Buying Book Chapters like Music Tracks, and What’s Wrong with Traditional Peer Review Anyway? A Conversation with Duke University Press, Part Two.

peer_reviewThis is part 2 of the ninth interview in a series by Adeline Koh entitled Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing. Each article in this series features an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world. The series has featured interviews with Anvil Academic, Stanford Highwire Press, NYU Press, MIT Press and the Penn State University Press.

In this second part of an interview with Ken Wissoker (@kwissoker) (editorial director of Duke University Press), I speak with Ken about some of the digital innovations Duke University Press is experimenting with for its new publications, and on Ken’s appreciation for traditional forms of peer review. Read part one of the interview here.

AK: What I’m hearing from you is that length is very malleable when you publish something digitally. You can have the really long project or you can have the really short project, depending on your needs.

KW: The right length for digital projects is malleable and at the same time as yet unknown. If you believe in media specificity — that a different kind of film works if you’re expecting people to watch in an iMAX theater versus if you’re expecting them to watch on a handheld — then even the same plot, the same effects and the same soundtrack would have to work differently.

If you apply this to a book project, we don’t actually know how a book is going to be read ten years from now. We don’t know the things we could currently imagine as the media specificity, whether that is the range of genres or the desired number of chapters. We don’t know whether most people will be starting at the beginning and reading through the text or coming by search to different parts — whether it’s a metadata guided read, or a narratively guided read. Even beyond these features we can recognize already, it’s easy to imagine there will be others. So right now we’re in a transitional place that’s really open and uncertain.

AK: So how is Duke University Press actually engaging with the changes? How is your production of books changing because of these new developments?

KW: A lot of things have to change at once! We need to change the whole way manuscripts are encoded from the beginning. We’re starting to see that we need to have authors do chapter abstracts. If you were searching across a whole collection of books and journals and you wanted to know what happened in chapter three of a book, you would need an abstract. And, who should write that? Probably the author. If it’s not the author, is that going to be something off-shored? Probably not in our case, but perhaps for some other publishers. It is not something you would have ever needed at all if you were buying a book off the shelf.

Almost all our books are available in the Apple iBooks store, almost all of them are available on Kindle, a lot of them are available on Nook, and we have a whole package of our books for sale electronically for libraries. And beside publishing 120 books a year, we publish 45 journals.

We’d like to be able to make it so you could buy the materials from both interchangeably. Like, here’s my Laurent Dubois playlist. I want these chapters of these books and these articles from these journals. I want to get those like buying an iTunes playlist. And then we’re trying to think about what kinds of things should be e-first or e-only. My colleague Courtney Berger is working on a collectively written born-digital book that might eventually have a print version, or might not.

It’s a moment where a lot of different experiments need to happen at the same time. And that points to one of the biggest challenges for university press publishing — which is basically money-losing, or break-even at best. Silicon Valley people will tell you that if you’re not failing, you’re not actually experimenting. But it’s hard to start as an unprofitable business and still have the resources and ability to do as many experiments and have as many failures as one might like. You keep thinking, “Is is this going to be the equivalent of a CD-ROM in five years, or is this really going to be the next big thing of the future?” It’s hard to experiment at the required pace in such a changing market without sources of capital it is okay to lose.

AK: Let’s talk about the issue of cost. Many people think that digital publication is generally supposed to be more cost-effective than print publication, but. . .

KW: Do you think that’s true?

AK: That’s why I was going to ask.

KW: Because I don’t think so.

AK: Yes, because, digital projects are going to accrue a lot more expense over time in terms of maintenance, in terms of making them translatable to whatever new medium/format emerges.

KW: Right, and that’s something that worries me a lot. Who is going to be responsible for that maintenance? Just as resources to develop digital projects now are unevenly distributed, you can bet that the resources to keep them available are going to be unevenly distributed as well. When people start to talk about doing digital dissertations five or ten years ago, I thought, well, if they’re at USC, or they’re at Duke, then somebody — at least if there’s the collective will — can keep updating them through each version into the future. But if a scholar is writing at a less well-endowed university, or a public university that is defunded by its state, you could end up with an administrator deciding, “do we serve the students we have, or do we take care of updating these things that were done 20 years ago? We better take care of the students we have, maybe they can update those later.” You can easily access information in print ‘in perpetuity,’ but what about accessing, updating and storing multimodal projects?

For example, we have been working on an issue of a journal in Scalar (the exciting platform developed at USC). That will present more challenges to update ten or twenty years from now than the print version of the journal or the flat PDFs of the Journal. And there so many different modes and ongoing formats being experimented with now. Who’s to say which mode or format is going to survive? And who will be responsible for preserving it?

