Why Open Review Matters

The emperor has no clothes. Or so I declare in a comment on a post at the brilliant public history blog, History at Work. I didn’t mean to spoil the feel-good digital party at History at Work, really. But, the post was about a scholarly volume, Subjecting History that claimed to be “open review,” when it wasn’t. And, it also claimed to be “public” engagement. I didn’t see that either.

Here is the story, as I understanding it from reading Subjecting History: Seventeen scholars respond to a call for proposals. Some (all?) are accepted, apparently. (Are any rejected?) There is no evidence of review, review criteria, winnowing, or exploration of the volume’s content. In other words, it is a garden-variety essay collection. I have no problems with this aspect of the book, to be published by Ohio State University Press.

But, the book claims to be an “open review volume.” Thus, I presumed that I’d see something in the open about how it evolved. There is no indication as to how comments before/during/after solicitation would/will shape the essays on their eventual publication. Moreover, to date, there are handful of comments there, but nothing incisive or from others outside the volume. As far as I can tell, none of the comments engage the material as a peer reviewer might.

Likewise, there is no evidence, that I can see, of “public” engagement. I don’t see “public” (apparently defined here as non-academic) participation in review for acceptance or in comments on the site. I see a general statement about reaching out to interested constituencies and public audiences that might be interested in engaging the essays. I find this statement unsatisfying. Public historians, in our reviews of grants or such public projects or publications, would ask not just whether you were going to do such outreach (it’s obvious that it’s necessary) but *how* you would do it and *how* you would make such outreach successful. Doing outreach to public audiences is hard work.

I also don’t see how this volume presents material in a fashion that the “public” might actually engage. Really, public historians have taught us a great deal about the complexities involved in engaging the public. Writing words on a page and asking people to respond directly to those words is hardly public engagement, whether it is done digitally, on exhibit labels, or in a book. What would I like to see? How about alternative visions for “public history,” outside the text? How about solicitations of particular publics that might engage the essays through planned partnerships? How about some analytics (though that would impose a new standard than has been accomplished in previous comment-press books.)

I want to be clear here that I applaud such attempts. In fact, I think everyone should go over and comment on “Subjecting History.”  But, I’m not sure that comments can save a project that does not seem to emphasize open review. Indeed, what makes the work Jack Doughtery and Kristen Nawrotzki, Writing History in the Digital Age, so interesting was the process. The strength of Writing History in the Digital Age was that the project that evolved, grew, and morphed through an open scholarly process. This not only met the goals of openness that is surely valuable, but it met the standards of peer review. Moreover, it involved lots of participation, both inside and outside the project. It is a model. We should strive for it.

We should strive for it, because there is very much at stake. Surely, we need to find ways of publishing material, openly and with review, both to improve the process but also so that digital scholarship become more deeply part of the scholarly review process. Although I would note that this last statement validates old-fashioned academic standards that are increasingly antiquated by the digital age. And, of course, peer review is often (though not always) a sham embedded in 19th-century scientific practice, so I am not sure we should even see it as a gold standard. Still, there is something critical here and that is the importance for scholars–public historians and more traditional research historians–to connect with the public beyond the ivory tower. Our failures or successes in this regard are critical to the broader shape of civic society, which historical interpretation shapes in significant ways.

Which brings me to my final point. There is a claim here that “By implementing a digital platform that enables an open review process and inviting comments and discussion from the general public, we are experimenting in making history the subject of popular gaze, rather than the other way around.” If (as I’ve said) I don’t see the first part of this claim, I surely don’t see the second part. Isn’t “history” already “the subject of popular gaze?”

Really, heritage tourism is a global industry measured in trillions of dollars. History abounds in multiple media forms and is avidly consumed. History is actively debated in our civil and political culture. Elsewhere the volume proclaims that the term subject is also used because the volume seeks to “put History somewhat under the power of the public.” Commenting on scholarly essays, without any real say over their publication accomplishes neither of these tasks.

And, incidentally, I would suggest that history is already fully “under the power of the public.” As public historians (actually as historians–is there really a distinction?) one of our great challenges is to engage, challenge, interpret, and re-frame understandings of a past that is surely outside our limited power.


I do have another model, other than the book–and there is a place for books written for public historians–from practicioner to theoretician. My suggestion, and a plug as to why my own work has importantly reframed our approach. We should abandon the conceit that our scholarship is “history” or even what makes our work specially. Indeed, public historians do more than write and theorize. We are brilliant at *practice* at project development. We should get into the trenches with the public and produce digital (or non-digital) projects that collaboratively remake the past, including memory landscapes (which is ostensibly one of the contributions of essays in the Subjecting History volume.)   I’ve been at work on that here in Cleveland with my work on the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.  Rather than theorize the Gardens, imagine how they could be better, or simply write their history (I’ve done all three, incidentally), I joined the fray and with students built a history website, www.culturalgardens.org. Oddly, we didn’t merely open up the site for public comment, or solicit the input of folks involved in the Gardens. No, instead, we invited our partners to use it as their voice, to reinvent it with photographs, text, and their own vision. What has emerged is an amalgam of traditional scholarship, student essays, enthusiast contributions, and community involvement. While the site does not quite make the grade as “scholarship” because of its form (and non-academic contributions), we have shaped public reinterpretation of the site by participating in, and helping to lead that change. Oddly, history in the Gardens is neither subject or object. It is collaboration–exactly what it should be.

NOTE (3/13/2013, needs spelling/grammar check.)

