Prove It – Peer Review

This Saturday I mailed in the final, edited copy of my manuscript, The Trickster in Ginsberg: A Critical Reading, which is going to be sent to the printers on May 4th! (WAHOO!) This is an incredibly exciting time for me not only because the thing is finally, finally out of my hands but it’s also because it’s so near to fruition. This July I’ll actually have in my own two hands a hard copy of a full-length, academic, peer reviewed book that I worked for 4 years to create.

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And, I think, perhaps out of all of these things, one of the aspects I’m proudest of is the fact that the book is peer reviewed. I know there are many out there who find peer review elitist or otherwise unnecessary, simply a means of gate-keeping or some such thing, but I really do believe that — while we should definitely reconsider who we authorize to be these reviewers and who we do not — peer review can be an incredibly valuable tool that cannot only improve a work of scholarship but also help keep scholars working hard to create dynamic, involved, and well-researched scholarship (rather than simply working hard to get published).

Consider, after all, the recent and mind-blowing case of the Carmen Reinhart & Ken Rogoff paper — an economics paper that essentially defined our current austerity crisis — which was not peer reviewed and was found to have been based upon faulty numbers and assumptions. But, even despite this example, some writers, like Jared Bernstein of Salon, continue to argue that peer review would be too “time-consuming” and even “limiting.” Bernstein explains that “a lot of what’s important in economics is fairly simple analysis of trends — descriptive data — without the behind-the-scenes number crunching” and that it would “raise the bar unnecessarily high” to demand that “the presentation of descriptive data published by reliable sources” be peer reviewed — even though it was assuming the validity of information from presumably reliable sources (such as two Harvard economists) sans peer review that has gotten us into this mess to begin with! And this type of mistake, this refusal to question our basic assumptions, as we’ve now seen, can have tremendous and potentially detrimental real-world consequences. The simple truth to this is that peer reviewers exist to challenge innovative ideas and scholarship in order to test their merits, validity, basic assumptions, and data — not to keep them from getting published despite the quality of these factors. Yes, peer review can be a hard process (that’s sort of the whole point), and one that is currently fraught with inconsistencies and issues of its own, but it’s definitely not a process we should simply give up on.

What’s more, Bernstein even ends his blog-article with:

**Like most in my field of think tank work, anything beyond a blog, especially with serious number crunching, is reviewed by as many outsiders as I can get to read it, but the difference is that they don’t have the final say on publication.

In other words, he must clearly see the value and importance of being peer reviewed, otherwise, why reassure us, his readers, that his work typically is subjected to such scrutiny? Moreover, he inaccurately asserts that peer reviewers tend to have “the final say” in what gets published and what doesn’t. This is not usually the case — at least it hasn’t been in my experience. In fact, it is the editors and publishers’ call on what gets published, not the peer reviewers. I know from my experience as both an author of a peer reviewed book and as a reviewer for an academic journal that, while peer reviewers are able to give substantive feedback, suggest changes (big and small), and even put forward their own opinions regarding whether or not the paper should be accepted or rejected, the final decision is typically based upon a team of reviews and is ultimately left up to the editor/publisher to decide whether to move forward or not with the project based upon said reviews. Also, given our current age of self-publication mania, why shouldn’t a publisher get to make such decisions regarding the quality of scholarship when working off the recommendations and opinions of other scholars in the field?

Now, all of this being said, there are definite issues with the inconsistency and general lack of standardization when it comes to what constitutes peer review and what does not. As Richard Smith, Chief Executive of UnitedHealth Europe, explains in his “Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals,” when they conducted a study of peer reviewers by inserting “major errors into papers that [they] then sent to many reviewers,” they quickly found that “nobody ever spotted all of the errors” and concluded that peer review “is not a reliable method for detecting fraud because it works on trust” (179). Moreover, as both Bernstein and Smith recognize, there is also the issue of potentially biased or untrustworthy peer reviewers — reviewers who may seek to simply slow down a “competitor” from publishing by giving them terrible reviews or who may even attempt/desire to steal ideas from the authors they’re reviewing. Of course, as Smith goes on to suggest, the issue at hand should not be whether or not to “abandon” peer review as a practice and standard “but how to improve it” (180, emphasis added).

Of course, these issues are harried even further when we begin to consider the new possibilities opened up by digital humanities and the Internet.

In her article, “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions,” Cathy N. Davidson begs the question: “How does one put value on a source when the refereeing is performed by someone who has not been authorized and credentialed as a judge?” (711) In other words, who is authorized? How did they become authorized and how do we know? Who’s judging the judges and how? And what do we do as readers, writers, and researchers to ensure that our projects are reviewed by people who are actually knowledgeable and engaged within the field and topics in question? It’s a sad reality that the MLA actually has to specify within their  Guidelines for Appointment, Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure Committees that…

Engage Qualified Reviewers. Faculty members who work in digital media or digital humanities should be evaluated by persons practiced in the interpretation and development of new forms and who are knowledgeable about the use and creation of digital media in a given faculty member’s field.”