We did a book called The Modern Girl Around the World, which about was different versions of the modern woman in the 20s and 30s. The authors who study the phenomena were able to examine newspapers, advertisements, microfilm to make their arguments. But how are people going to access our cultural productions to write about it, if the modes/formats do not survive, fifty or seventy years from now?

AK: True. Let’s move on now to peer review. What is your take on the traditional peer review process and newer experiments of peer review?

KW: I love the traditional peer review process. It’s one of my favorite things.

AK: Could you talk about why?

KW: Because I think it actually improves manuscripts. If you do peer review in a cynical way, and you don’t care what the reviews say, and you don’t care who the reviewers are, then you would get nothing out of it. But for myself and a lot of my university press colleagues, we really want the reviewers to improve the book we are going to publish. If you publish 120 books like we do, or 160 books, they need to be as good as they can be.

Perhaps publishers that publish 3000 books a year are not be as similarly invested. If each book is $150 in hardcover, they probably don’t need to care. But because we do so few books, I want each book to succeed, and I want to know what’s going to help it succeed ahead of time. If I decide to send a manuscript out for review, I’m interested in publishing it. I want someone who cares about the topic to review the manuscript, someone who cares about the reputation of the press, and even someone who cares that the author does his or her work successfully. That is the kind of reviewer I want to be able to give feedback on the manuscript.

I sometimes compare it to a test screening for a film, though it’s a very small test audience. If the film isn’t working for the audience — the audience is giggling when they should be weeping — the director can’t complain, they have to go back and recut. It’s the same with a manuscript. The review process is the small scale test screening.

In that way, reviewers’ suggestions may not always be the right solutions, but they point out places in the text where something isn’t working. The reader is trying to solve the problem; it may or may not be the right solution, but it’s the problem the author needs to address. For example, maybe a reviewer is confused because of an expectation that the author set up three pages or two chapters ahead of time that doesn’t adequately materialize in the text. The reader might suggest adding an explanation at the confusing place, but it might be better to remove the earlier miscue. I enjoy trying to figure out why the people had the reading that they had, why they misunderstood the text in one place or couldn’t follow it in another. I want the author to take responsibility for the textual effects; to eliminate the miscues. Accomplishing that successfully is far more important than whether the author does exactly what the reader asks them to do.

At Duke, a manuscript generally need two or three rounds of peer review before the readers agree that it is ready to be published. That process guides the author. In the end there is a big difference between the version the author initially turns in, “okay here’s my manuscript,” and the manuscript that results from the review process. The amount of change varies, but, as above, even small changes can make big differences in readability and the clarity and convincingness of the argument. Often it is the readers who have to force the author to own their argument and state it clearly from the outset.

Sometimes when I read grad students or other younger scholars critiquing peer review, they’re thinking of it as, “all these barriers in the way of me having a successful academic career.” But to me, it’s not as much about whether something’s going to go through the door, but rather, to improve what’s there. I’m not going to waste the time of reviewers who I trust and like for something I don’t want to publish. I’m only going to send out something if it looks promising; something I would want to publish if it was successful. So, I like peer review because I think of it as something that can actually improve the book — and helps make the author’s career.

In choosing reviewers, I want scholars who will be invested and want the project to succeed but will be frank about what it needs. Editors see how the same readers review over time. Like a lot of really important things in the academy, writing good peer reviews is never taught. So everybody develops their own way of approaching it out of their own experience and out of what they learn from their mentors.

After awhile, I know from experience whether a given reader is likely to be too brief to too long-winded, whether they write in a supportive manner, and what kinds of suggestions they give. Like many untaught practices in the academy, styles and conventions of reviews vary by field. Historians, for example, often give us thirty pages of notes tied page to page. But in literary criticism or anthropology, readers tend more toward chapter by chapter analyses or big picture accounts of the project as a whole. So as an editor one needs to know the discipline, the area, and what people represent what kinds of work.

I love getting two very different takes on the same manuscript. In part we do that by design — having the two readers represent two possible test audiences. We do a lot of interdisciplinary publishing, so those might be different fields, or one person might be the person who knows about the area, while the other reader might be someone who can engage the theoretical project of the manuscript productively. But beyond that, sometimes the two readers at first seem to have a very different reaction to a given piece of work. One reader might be really positive up front and then have a long set of suggestions, which they might even frame as optional. The other reviewer might be really hesitant up front and then list their concerns. At first the reviews seem to be polar opposites, but then you look at them together and then you realize they’re actually reading the same manuscript. They’re framing their reports differently, but what they think the author needs to do to make the manuscript work is really very similar. And I find that super-interesting and productive.

I’m intrigued by the possibilities of open peer review but I am not convinced that open peer review would be productive in the same way — though it might have other benefits. The anonymity of a single-blind process allows a reviewer to say things in a different way. If reviewing become open and online, will you get the same kind of criticism that you do in blind, sustained peer review? It’s one thing to show up at a scholar’s talk and raise a difficult question, but to go online and say, “this argument makes no sense, this chapter’s a mess,” a scholar would have to risk creating a difficult relationship over a long period of time in their field.

