Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Redefining Peer Review: GAM3R 7H30RY

From Print: The Chronicle of Higher Education: 7/28/2006: Book 2.0: a few pertinent excerpts:

While most scholarly books are reviewed by a few carefully chosen experts before publication, McKenzie Wark's latest monograph is getting line-by-line critiques from hundreds of strangers in cyberspace, many of whom know absolutely nothing about his academic field.

Mr. Wark, a professor of media and cultural studies at New School University, has put the draft of his latest book online in an experimental format inspired by academic blogs and the free-for-all spirit of Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Each paragraph of Mr. Wark's book has its own Web page, and next to each of those paragraphs is a box where anyone can comment — though readers are not permitted to alter the original text....

Welcome to what is either an expansive new future for the book in the digital age, or a cacophonous morass that will turn scholarship into a series of flame wars — or both.

Scholars like Mr. Wark, who are as comfortable firing off comments on blogs as they are pontificating at academic conferences, are beginning to question whether the printed book is the best format for advancing scholarship and communicating big ideas.

In tenure and promotion, of course, the book is still king — the whole academic enterprise often revolves around it. But several scholars are using digital means to challenge the current model of academic publishing.

Thanks to the Internet, they argue, the book should be dynamic rather than fixed — not just a text, but a site of conversation. Printouts could still be made and bound, but the real action would be online, and the commentary would form a new kind of peer review....

Mr. Wark's book is called GAM3R 7H30RY (pronounced "Gamer Theory," and rendered in a code-like language style popular among computer geeks). It offers a cultural critique of video games and argues that popular culture increasingly casts life itself as a kind of game — where you're only truly a survivor if you can avoid being voted off the island.

Mr. Wark originally planned on sticking with the old-fashioned peer-review model — and he has, in fact, submitted the book for publication by a traditional academic press (Harvard University Press). But as he was finishing a draft, he was approached by Ben Vershbow, a researcher at the Institute for the Future of the Book, an unusual academic center run by the University of Southern California but based in Brooklyn....

One of Mr. Wark's inspirations for the e-book form is Wikipedia.

"That is the literary work of our time," he said. "It's the Shakespeare of 2006. It took a traditional form, which is an encyclopedia, and completely rethought it. It rethought what authorship is. It rethought what collaboration is. It rethought textual form."

That sentiment is likely to rile other scholars, many of whom dismiss Wikipedia as full of inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise flawed information contributed by people of unknown background. But Mr. Wark argues that Wikipedia's power is that it brings many thinkers together. And because Wikipedia allows anyone to see the history of who has added what to each entry, he said, it is self-correcting when errors do emerge.

"Wikipedia is based in sound academic practices to do with peer review — it just changes who those peers are," he said. "They're not people who are authorized by Ivy League degrees or anything like that. But there's more of them, and they work faster." ...

"We're kind of talking about open-source development of big-idea books — that go into more depth than a Wikipedia article would, obviously, and that are more perhaps original and more provocative and are less balanced than a Wikipedia article is trying to be."

Mr. Stein chimed back in: "We are suggesting a new idea of peer review that is fundamentally similar, in that it is an exchange among peers, but that is in the open," he said. As it stands, most scholarly presses, and journal publishers for that matter, keep the peer-review process private and anonymous. "We think that the way that peer review in theory enacts scholarship is actually of value, and it's worth being seen, and it might spark further discussion and further critical engagement," Mr. Stein said.

This is an excellent and thought-provoking article; read the whole thing.

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