes how Shakespeare Quarterly, a prestigious 60-year-old academic journal, became the first elite humanities publication to post essays online for review. A core group of experts was invited to post signed comments on Media Commons, a scholarly digital network, and others who signed in with their own names could comment as well. More than 350 comments came from 41 people. Authors of the four posted essays were able to respond to the comments and could choose to revise their work. The journal's editors will make the final decision on what appears in the September 17 issue.

Katherine Rowe, a Renaissance specialist and media historian at Bryn Mawr College, is quoted in the Times story as saying: "What we're experiencing now if the most important transformation in our reading and writing tools since the invention of moveable type. The way scholarly exchange is moving is radical, and we need to think about what it means for our fields."

Several online sites post recent scholarly work in economics, medicine and the physical sciences. LiquidPubication is a European research project whose founders want to revolutionize the ways scientists share and evaluate their published free interactive newsletters from humanities and social science scholars all over the world.

Michele Lamont, a Harvard sociologist who analyzed peer review a 2009 book, has expressed skepticism about reviews by amateurs, but notes that debates at the site are considered "frontier knowledge" even though they are not peer reviewed.

Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, told theTimes, "Serious scholars are asking whether the institutions of the academy-as they have existed for decades, even centuries-aren't becoming obsolete. "

In his view, the Times says, the tension between the scholarship of elite groups of experts and the irrepressible interactions and exchange of ideas on the web is a daunting issue, and "Academia is caught in the middle." Cohen posts his work regularly, and says responses from people outside academia have made it better.

It's entirely fitting that an experiment with erudite crowd sourcing should involve essays on Shakespeare. Shakespeare, who was born in 1564, lived in an age of tension, transition and upheaval and his work is filled with insights on the human condition as relevant in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century as they were in his own time.

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