I’ve also wondered, who will do open peer review? We often have to talk people into doing reviews, and we give people such a tiny honorarium that they’re not doing it for the money. They do it as a kind of the social contract of the profession. I always think about being in high school before you can drive, and then people drive you around, and then when you drive, you can drive the slightly younger people around. You don’t have to pay back the people who drove you around.

In the profession, scholars reviewed those people’s work, and then they’re passing that on by being generous and reviewing other people’s work. That’s the sort of social network that makes the discipline or sub-disciplinary space, and kind of feeds it productively.

Now, the cynical view is that this kind of social network is really about feeding the social network, but I see part of my job making sure that I find reviewers who champion new ideas, who want their networks not to stay the same but to get better, more exciting, more challenging (including sometimes to their ideas). To maintain a cutting-edge press requires finding those reviewers who focus on the manuscript and who also focus on the larger field of ideas and want something new and provocative for the health of the field.

Putting things up online are great for some things, for example, crowdsourcing information if you know people who would give you a lot of feedback. I’ve heard Eric Zinner talk about Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s peer review experimentations with Planned Obsolescence and he said that in open peer review, remarks are much more granular, e.g. in this paragraph, here’s something you might look at this book, or think about this differently.” You get a lot less of the big picture criticism that you get in a peer review for a press, such as “I thought that the pacing of chapter three really slowed me down after chapter two,” or, “shouldn’t chapter four be closer up to the front?” There might be ways to get around that, and certainly asking people for specific feedback could do it.

Let’s get back to the question of who would do it. When I ask someone to read a manuscript we usually give them six weeks, but frequently have to remind those whose reports are overdue. I have the feeling that a person who is three weeks late on a promised peer review — something they agreed to do — is not going to be up late at night looking for other things to review instead. The amount of extra time post teaching, post-grading, post-meetings, post-other forms of writing, post-everything else is going to be limited. Where is the time for looking for manuscripts to review or responding to requests for open peer review?

So, would you end up with something more like reading the annoying comments in an article where the trolls get there and fill up the comments first? Or will you end up with the open review that has the kind of productiveness that you really want out of it? And I think there will have to be a lot of different experiments with forms of openness, semi-openness, requesting people to do things. I’ve seen people request people to comment and not get that much response in some cases. So it’s like trying to get a writing group going. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s like, “Oh we were just all too busy. That’s a drag, I thought we would have met a lot more times by now.”

So I see the two forms of review as complementary. If a writer puts up a manuscript for open feedback first, that will probably make it better than if they didn’t, and would contribute to the eventual book in a really positive way. It might be similar to hiring a developmental editor first, or having a writing group give feedback on it. Could I imagine a version of it that took the place of me saying to experts, “I think your feedback on this manuscript would be really valuable, would you agree to do it?” That’s harder to see. Could you imagine a different form of publishing where there were no presses, where people were just self-publishing, and there was some other mechanism to provide that? Absolutely. I think you’d gain and lose things, but absolutely.

AK: But haven’t you also gotten your share of trollish reviewers?

KW: Not really.

AK: Really?

KW: I think the number of times where I chose somebody who was out to get the person who I asked them to read is remarkably few.

AK: And do you have a strategy for avoiding that?

KW: If you know about the field, you might know about fights that already exist in the field. I wouldn’t ask a reader would never like a particular kind of work. I also usually ask the author whether there is anyone they prefer I avoid. If someone just attacked them, there’s no point asking that person to review their work. But most people don’t want to waste their time reviewing something they think is really bad. There are relatively few people who just go out of their way to shoot things down and would volunteer for extra work to have the opportunity to do it. The number of people out to get other people, I think, is pretty small. Maybe I’m publishing the wrong kind of stuff.

AK: Maybe you’re publishing the right kinds of stuff because you don’t see so much of that.

KW: Also, most of the time, if I have one person who really likes a manuscript, and another person who really hates it, and I can’t figure out how to put those two views together, whether or not they are seeing the same thing, then I just go ask a third person. And I get somebody I trust, and I might send them the two reviews, or I might just send them the manuscript by itself. And I see what they say, to just make sense of the thing. I’d pick somebody on our board, or somebody I know, or a series editor, and I might show them the review and say, “can you figure out what might be going on in these two disparate reviews?”

Read part one of the interview here, where I speak with Ken about the relationship between the academic library and press at Duke, publishing your research online before you find a traditional publisher, and experimentation in publication lengths. Tune in Thursday April 25th at 11am for the third and final part of the interview.

Image Credit: Matt of the Prairie State College Library

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