I thus agree with Davidson — “The very concept of peer review needs to be defined and interrogated. We use the term as if it were self-explanatory and unitary, and yet who does and does not count as a peer is complex and part of a subtle and often self-constituting (and circular) system of accrediting and credentialing (i.e., ‘good schools’ decide what constitutes a ‘good school’)” (711).

In other words, while peer review can be an exceptionally useful tool for helping authors to catch mistakes, improve arguments, and questions basic assumptions, we must now question our own basic assumptions regarding the peer review process. How can we improve its weaknesses? How can we standardize this process and help make it more open to new disciplines such as Digital Humanities? How can we update this process so as to keep it current with modern and developing studies? How can we speedy this process so as to keep it from placing undue burdens upon scholars?

Works Cited:

Bernstein, Jared. “How to prevent future Reinhart-Rogoff meltdowns.” Salon. 22 April 2013. Accessed on 29 April 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/04/22/how_to_prevent_future_reinhart_rogoff_meltdowns_partner/.

Davidson, Cathy N. “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions.” Modern Language Association. 123.3 (2008): 707-717. http://fredgibbs.net/courses/digital-history/readings/Davidson-Humanities2.pdf.

“Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media.” Modern Language Association. Last modified 25 April 2013. Accessed on 29 April 2013. http://www.mla.org/guidelines_evaluation_digital.

Smith, Richard. “Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals.” Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine. 99.4 (2006): 178-182. http://jrs.sagepub.com/content/99/4/178.full.

Goodbye, Lenin & Hello, Remediation!

I don’t know how many of you have seen the German film, Goodbye, Lenin! (Dir. Wolfgang Becker, 2003), but, let me be the first to tell you, it’s good-hearted and surprisingly enlightening. The film tells the story of one son’s love for his mother and of her love for East Germany (DDR). But when the protagonist’s mother falls into a coma and misses the fall of the Berlin Wall, her son fights to keep her believing that nothing has changed after she wakes up in a brand new and quickly westernizing Germany in order to protect her from suffering another heart attack.

While both hilarious and heartwarming, this film is also a clever conversation starter when it comes to issues of remediation (a desire “both to multiply [our] media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, [the desire] to erase…media in the very act of multiplying them”) (Bolter and Grusin 5). In other words, remediation is an attempt on part of filmmakers and other media-creators “to put the viewer in the same space as the objects viewed” without any sense of mediation (Bolter and Grusin 11). And Goodbye, Lenin! is a terrific case study for this concept as the protagonist is forced to utilize a wide array of media and products only available due to the westernization of Germany in order to craft a new reality for his mother wherein those media do not exist (thereby necessitating that those same media responsible for the construction of this new-old East Germany remain invisible even as they remain in play).

But isn’t this akin to what we as writers (both academic and nonacademic) seek to do in our writing as well? Don’t we work to use our medium — the written word — as a means of transporting readers into a world or space or argument so well crafted that all of the work and media behind it, all of the time, research, interviews, pavement pounding, and copyright-pay-through-the-nosing becomes invisible? Then, when these media come crashing into one another — when we perhaps include an illustration or a photograph or detailed explanation of research methods in order to better orient the reader within our work — don’t these also bring the reader out of the text to some extent, remind them of their role as an observer/interpreter? How can we reconcile all of these different available media so that they at once perfect the illusion whilst keeping our readers as up-to-date as possible?

And isn’t the goal of all of this work and research, of all of the developments in high definition television and 3D capability, meant to “disappear” in our readers/viewers’ viewing and leave them “in the presence of the thing represented” whether it’s an alien planet, mowing the lawn, or harpooning of a white whale (Bolter and Grusin 6)? Yet, today we see a massive crisscrossing and overlapping of countless media that pull us out of the moments those media strive to create whether it’s logos or script in a marquee at the bottom of our television screens or an advertisement appearing on our e-readers or an email notification popping up in the corner of our computer screens.

Of course, as Bolter and Grusin recognize, “No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces” (15).

So how do you see remediation at play within your art/writing/media? What types of media intersect within your reading and writing experiences and how do they add to or subtract from those experiences? Is it preferable to begin creating ‘interactive novels’ (e-books with hyperlinks, videos, etc.)  as compared to hard-copy books (with and without illustrations) or is there a happy medium?

 

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999.

A Response to Scott Turow’s “The Slow Death of the American Author”

I don’t know how many of you saw Scott Turow’s “The Slow Death of the American Author” op-ed in a recent New York Times, but it’s certainly worth checking out. While I absolutely disagree with his sensational title as well as with the general tone of the article (which seems to suggest that the “American Author,” whoever and whatever that is, is “dying”), I do agree with some of his arguments regarding copyright issues.

