Lessons Learned from Open Peer Review for Digital Book Publishing

Over the past two years I've learned a great deal about digital publishing from editing two open peer-reviewed scholarly volumes: Writing History in the Digital Age (co-edited with Kristen Nawrotzki, published by the University of Michigan Press, 2013) and Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (with my editorial team at Trinity College, under contract with Michigan Publishing, in progress). Our inspiration for new ways of building books came from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who welcomed public commentary on her Planned Obsolescence manuscript while under conventional review with her book publisher in 2009-10, and related open peer review projects (Fitzpatrick and Santo 2012). In both of my volumes, we openly invited contributors to try out their initial ideas online, then post full drafts of their essays on the public web for feedback from commissioned experts and general readers, all using their full names. During our first experiment, Writing History generated over 940 comments -- many of them quite substantive -- during an eight-week open review period in Fall 2011, and at this moment, Web Writing has sparked over 850 comments during a six-week period, which ends October 30th, 2013. When other scholars ask for advice about launching their own open peer review or digital publishing ventures, at least three reflections come to mind.

Rethink traditional norms on how scholars write books. Most of my prior experience in scholarly writing was spent in relative isolation, working on single-author pieces, because that's what nearly everyone else was doing in my field. (My graduate training is in history.) Even when other scholars invited me to submit a chapter to an edited volume, the process was secluded because I rarely saw what other contributors had written until the final book was published, often a year or two later. History conferences typically offered little improvement, as most scholars read aloud their papers, word-for-word, rather than taking advantage of the social gathering (and the web) to ask for a close reading of drafts circulated in advance. When my early collaborators and I experimented in 2010 with what eventually became Writing History in the Digital Age, we simply "flipped the conference" by posting our papers beforehand on a website that allowed rich commenting, and reorganizing the conference session to engage the audience in group discussions about the content and process, similar to how some educators have "flipped the classroom."

Build partnerships with open-access book publishers when possible. To transform a handful of conference papers into a full-fledged edited volume on the web, we understood that academic authors (particularly junior scholars) needed motivation to contribute to a scholarly product that would be recognized by hiring and tenure committees. For that reason, we crafted Writing History as a book -- not a blog -- and used WordPress tools to make it look and feel like a conventional book, with chapters, footnotes, and so forth. Furthermore, we partnered with an academic press that provided a book contract, commissioned expert reviewers, and best of all, agreed to publish the final product in two formats: print on-demand (for sale) and open-access online (for free). We gladly signed away any royalties on book sales, because that was never the primary motivator for us and our contributors. Instead, as reviewer Tim Burke pointed out, scholars operate in the realm of "reputation capital," which rises in value when more people can freely read our words on the open web (Conclusions, para. 40). 

Clarify editorial process and intellectual property with contributors. Sharing drafts on the web -- for public commentary -- is a risky business for scholars, particularly junior ones. As editors in charge of creating an online edited volume, we sought to clarify key stages of our decision-making process in advance (to reduce the chance of angry academics yelling at us after the fact) and to make intellectual property rights fair and more intelligible than typical book publisher's contracts (of which few seem to have been updated for the digital age). See how we explained the editorial process, copyright policy, and Creative Commons licensing in Web Writing, then consider what principles you would like to see in your proposed publication, and how you would communicate these thoughts to prospective authors. Furthermore, with multi-author projects such as edited books, it's worth reminding contributors that all have a stake in participating in the open peer review process, because a higher-quality volume will raise the reputation of individual chapters, thereby lifting all boats.

While this short essay lists only three brief reflections on open peer review with web-based books, what's striking is that the most important lessons are more social and institutional, rather than technological, as Fitzpatrick (16) has observed about scholarly communication in general. To be clear, innovative digital publishing will require scholarly authors to roll up our sleeves and dig our hands deeper into the web, particularly with easy-to-learn, open-source tools, including WordPress plugins such as CommentPress and PressBooks. But the key principle is to collaborate with other academics, librarians, technologists, and editors, rather than fall into our traditional practices as solo authors of individual monographs. Don't venture into digital publishing alone.

"Conclusions: What We Learned from Writing History in the Digital Age," Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. Writing History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Web.

Dougherty et al., Jack, eds. Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. Open peer review edition. Under contract with Michigan Publishing, 2013.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. NYU Press, 2011. 

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, and Avi Santo. Open Review: A Study of Contexts and Practices. 2012. Web. 


This week's contributions have been great at looking at the very applied realities of publishing online and this is no exception. One of the points that really sticks out to me here is that contributors get to see the whole book together during the draft phase and are able to edit their work to put it into conversation. In this way, an edited volume starts to take on even more collaborative tendencies, and can be seen more as a whole than a collection of different articles on a similar topic. 

Looking through Web Writing, the technology itself is comfortable to read within and the citation technique used here makes a lot more sense for the web. As I look through comments, I see a several conversations starting in the comments, and many of them seem to come from other authors publishing within the same text. Is that where you see the majority of these comments coming from? If so, is this kind of publishing making peer review editing more transparent (as we put our names on our comments)? In an academic setting among digitally minded scholars, I can see the value of this, along with the ability to respond/converse with a reviewer.

Jason Mittell, who is doing a similar project with Complex TV on MediaCommons Press, visited our campus last spring and mentioned he received a great deal of local comments, but didn't see as many global comments on his work. Have you seen similar kinds of commenting patterns in Web Writing and Writing History in the Digital Age?

Jamie, thanks for the thoughtful questions. You're correct that several of the Web Writing comments came from other authors in the edited volume. I haven't yet done an analysis on this book-in-progress, but in a similar open peer review for Writing History in the Digital Age, we found: "Of the 71 individuals who posted open-review comments, the majority were general readers (43 percent) and other contributors to the volume (41 percent), followed by the appointed reviewers (14 percent) and the book co-editors (2 percent)." See WHDA "Conclusions" paragraph 22 for more details. Not all WHDA authors participated in the open peer review, but this did not necessarily guarantee or hurt their chances of being accepted for publication in the final volume. Still, I believe that authors recognized that commenting to improve each other's essays improved the book as a whole, and therefore increased the chances of their work being seen and read by general audiences.

Both Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Jason Mittell have observed that readers are more likely to make page- and paragraph-level comments than global ones on books as a whole. That's not surprising, given that it takes more cognitive energy to synthesize a broad evaluation on 300+ pages than a quick comment on a particular essay. But that's one reason why we work with publishers to commission expert reviewers to do this meta-level work, and for Web Writing, we obtained half of the funds from our campus for Michigan Publishing to pay $250 each to four appointed reviewers. But there's more we can do to encourage general readers to write book-level comments. First, in WHDA and Web Writing, we customized and highlighted the General Comments on the Book section of CommentPress, which is hard to find in the default theme, and also inserted "manuscript review questions" at the top of the page. As a result, we received 45 general comments in WHDA (of which only 7 were written by appointed experts). So far, there are 15 general comments on Web Writing, and I'll analyze those after the open peer review phase concludes.

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