An Uncommon Peer Review for Common Threads: a case study about expanding formats, their evaluation, and what we learned when we challenged norms.

by Alexa Colella

The scholarly communications ecosystem is one that is ever evolving. As publishers, we serve the scholarly community by collaborating with scholars to disseminate their work to a variety of audiences and with rigorous standards for quality and trust. While our processes and policies have been honed over of a long history of development and dedication, technological advances and multi-modal practices are pushing the boundaries of what research, and its outputs, looks like. In order to continue to serve scholars as we have so well for many years, we must question the way we have always done things and open our doors to new challenges and opportunities.

This was a topic of discussion at the recent National Federation for Advanced Information Sciences Roundtable (NFAIS), which opened the National Humanities Alliance Advocacy Day in Washington D.C., on March 10, 2019. In addition to discussing expanding formats in the humanities, particularly the digital humanities, and the challenges that occur when evaluating them for publication, the roundtable discussion also focused on changes in user experience and academic promotion and tenure. Two University of Illinois Press staff, Alexa Colella and Dawn Durante, presented a case study about the challenges we encountered in producing a non-traditional publication that met an immediate existing gap of scholarship in its field(s).

Palestine on the Air, by Karma Chavez, is an upcoming Open Access supplement to the Journal of Civil and Human Rights as part of the Common Threads series. This project is a collection of ten transcribed and fact-checked interviews Chavez conducted while hosting a radio show called “A Public Affair”. The ultimate approval of this project had multiple challenges from different perspectives about what was most appropriate form of peer review to the degree of oversight necessary (as a supplement to the journal, it would normally be under journal editor purview. With an added print retail component, was that still sufficient?). This project forced us to think about our processes critically when we are opening our doors to new content, formats, and projects.

Expanding formats will ultimately demand adjustments to our processes, even ones that are central to our workflows. Dawn’s research on the reception history of changes to writing technologies lends some insights into why making changes to publishing processes are difficult: “There are essentially three main transitions in the history of writing technologies: the conversion from oral history to the written record; the shift from the handwritten word to the printed word; and then our current transition from print to digital writing technologies. In each transition, the reception to new technologies has historically been mistrustful attitudes toward new innovations. Society has established processes to legitimize written documents—like signatures—to try to overcome this mistrust, and the peer review process in scholarly communities is one specialized form of legitimization tailored for the academy. Legitimizing processes are important, especially in the era of fake news, but the scholarly publishing industry should be thinking about ways to innovate more nimbly while still being rigorous.” While, today, we are able to look back on these developments and wonder “what took so long?” it is not an easy thing to challenge culture. It is especially not easy to change practices that have been put in place to ensure the reliability and maximize the impact of published work. And maybe that’s a good thing. It is both wise and brave to make incremental changes born out of real needs.

So, while the challenges we faced when piloting a project that had the potential to challenge norms in our processes, the discussions in favor of an alternative form of peer review and those in favor of convention has been the catalyst for many discussions and innovative ideas. Adapting to changes across fields and their functions ultimately requires a great deal of generative and productive conflict. The expansion of formats and in inclusion of multi-modality on a grander scale will undoubtedly spark many conversations, experiments, and even failures as we work collaboratively with scholars who are pushing their fields and research forward.

*Palestine on the Air is currently in production as an open access supplement to the Journal of Civil and Human Rights and has an estimated arrival date of November 1st 2019.






About Alexa Colella

Marketing Manager for Journals

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