In his op-ed, just to give you a summary, he begins by discussing the recent Supreme Court case that legalized “the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions” (Turow). Using this as a starting line, Turow then goes after a number of big-hitters including Google and Amazon and discusses how many of their practices are negatively impacting the publishing industry and writers’ abilities to capitalize upon their writing.

As a researcher, I truly do sympathize with Turow’s frustration over Google’s blatant skimping and teasing around copyright law by scanning thousands upon thousands of text materials online to create their Google Books library/database — but, then again, this tool was a large part of how I was able to conduct a great deal of the research for The Trickster in Ginsberg without going totally bankrupt on buying new books. But I do believe that Google should have to pay a fee of sorts to every copyright owner whose book/text material gets clicked on/viewed through Google Books. It’s only fair, in my mind, that these copyright owners get paid for their materials if those materials are bringing viewers/users (and thus more advertising) to Google. Rather than alienating itself from the producers of texts by digitally printing their materials without offering compensation, Google should instead factor a certain fee or royalty into their Google Books advertising and thus pass the costs along to their advertisers and a paycheck along to their content providers. This will not only endear them to writers and publishers but will also increase the ability of writers and researchers like me to actually consider buying many of the things that are advertised. This would thus benefit not only Google but, ultimately, its advertisers as well who will potentially reach a wider audience as Google expands its collections of searchable material.

Anyway, I still don’t see this as the death of writing or of authors. As a general rule, authors have always been paid poorly when they’re even paid at all. And I would say that a larger problem than our shifting copyright law is the shifting culture among many young or beginning writers to post their works online for free. I am not saying that everyone should write for money — I wouldn’t say that I write for money either, but for the joy, promise, and potential of the work. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to be paid for its use once it’s published. After all, if this work is going to be put to use in a way that generates income for thousands of others (helping to keep the publishing industry going, for example, which would be nowhere without its authors), to entertain potential audiences, to educate potential audiences, etc., then it is a tool that these consumers should pay to have produced. To be frank, have pride in your work and your career — recognize that writing is legitimate work. What’s more, my writing is legitimate work. It would serve us writers well to remember that the work of other writers is also on the line here. And when the market is flooded with free materials, it becomes harder and harder for others to eventually get paid for the services and goods of writing. Many writers I’ve known over the years have held up the idea that writing is an isolationist’s work. However, it’s looking more and more like we may have to break out of such isolationist fantasies and see that there is a world for our writing beyond our desks — a world wherein the success and failure of our work impacts the success and failure of the work of others.

Authors and researchers need to learn to work within their markets, fight within their markets, earn within their markets, rather than undermine and work against those markets. Again, I’m not saying everyone should write for money, but I am saying that they shouldn’t simply give their work away — this, to my mind, does not serve the best interests of the author nor does it serve the best interests of the writing world. After all, it’s nice to be financially secure enough to be able to write in one’s spare time and then give said writing away online for free. However, this effectively bars others who are not financially secure enough to spend their free time doing something that has no hope of bringing in any financial support. This, in other words, is a terrific way for people with computers and the gifts of leisure time and disposable income to block out the voices of those who do not have such luxuries.

Ultimately, I feel like if we really wanted to hold Congress accountable for its job to promote the growth of writers and researchers, then we would. But the American people have already spoken, I feel, by pirating music, films, and books constantly; by supporting resale stores like HalfPrice Books; and by supporting monopoly groups like Amazon (many of which I do myself). And while I understand that there are choices and then there are “choices,” I really do think we have bigger things to worry about in this situation than what authors are going to get paid. After all, what about those Americans and those millions of non-Americans who still don’t have access to computers? Who still don’t have access to libraries or books or magazines?

I guess us writers will just have to do what we want people to pay us to do — Get Creative. 🙂

 

Turow, Scott. “The Slow Death of the American Author.” New York Times: The Opinion Pages. 7 April 2013. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/opinion/the-slow-death-of-the-american-author.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.

Learning, Writing, & Researching Online

I’ve never been particularly impressed with online courses as those I’ve taken thus far — and there have been several — have been a far cry from the level of engagement, rigor, interest, and participation often found in on-the-ground, elbows-on-the-desk, paper airplane-whizzing classroom. However, I remain optimistic that we will eventually find an online course and even entire program (even an entire university!) that will strike just the right balance, just the right level of rigor and interaction to appropriately and sufficiently complement its brick-and-mortar counterpart. After all, today we have so many opportunities to learn from people around the world and to help teach those who are in extraordinary situations, from young traveling actors and musicians to women and men serving abroad in the armed forces, that it’s really not an option to ignore the possibilities of creating online learning, writing, and researching communities and courses.

