The following text was originally presented as part of the panel “All in a Jurnal’s Work: A BABEL Wayzgoose,” 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, Boston, September 21, 2012.
Good afternoon. My name is Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei and I’m here as one of the co-co-editors of the online open access journal continent. Since this panel is mainly concerned with the possible future of academic publishing within the humanities, both online and offline, I would like to keep my remarks short, so that we have some discussion time at the end.
My point is very basic and slightly polemical, and derives directly from my experience as contributing editor for continent. and running a small independent print-on-demand publishing house called Uitgeverij. I must immediately add that this experience relates to the fields of philosophy, philology, critical theory, and adjacent areas, and I do not claim to have knowledge of academic publishing in the humanities at large, especially not in the areas infected with statistics and other pseudo-empirical data.
Within the field that I work, both as author and as editor, there exists something that we’re familiar with called peer review. This is a system that seems to work very well in the fields of for example physics and mathematics, where all publishable papers are uploaded to an open access, free, pre-print server and are submitted to the collective vetting of the scientific community. When my brother, a theoretical physicist, tells me about the latest work that has appeared on this server, and the enthusiastic and collective reading the community engages in, I sometimes experience slight feelings of jealousy. In my field, the peer review system is opaque to its core. Somebody sends in an article to me, I am supposed to remove any personal data, and forward it to a few “peers” that I think capable of critically reviewing it. These peers in their turn remain anonymous to the author, who will have to rewrite (or trash) the article based upon a one-way and therefore non-existing conversation. Moreover, the article mostly does not appear online, freely available at a globally accessible server, but inside locked and pay-per-view systems that are out of reach for most people that I know. I live in Albania. There is no library with JSTOR access. There are no student accounts. This is how anonymous peer review in the humanities is supposed to work and this is how I refuse to work.
There are, of course, many alternatives, often trying to approach or simulate the “ideal” system of the world of theoretical physics. Open peer review, wiki-style comment functions, but all of these do not address the fundamental problem for which peer review within the humanities was supposed to give a solution, a problem that is predicated on the fact that, contrary to the exact sciences, humanities hardly ever have certainty as their main goal. This problem, and it persists until today, is the continuing erosion and deterioration of a community of thought by the current academic and university system, a system that aims for the economic equivalent of certainty, efficiency. Peer review assumes mistakenly that in the humanities we are de facto all “peers,” that is, etymologically speaking, “equals.” But being equals means to share a minimal sense of community, which, as far as I am concerned, implies a constant exchange of ideas. Peer review in the humanities has instead become a system that is supposed to compensate for the destructive forces of the university on the community of thought itself. The abolition of the master-student bond. The desire for quantifiability. The fear for another “revealing” Sokal hoax, a so-called hoax.
We, philosophers, critical theorists, philologists, humanists at large, should embrace this hoax, this hocus, this hoc est, this “that is,” the factual risk that our entire thought is a scam. A thinking that is essentially without safeguards, whether internal or external, a thinking that is driven by the desire to be debunked, pulled down, proven worthless. And peer review is not going to do that for us. It will always come down to a small turn of phrase, an extra paragraph, a reference that you missed, a footnote that should be included, an acknowledgment that should be made, claims that cannot be empirically validated, blah blah blah. A review: anything but a traumatic reading.
As far as I’m concerned, peer review is a symptom and not a solution. The symptom of a university system that is falling apart, desperately trying to link up incompatible academics to kill each other off in an anonymous free-form fights. Peer review is a waste of time, because each thought demands its own time, and its destruction will be the first step in reconstituting a possible community of thought.