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Gideon Burton

Thanks for taking the time to read and to respond so thoughtfully. You've articulated very well what needs to be said about respecting the productive explosion of knowledge that occurs in a truly open review context. You might check out my other posts about peer review. A lot of good discussion is taking place in this field right now (such as this year's International Symposium on Peer Reviewing - http://www.iiis2009.org/wmsci/website/default.asp?vc=27)

Davey Morrison

I'm going to read all the comments when I have time, but, while I think there are arguments to be made against some of the ideas Gideon is presenting (though, for the most part, I wouldn't be the one to make them), it seems to me that Gregory Clark's response is just the sort of academic approach that has become obsolete--and I think for good reason. There is a place for peer review. But I don't think that place is at the top of the academic food chain. What we need more than anything are the very things that the internet and increased media communication are so inherently capable of giving us: sincere, passionate statements and studies from a variety of different voices, with the greatest peer review on earth--open dialogue.

Where peer review is about bringing others in line with your standards, the internet is a totally democratic field of play, and the ability to self-publish--without any tampering from editors or publishers with their own interests and concerns and points of view--is its great strength. When one must always be brought in line with a pre-existing way of thinking, a lot less genuinely new thought occurs. Advances are made in traditional thought in the mold Gregory presents, and that is important and significant and necessary. But new thoughts are explosions, and they are so necessarily passionate and in-the-moment that to subject them to the laborious process of academic publication is to kill them. What the digital revolution and independent film are to Hollywood, so the internet is to the increasing irrelevance of the traditional academic world.

Once the statement is out in the open, others are invited and encouraged to offer their views on the matter--a far more collaborative activity than what Gregory describes (dialogue, as opposed to a collective watering-down). Here, ideas are disputed, proved, disproved, agreed with, and disagreed with in public forum--it's like publishing the peer review committee's response with the original and subsequent drafts, only a lot more interesting (and frequently including a lot more swear words). Instead of boiling down the received wisdom into something entirely distilled (and, more often than not, dull and dead), the expanded communication of the new media offers an opportunity to hear from a variety of voices and form our own opinions. It is today's conversation in the place of yesterday's lecture, and we should sit up and take note.

James Goldberg

I am probably way too late to be interesting, but:

I buy Gregory Clark's critique for graduate studies, at least in many fields, and for professors working in numerous fields.

I don't buy it so much for undergraduate education, with the exception of a few, highly specialized undergraduate majors (say accounting). Definitely his critique does not apply to undergraduate GE courses.

As an undegraduate, you are not making and validating disclipinary knowledge. You're being given access to and thirst for pre-existing debates and knowledge. You're learning to think more critically, deepening your general breadth of knowledge so you can have stronger cross-disciplinary and global insights. Etc.

This view might seem to cast undergraduate education as the new high school: for the most part, it is. At least that's the way it's been marketed to America's businesses and parents. We don't say: you should hire someone with a B.A. in English b/c he will be capable of contributing to that discipline's body of knowledge. That's sort of hard to believe, and in most work situations, irrelevant. When we market the undergrad, we say: you'll learn how to think, synthesize informtation to make deicsions, how to interact with ideas in the world around you, how to be a better citizen and more innovative worker in ANY field.

If we want to keep marketing Universities that way, we ought to think a little harder about what Gideon has to say.

Jeff Swift

It seems to me that one main issue in this discussion is whether the nature of the peer review process should change. I see the merit of peer review in its current form--scholars are forced, through a well-established process, to rethink and revise their work under the tutelage of leaders in their field. So, if the process of peer review as it stands now should not change, we have two choices in regards to distribution. 1. Do nothing (and the free and accessible Wikipedia will be more widely read than any scholarly journal) or 2. Actively advocate free and easily accessible peer-reviewed scholarly work.
The first option, doing nothing, probably won’t work. If academia keeps the best scholarship from the general public, knowledge will be centralized in their offices and high-priced journals (or even normally-priced journals--the problem is that there is a price).
It seems to me that what we want is to again make knowledge available to the masses. Making knowledge free and easy to access (for example: available in full text online and discoverable by popular search engines such as Google) will help us meet that goal.

It also seems like a good possibility that the academic peer review process as it stands now can be adapted to fit the mold of modern online scholarship. The fact that at this time we don't have an advanced system for rigorous scholarly peer review online doesn't mean that it can never exist. The internet is moving more and more towards a "vote this comment up or down" era—Web 2.0, where thousands put in their two cents and supply a rich base peer review.

It seems that the internet canbe used to promote high-caliber and scholarly peer review that keeps the good of the current system while abandoning the centralizing-of-knowledge bad.

Wm Morris

Thanks for the link, Jon. I hadn't seen that particular story before. But I do follow Jay Rosen on Twitter and am familiar with his work.

Jon Wallin

In response to William Morris and his allusion to newspapers, check out what Jay Rosen was saying about this a year ago:


Jon Wallin

I really don't see this as a conflict between new media and old establishment. Grant and I were talking and we both think the change is coming, but believe it won't be near as swift as Gideon puts forth in his Academic Evolution blog. Having web presence and being connected is definitely an essential part of life for upcoming scholars, but the ability to perform in the current hierarchy will be of equal importance, at least during the next 10 years. I'm not going to ignore the venues Gideon is encouraging us to pursue. I'm also not going to forsake what the current establishment has to offer. Teaching English 150 is one of the richest educational pursuits in which I've engaged, and I wouldn't be able to do it if I abandoned university academic life.