All of this is to say that I’ve recently come upon a new attempt at teaching online — a course focused upon the art of poetry: “Poetry: What Is It, and How to Understand It” by Margaret Soltan. It’s free to sign up and all you need to have is an email address, some curiosity, and time.

Soltan’s course is run from a group called “Udemy” and it introduces itself in its thanks-for-joining-us email as “the world’s largest destination for on-demand, online courses.” In other words, it’s a gigantic database of sorts, an interface dedicated to the creation and utilization of online courses (they boast having “over 6,000 courses” currently and approximately “3,700 instructors”). Udemy is a tool that enables users to both participate within as well as create their own online courses.

And, just to give you an idea of the sort of detail and options that Udemy affords its courses and participants, here’s a screen shot of what entering a course entails:

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In other words, not only can you listen to a variety of lectures — often at your own pace and according to your specific interests — but you can also interact directly with the professor/creator of the course, rate/evaluate the course, and get updates and announcements from the creator/professor regarding the course materials. As far as tools are concerned, Udemy seems to be a fairly terrific one — of course, how well courses are evaluated, vetted, and put together is a different story entirely. Although, through the posting of professor profiles (as Soltan has done for her course; you just click on the “i” button in the top right-hand corner of the screen and you can see both a course description and prof/creator profile (if provided)), students and potential users can do some of their own vetting by checking out the credentials of course professors/creators and decide for themselves who they might trust to engage in a bit of low-pressure learning with. But, for the needs and purposes of many teachers and schools today, this seems like it could be a step in the right direction.

And, perhaps best of all (at least for now), many of the courses to be found on Udemy are entirely free. Not all courses, grant you; in fact, some of them are rather pricey given the potential risks involved in committing to an online course (such as likelihood of student follow-through, actual prestige of the course/course creator, usefulness of the information, level of interaction from other participants, etc.). But, then again, most of them are still cheaper than what signing up for a single course at most traditional colleges tend to run for nowadays.

So, if you’ve got computer access and an email address, welcome to a new wide-world of online learning, writing, researching, and networking. Have fun and let me know what you think!

MIT & MEL – Looking at Literature & Culture

I don’t know how many of you have heard of MEL, the Melville Electronic Library, or of MIT’s Image-Drive Scholarship initiative, Visualizing Cultures, but these are two innovative resources that are bound to rock your digital humanist pants off.

Let’s start with MEL: it’s a critical archive that contains (or will contain) a variety of versions of Melville’s work along with adaptations, images, and so forth (including published and unpublished writings).

However, what’s most interesting about MEL so far, really doesn’t have much to do with Melville specifically. It has to do with their swanky new tool called TextLab. According to the MEL website, TextLab is…

“An innovative image and text mark-up tool,…based on the protocols of fluid text editing of revision. Here, ‘revision sites’ are any areas of interest on a manuscript leaf or print page that indicates evidence of revision.” (What is TextLab)

In other words, TextLab is a tool that enables a team of editors/collaborators to digitally revise texts while supplying critical explanations for why and how they so revised the text. In this way, the tool enables editors and scholars to not only revise/edit a work but to also create a separate “revision narrative” (What is TextLab). Moreover, because everyone edits and interprets texts differently, the TextLab tool enables editors to save their revision narratives and sequences as their own text (yet connected to the original transcribed/edited text) so that any number of other editors can also come along, provide their revision narrative and unique sequencing, and thus enter into a discourse with those who came before them. Essentially, this is the world of the academic literary journal with a digital fire lit under its ass. The types of scholarly conversations that once took years to cultivate over book publishing and article writing on single texts can now take place just as quickly as the scholars can write.

As the MEL site elaborates,

“Editors who differ may therefore use their differing sequences and narratives for a given set of sites to post their differing hypotheses. Thus, the database of revision sequences and narratives becomes the basis for discourse on revision.” (What is TextLab)

And while this can have upsides and downsides for the traditional scholarly world, I do not see this tool as somehow diminishing the importance or value of traditionally published articles and books but, rather, as something that will undoubtedly improve the quality of those conversations in the long-run.

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As for MIT’s Visualizing Cultures — it was launched in 2002 in an effort to help promote conversation related to how people once envisioned and imagined the world around them. It has a much broader focus than MEL and the technology isn’t as cool as TextLab in my humble opinion, but their basic concept is truly terrific:

First, users click on an image, then, along with an enlarged version of the image, there appears for the user a brief description of said image. From there, the user is able to look at other images tagged under the same category (categories such as “Photography & Power in the Philippines II”) or they are able to choose from any number of essays or comments that have been written on or related to the image. In this way, MIT managed to create a truly versatile and wide-ranging digital art museum.

 

Check them both out! You never know when or what will trigger that spark you might need to move forward on a project, scholarly or otherwise.

 

P.S. Thanks National Endowment for the Humanities for funding such terrific resources and projects!