Some Thoughts on Open Peer Review

Last week we participated in the open peer review process on DHNow; here are some thoughts on the process.  I found the comments box on the site rather limiting, mostly because I wanted the ability to save my comments before posting to the site, as I am faced with frequent interruptions on the computer.  Granted, I wouldn’t have this in a regular blog format, but because it’s being called “peer review” I felt like it should be something more substantial than what I was likely to create in one sitting.  An easy fix was to make a Google Doc, then copy and paste it into the comment box.

The fact that this was a video may have influenced the length of my response; it seemed that I had to explain what was going on in the video first, then contribute my comments.  Had this been a written piece, I could have pointed to concepts and phrasing without so much expository writing on my part.  In class, Alycia suggested approaching these non-text pieces as studio work, as in art practice, and I think this is helpful.

As far as the lack of anonymity goes, I would wager that it actually made my response better.  I spent extra time analyzing the video because I did not want to misinterpret its message.  The more I thought about it, the better I thought it was; I began to see connections and details that I might have missed in a cursory viewing.   Attaching my real name to my comments seemed to compensate in some way for the informality of the blog format, creating a more deliberate and thorough response on my part.

Response to Michael Edson’s video:

Overall, this is a very effective approach to the questions posed by the session, in that it demonstrates, quite deftly, the ease with which new media can upend traditional thought processes. There is no small irony in the fact that a conference session which seeks to learn how museums can “advance beyond the continuation of traditional practices utilizing digital tools,” has instructed participants to do just that–a video recording of a talk, posted on YouTube. This piece both calls attention to this matter and comments on the nature of the questions being asked.

The video brings the discussion back to its roots, by taking the imposed questions from the practical to the philosophical (as per the session title, “Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums”), and makes a compelling case for radically re-imagining museums in a digital age. In effect it answers question three by pointing out the enormous gulf between traditional (dare I say elite?) museum culture and the DIY nature of participatory culture and new media, as evidenced by the contrast between an academic discussion at a conference and someone brushing aside scattered receipts from a workspace in order to create a project. That is, museums must involve individuals outside the traditional curatorial sphere to embrace new media culture for the very fact that new media is partly defined by its participatory nature and the democratization of cultural production.

The use of analog tools (paper printouts, marker, and scissors) to re-mix the session’s original questions further suggests that digital tools in and of themselves are not enough to bridge this gap between cultures. Museums need to revisit their raison d’etre and re-evaluate their role before they can effectively address how to approach new methods of interpretation. The key question posed by the piece, then, is, “Can museums understand culture without new media?”

Despite the overall success of the format in advancing Edson’s argument, I do want to call into question one moment in the video. The transformation of “Question 2” to read simply, “What is required of museums?” is, as I understood it, to lead us to contemplate the purpose or role of museums in society. As discussed above, in order to answer whether or not there is a place for the digital humanities in museums we first need to answer what it is that we want museums to do. Yet, there is a utilitarian connotation to asking what is “required,” such that it has the potential to elicit a “Nothing!” response. Or, one might say that conservation is all that is *required*, and that interpretation is a value-added service. I wonder if this is really the question that Edson wishes to ask, or if his discourse is being limited by the constraints of his conceit. Might not a more precise question be, “What is *desired* of museums?” This could invoke viewers to imagine new possibilities (looking forward) instead of recalling core functions (looking past). It is here that one must ask whether form is dictating content, and if so, to what end?

About Roxanne Shirazi

Roxanne Shirazi is Dissertation Research Librarian and Assistant Professor at the Graduate Center's Mina Rees Library, where she also serves as Project Director for the CUNY Digital History Archive.
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One Response to Some Thoughts on Open Peer Review

  1. I agree that knowing I would be “seen” as a reviewer made me think very carefully about my own review on DHNow too–what I expected at first to be a fairly quick response/review turned into a much more involved interaction with the text (with notes on paper and side-by-side browser windows).

    The DHNow experience felt more significant than leaving a blog comment (even though, as Roxanne points out, the interface that we typed into was very similar to the thing that I am creating right now–a post followed with a comment box). I wonder, because of the interface similarities, how different the DHNow peer reviews will differ from blog comments? Are there parts that make each distinct, other than what we call them? I thought about this as I wrote my review in DHNow (i.e. what are the conventions of reviewing and how do we learn these conventions?). While as I write here I feel confident that it’s appropriate to take part of what Roxanne wrote above and work off of it and include my own opinions/experiences, I refrained from doing that explicitly in my DHNow review. And yet I wonder if these two things are wholly different. True, I’m not telling Roxanne thoughts that I have about how to improve, alter or strengthen her piece above. But aren’t we having a conversation (in the Fitzpatrick sense) that ultimately might help thinking about this topic?

    Is peer review a different experience from other scholarly communication because we deem it so, because it’s been heavily measured and institutionalized, or because this process actually uniquely valuable in a way that other communication (sharing/commenting on work online especially) is not?

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