3 thoughts on “Why Open Review Matters

  1. It is most unfortunate that the Cultural Gardens project “did not quite make the grade as ‘scholarship'”. Yet this is exactly the point of the Subjecting History project — to test the limits of what “scholarship” is. The Cultural Gardens project sits apart from scholarship, in seemingly a self-defined way. The Subjecting History project seeks to blur the border between academic History and the public space. Mark is the rebel, and perhaps I (as one editor of Subjecting History) am the reformer, yet hopefully we can see the value in each other’s projects.

    I am an historian. I’m not a digital humanities expert in any way. Nor do I consider myself a “public historian”…. and perhaps that is why Mark and I don’t see the problem in quite the same way, or the solutions, even though we’re clearly trying to work in similar directions.

    Like a number of historians, especially those trained in traditional ways like myself, I see History (the discipline) as having forms that are not in fact open to the public. It’s important that we distinguish disciplinary history here from popular ways of knowing the past, since the discipline so distinguishes itself (whether that is epistemologically accurate or not). History is not the same as heritage, is not subject to the same public pressures…. but rather to the peer review system, to internal structural rules of the review essay & monograph etc. nor is public History in quite the same position as academic History in this regard. If I believed that before this process, I believe it even more having read the articles of the contributors. So no, I do not agree that (academic) History is already subject to the public gaze (in the way that public histories, heritage, and lore are, for example).

    My second response is that I entirely agree with Mark about the long-term goals of this kind of project — to devise ways to create the kinds of public-academic partnerships that take quite a lot of thinking. However, I do think his post contains an unfortunate undertone of assumptions… he seems to know answers already to questions that we, the editors, don’t know. We don’t know yet who well respond to our public outreach campaign — the papers only went live yesterday. However, the responses by a user-public to at least one of the papers is already very interesting, and the authors are unfolding their outreach for the other papers. The editors are also going to be using media to reach out in the coming days. In other words, we don’t make assumptions as to the degree to which this will work yet.

    I think Mark has missed the fact that the “public” — i.e. those outside of academia — are already present in most chapters prior to the review process. If he were to read the articles, he would see that most are topically about productions of the past that in the first instance were created by non-academics: activists, elders, movie-makers, worker-archivists, politicians, what-have-you. Having the public return later in a second incarnation — by contributing to the essay may not create perfect equality between the historian/scholar and the public in terms of power in knowledge production, but it’s an experiment in that direction. Nor do we know that the outcome we want is perfect equity — the importance of the critical role of the scholar remains… it has not been resolved…. and this project asks but does not answer the question of where the line should be drawn.

    Moreover, even where public response to chapters in this volume is muted, I don’t think that this makes it a “garden-variety essay collection”. What it is, instead, is an attempt to ask scholars to write about public-academic interfaces, and then to ask the public to interpose themselves in the process, and then to ask the scholars to reflect on how that changed their understanding.

    In short, Mark’s points are well-taken, and certainly contribute in the long-run to more and more interesting possibilities. However, the critique is not entirely correct because (1) it presumes a closer History-public relationship than exists in the case of academic Histories, (2) it ignores the originating role of the public in the histories (not sources) being studied by the scholars, and (3) it prejudges the efficacy of the public comments, which none of us can know. I think anyone who actually reads these chapters will see the first two and will hopefully reserve judgement on the third until the project is well underway.

  2. I have responded to Mark’s interesting points on History at Work, where almost the entirety of this paper is reproduced. However, the last paragraph here does concern me. It sounds like Mark is frustrated that his project is considered not to be “scholarship”. I would be frustrated too. The whole point of Subjecting History is to consider the why, what, and how of the scholarly-public divide. Personally, I’m concerned both about scholars who would sideline the Gardens project as non-scholarly and about Mark’s proclamation that his kind of collaboration is “exactly what it should be” but projects that take other forms aren’t…. especially when he has neither read the chapters, nor participated in using the site, nor seen how it develops over the weeks and months of the project.

  3. Indeed, you have responded on History @ Work, and this blog post does indeed come out of those comments. The last paragraph here was added as an alternative model for openness that exists for public scholarship. It is open, in this case meaning it was co-created. It is public, meaning there is nothing hidden, except the code. Our partners (our publics) are wholly involved in creating content, not just responding to our more formal piece of scholarly writing. I actually do think it is scholarship, but not in ways traditionally recognized by the academy. I’m not terribly surprised, nor especially frustrated about that. Our point, after all was not to write a formal piece of scholarship (i.e. printed in a journal or in a book, which I’ve done on this topic), but our point is to offer alternatives.

    I don’t think that the gardens’ project or I say anything about other projects, as you imply in your phrasing that I (Tebeau) somehow think “other forms aren’t (scholarship? public?)” I can’t quite figure out what you’re saying. But, if clarification is needed, then let me clarify. I am merely suggesting that many alternatives to the tack taken in Subjecting History exist. This is one. The other would be the beautifully done, Writing History in the Digital Age, cited by you. I can offer others as well, but none is meant to suggest that Subjecting History is not scholarship or has not been made public.

    Finally, you in your second comment here, you say of me, “especially when he has neither read the chapters, nor participated in using the site, nor seen how it develops over the weeks and months of the project.” That is wrong. I did read and review the site. Not all of it, but lots of it. The second comment is quite different from your first comment claims that “Mark’s points are well-taken.”

    Your second post suggests quite the opposite, that you are really irritated that anyone would have the temerity to respond to your endeavor in a surprising or unanticipated way.

    Accusing me of not reading your work hardly encourages dialogue nor responding in the appropriate check boxes does not strike me to be the spirit of “open review” or “public engagement” that you claim to be speaking.

    You have underscored the very essence of my critique.

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