Alyssa Rock

This conversation is quite interesting to me. I initially had some of the same thoughts that Dr. Clark had when I listened to the first episode of the Academic Evolution podcast. Since I'm married to a scientist and have recently taken a keen interest in issues such as global warming and the debate over intelligent design, I can strongly see the value of the peer-review process---especially in the sciences. Let me illustrate with an example about two different scientific debates. I'll go ahead and go on record as being a strong believer that global warming (climate change) is real and that it is man-made. I also believe in evolution and that the intelligent design movement has no scholarly value. Thankfully, through the peer review process where these debates have been carried out, I know that 95% of climatologists agree with me about global warming. And I know that nearly 100% of biologists agree with me about the validity of the theory of evolution as opposed to intelligent design.

But here's the problem as I see it: even though these debates are clearly over and the "winners" have been determined by the scholarly scientific community long ago, these debates continue to rage on in the public and political sphere. This is just one example of the very real disconnect between the Ivory Tower (so aptly coined) and the real world of public discourse. And part of that disconnect is because of academia's elitism and commitment to the tried-and-true traditions of the past.

To go back to the global warming example, "regular Joes" would read the key scientific studies that proved the reality of global warming and end up scratching their heads in confusion. Most of us---even those of us with PhDs and what not---simply don't have the training and background to even make sense of the technical jargon these guys use. And so we have to get the information from a second-hand source (or even third-hand, fourth-hand). This is clearly an epistemological dilemma. As long as academia continues to just have conversations with themselves, then academia will lose any relevance it may have once had on the real-world policies that really affect our day-to-day lives as citizens in our larger community.

I for one think that new media may potentially be one way to close the gap between public and academic discourses. I don't think Gideon is suggesting that we throw the peer-review process out the window. (And I certainly don't think we should either.) But we need to recognize that it is no longer going to be enough in a Web 2.0 world.

Jon Ogden

This discussion has been one of the most useful of my graduate studies and I feel lucky to be a part of it. It's certainly a nice bonus to the pittance I pay in tuition.

I have to say I'm split. I can see the value of the refinement of peer review and accountability Greg nails in his letter. It's a similar value to what Wayne Booth talks about in his "Mr. Gradgrind 1965" address. Booth admits that without the pressure to conform to academic standards we would generally all be lazy individuals. I know myself well enough to agree to that.

But I have a constant fear that my scholarship won't spark the minds of readers because it won't be read. It's a fear Virginia Woolf explores in To the Lighthouse with Mr. Ramsay, the retired scholar-philosopher, who is racked with the fear that his work will not be remembered. I know I share his fear, and probably his selfishness, when I say that I can picture my scholarly work sitting on a shelf, or on a locked website, unread forever.

Perhaps that is overly dramatic. But the fear is real. The appeal of Gideon's idea is that while it may not call for me to stretch as far, and while it may not refine my research skills as sharply, I know that my ideas will be read and that they may therefore affect a wider array of readers. Perhaps because I am forced to answer rebuttals to my arguments online, my writing and thinking may still be refined as well.

It would be nice to find a way to be read more widely and keep the high standards that scholarly publication requires.

William Morris

"The work Gideon describes is not what a university is charged to do."

Which is exactly why universities that don't adapt are going to struggle. This is quite similar to the problems newspapers are having. That is -- a failure to distinguish the product from the delivery system. News is critically important for a democratic nation. Education is also critically important to democracy.

I think that too often those calling for change get lumped in as enemies and doomsayers. And there is no doubt that there are some people that are gleeful about how the internet has changed the way information is created, distributed and consumed.

But a lot of us who are trying to see and understand where things are going aren't gleeful about it -- in fact, more often I see concern and a cautiously excited but also rather sober pragmatism.

"That work proceeds by peer review and peer review proceeds upon principles of collaboration and accountability"

I don't understand why Gregory thinks that anything Gideon has said suggests that intellectual work shouldn't proceed upon principles of collaboration and accountability. It's also up for debate how much universities really meet both of those needs. In addition, collaboration and accountability occur best in an atmosphere of transparency. Considering how funding has changed over the years and the realities of academic politics, I think most people would agree that universities could do better.

And in my experience, if you find the right group (and there's no doubt that a university can and should facilitate the formation of such groups -- but increasingly that's going to have to happen outside the geographical and mission-based confines of the university) of motivated, skilled, ethical individuals can produce pretty good work -- although they could do even better if more knowledge was easily available for free or low cost.

Also: Gregory conveniently sidesteps the issue of earning a living. I love the pursuit of knowledge. I love literary studies and other parts of the humanities. But the reality is that (at least in the humanities and creative arts) universities are graduating students with bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees who have expectations for finding work in their fields that for most of the graduates won't be met. Or if met, don't provide jobs with security (and often benefits) -- adjuncts, lecturers, etc.

No, I don't want universities to become career colleges (although there is a huge need for technical training in America). And this is a huge discussion with a whole host of issues that neither I nor Gideon are likely to solve. But at least Gideon is exploring all this stuff and not closing himself off to it (or proceeding at such a glacial pace that it amounts to the same thing) -- and if sometimes he seems a little besotted. Well, I would imagine years of academic life will do that to you.

So I don't think that you can pull out peer review and wave it around as the only thing that is involved in this issue. Especially since: Linux is peer review. Wikipedia is peer review. Blogging can be peer review.

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