Blog Post

Falling back onto the map

The following is a response to a recent Economist article (June 8, 2013) dealing with peer review. The article can be found Here, and the comment can be found here.

I'm republishing my comment here for those of us who do not have access to the Economist.


Scholarly communication is fraught with wicked problems (Buchanon, 1992), not the least of which involves maintaining a balance between quality and speed. As [another commentor] pointed out, there is a certain slowness associated with an increase in written quality. Such slowness, however, is presumably unappealing to many scientists whose epistemic cultures are recently defined by instruments with lightning-quick processing capabilities. From one particular vantage point, then, there’s the rub: a clash of temporalities mediated by infrastructure and scientific culture.

In 'Does Writing Have a Future," Vilem Flusser wrote, "That is the mark of progress: everything becomes structurally more complex to become functionally simpler" (Flusser, 2011, p. 17). In discussions of scholarly communication, this type of functional simplicity is too often measured in terms of speed with little attention paid to the infrastructural effects of increased complexity. As folks like Bowker & Star have pointed out, infrastructure is tricky.

By increasing the complexity of the peer-review system through the inclusion of what The Economist here calls ‘parallel processing,’ the scholarly community runs the risk of establishing a set of norms with largely unforeseeable consequences. For example, would the widespread implementation of parallel processing create a contemporary class of what Shapin (1989) referred to as “invisible technicians?” Mightn’t the implementation of parallel processing lead to the reliance of scholarly communication on yet another publisher-like third party, thus paving the way for infrastructural crises further down the road (similar to the contemporary crisis impacting libraries, publishers, and researchers)? Would the creation of paid positions for peer-reviewers impact the salaries of junior and senior faculty whose salaries have, for hundreds of years, been calculated in a culture where almost no aspect of journal publishing is a paid activity?

There are many other facets to this discussion, including professional practices (e.g., tenure review processes), the role of green open access and post-publication review practices, the truthfulness of such highly constructed artifacts as scientific journal articles, and, indeed, the role of the author in scientific communication. Entire volumes have been, and will continue to be, written about this communicative Gordian knot. But, for the moment I’ll say this: initiating infrastructural change in scholarly communication simply to enhance the speed of such communication is dangerous. Faster is not always better, and to many slowness is a virtue.


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