Friday, September 15, 2017

"Peer review" is younger than you think. Does that mean it can go away?

This is a blog post I've had sitting around in some form for a few years; I wanted to post it today because:

1) It's about peer review, and it's peer review week! I just read this nice piece by Ken Wissoker in its defense.
2) There's a conference on argumentation in Digital History this weekend at George Mason which I couldn't attend for family reasons but wanted to resonate with at a distance. 

It's still sketchy in places, but I'm putting it up as a provocation to think (and to tell me) more about the history of peer review, and how fundamentally malleable scholarly norms are, rather than as a completed historical essay in its own right. [Edit--for a longer and better-informed version of many of these points, particularly as they relate to the sciences, Konrad Lawson points out this essay by Aileen Fyfe; my old grad school colleague Melinda Baldwin has an essay in Physics Today from her forthcoming project that covers the whole shebang as well, with a particular emphasis on physics.]

It's easy, when writing about "the digital," to become foolishly besotted by the radical transformation it offers. There's sometimes a millenarian strand in the digital humanities that can be dangerous, foolish, or both, and which critics of the field occasionally seize on as evidence of its perfidy. But it's just as great a betrayal of historical thinking to essentialize the recent past as to hope that technology lets us uproot the past. We should not fall short of imagining the changes that are possible in the disciplines; and we shouldn't think that disciplines need revolve around particular ways of reviewing, arguing, or producing scholarship.

Here's a short historical story about one thing we tend to essentialize, peer review. I find it useful for illustrating two things. The first is that scholarly concepts we think of as central to the field are often far more recent than we think. This is, I think, a hopeful story; it means the window for change may also be greater than we think. The second is that they are, indeed, intricately tied up with social and technological changes in living memory; the humanities are not some wonderful time container of practices back to Erasmus or even Matthew Arnold. I'm posting it now, after delivering it as a hand-wavy talk at Northeastern in 2015.