A recent article (“Wikipedia Age Challenges Scholars’ Sacred Peer Review”) in the New York Times investigates how scholars are starting to adjust to the Digital Age by adjusting the notion of peer review. In a time when anyone can “publish” anything on the Internet, the concept of peer review for academic publishing has come under severe pressure. Some critics, citing abuse, argue for abandoning the idea. Others, mentioned in this article, are experimenting with “cloud peer review.”
This makes sense to me as an academic. Peer review can provide valuable feedback, both in terms of validating content and in helping to improve the readability of the text. On the other hand, reviewers often have the mentality of “keeping bad ideas out of print.” They ride their own ideological hobby horses. The Internet allows ideas to stand or fall into obscurity in the marketplace of ideas. Slashdot pioneered (so far as I know) the idea of “moderation”: readers would rate comments on an article up or down. One could set filters and read only the most highly rated comments out of the great flood. Granted, in specialized disciplines (like mine) not everyone’s opinion is of equal value. So a peer review could have — as some journals mentioned in the article — a “core” of qualified specialists. But this core could be very large, e.g., everyone who is a member of an academic society of that discipline. Based upon some reasonable criteria, some opinions would “weigh” more than others. Having an earned PhD in the field might add to one’s “weight,” and having published on the same topic as what one is reviewing might be another criterion.
As for me, I have never liked the elitist atmosphere traditional peer review has engendered, nor have the benefits of the “anonymous reviewer” outweighed the disadvantages of having “gatekeepers” guarding the entry of ideas into academic conversations with little or no accountability. I would rather deal with the disadvantages of broader publishing and try to figure out ways to let the “cream rise to the top.”
The fun part of all this is that there is nothing that the Academe can do about it. The Internet allows self-publishing and end runs around traditional peer review. How will the Academe respond? Let the follies commence!