Letters to the Editor

Where Does Peer Review Fit in a Digital Age?

Caitlin Luetger, May 2014

To the Editor:

In the March issue of the Atlantic, Megan Garber wrote about a scientific discovery that raised eyebrows because it was shared via social media before undergoing the peer- review process. This is big-and not only in the scientific realm. The idea of bypassing peer review to share ideas with a broad audience poses a question historians must also consider: Does peer review make sense in a digital age?

Not everything is meant for the general public. A good majority of scholarly writing is, and should be, aimed at professionals in the field for the obvious reason of adding to the conversation. But what if we want to bring that conversation to a larger audience and expand our reach? The Internet has increased the demand for instant gratification and real-time information. Taking into consideration the length of time it takes to publish, the reach of publication, and the innovations in online (free) publishing, we must assess the relevance of peer review in a digital age.

We already know that the digital age has made way for new avenues for the distribution of information and that anyone with a Wi-Fi connection can "publish" anytime they please. Historians and other humanities professionals haven't been left out in the cold on this trend. The truth is, we can publish anything we want, anytime we want, and all we have to do is log on to Twitter or our personal blogs to do so.

As students we learned the value of peer-reviewed material, and as working historians and educators we continue to inculcate the importance of scholarly standards. Unfortunately, while social media and Internet sources can often decrease the retention of material, since information that is easily found is also easily forgotten, these sources tend to be the preference of broad audiences due to their engaging tone. According to a report by the Yale University Library, web sources typically receive up to millions of hits, whereas library databases containing refereed publications are usually hit in the dozens and occasionally into the thousands. Peer-reviewed source materials are not necessary to understand how things work or why something happened. All a person has to do is pull out their smartphones and the world is at their fingertips.

Clearly, the danger in this type of quick knowledge consumption is that if the information general readers are looking at isn't coming from scholars, it's likely coming from someone without the credentials to be discussing it in the first place. This brings me back to my initial question regarding the relevancy of peer review in a digital world.

On one hand, the idea of publishing scholarly information without following the traditions of our colleagues and predecessors seems counterintuitive. Why would we publish something that hasn't been held up to certain standards set forth by experts in our field? On the other hand, the idea of waiting months to find out if your paper will be published in a journal that will likely only reach a small audience seems preposterous, because the general public and our students aren't going to shell out money for subscriptions to niche publications. In fact, the broad audiences who are missing out on so many incredible theories, ideas, and findings by our historical community are more likely to use sources like Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets to find the bits of information they need before they move on to something else more engaging. We have a short attention span, thanks to Google.

I cannot say the peer-review structure must be abolished, as the system has been an integral part of historical research and will likely continue to be, but I would argue that the role it plays needs to be rethought and reformed to match trends in the digital age. It's difficult to say whether this situation is good or bad, but historians are now left with the task of deciphering our place in the digital world. Does eschewing tradition in favor of a wider reach also mean sacrificing quality of information? In other words, how do we bridge the gap between niche and mainstream in order to bring our findings to the masses while still maintaining the prestige of academic standards set forth and carried out by our predecessors and colleagues?

Caitlin Luetger
College of DuPage




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