Encouraging Digital Publishing in the Humanities: A Report on an NEH-sponsored Workshop

How is the world of academic publishing adapting to the move from print to digital? This has already been the subject of numerous ProfHacker articles, including a report on THATCamp publishing, and my series of interviews with academic libraries and presses on Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing.

This question is now being taken up in a variety of scholarly publishing venues. In November 2012, the University Press of North Georgia held an NEH grant-supported workshop examining peer review of born-digital monographs. Participants included the University of Akron Press, the University of Georgia Press, Wayne State University Press, Temple University Press and others. The group discussed issues ranging from the changing role of the university press in the rapidly evolving forms of scholarly communications, the ways peer review should be adapted for more cost-effective forms of publication, and the ways in which university presses can imagine new forms of collaboration.

Some highlights from the conference included the following insights:

  • Peer review is the biggest obstacle to an “all digital” press. A participant indicated: “We send manuscripts and receive reviews electronically but do not use an electronic review platform because we have too low a volume to make that cost efficient.” Another argued that “60 new monographs a year do not provide sufficient volume to make a peer review management system effective.”
  • Publishers see their role as coming up with a type of peer review for born digital scholarship and communicating that to academic institutions. According to workshop participants, 1-5% of publishing costs currently goes toward peer review. Currently, publishers prefer blind (double or single) peer review for the following reasons: it assures scholars the freedom to analyze and evaluate without fear of retaliation; it allows reviewers to have the option of anonymity;  it ensures candid reviews; and it helps keep out bias. This is despite the arguments against blind peer review, which includes whether blind review is really anonymous especially in small fields, and the gatekeeping mentality which tends to protect certain paradigms. Overall, a commentator observed, “For all its faults, blind review is still the best way to get an honest, forthright assessment of a project.”
  • Most publishers currently do not use open peer review because it remains a disincentive for potential reviewers. One contributor observed that “academia can be a uniquely political and contentious venue.” Another argued that “for overall quality assessment, public reviews bring too much pressure on the reviewers to be less frank in judging a work…we live in a litigious society.” Yet another raised that open review seems unreliable in terms of credentialing the reviewers, and argued that promotion-and-tenure committees trust blind review over open peer review: “Promotion & Tenure committees get skittish with new models.”
  • There is a need to examine the process of finding peer reviewers. Presses often use the same reviewers over and over and have their own roster of peer reviewers, making up closed community of scholars that serve as gatekeepers to various fields. Obstacles to changing this however include the fact that institutions generally believe that senior scholars have an “obligation” to do peer review.  Correspondingly, many publishers only value reviews from full professors. However, the participants noted that there is a move to accept reviews from junior academics as their research is often more attuned to current academic trends.

If you are interested in hearing more about the conference, contact Bonnie Robinson, Professor of English and Director of the University Press of North Georgia. Prof. Robinson kindly provided her notes for this ProfHacker report.

Image credit Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII on Flickr

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