Academic Publishing: Peer-review or teh Interwebs?

Four times in the past four days someone has contacted me about publishing some academic idea or theory or bit of information that he has. In three of the four cases, the individual was planning to (or already had) “published” said work online — uploading it to a website of some sort or throwing it onto a personal webpage (like this one).

So I thought I might say a few words here about the fundamental difference between this kind of upload publishing and traditional publishing.

The one is good, the other one is bad.

There. A few words. Done.

Magic 8 Ball … Will peer review go the way of the dodo?

To be clear, I’m talking here about academic publication. Things get a lot fuzzier when it comes to publishing your fiction.

Also, I’m not saying that all online publication is bad. There are some perfectly reputable online sources of information, even if they are utterly dwarfed in numbers by every Tom, Dick, and Harry with an internet connection and a conspiracy in his head. Does this mean you cannot trust anything you find on the internet? Of course not. But it sure means the statistics are on that side of things, if you see what I mean.

In other words, it’s not the medium of publication that’s the problem, it’s the method.

Let’s say you’ve got a theory on where Brunanburh was. You think all these academics — I’m looking at you, Michael Livingston! — have it completely wrong: the battle happened in your backyard.

Okay, fine. You’re totally entitled to your opinion, and you have a right for your voice to be heard. (Or at least you should have that right!) What’s more, there’s always the chance that you’re right, right?

So how are you going to make your voice heard?

Well, one option — the wrong option, in my opinion — is to write your little theory up as quickly as you can and then upload it to some website or another. Click a few buttons and — Bam! — it’s published for all the world to see.

It’s tempting, I know it is. We like instant gratification. But I don’t think it’s a good idea in academic matters — especially if you have aspirations of convincing folks like me that your idea should be taken seriously. Most academics I know will disregard or ignore such uploaded scribblings.

Why? Not because they hate young people or new ideas or some nonsense like that (at least not typically!). No, it’s because they have limited time and resources, which means they have to rely on the assistance of others to help them focus on the most important materials. They need, in other words, a gatekeeper.

And like it or not — whether it’s valid or not — that gatekeeper tends to be peer review. In fact, it’s just this quality that makes the reputable online sources of information stand out from free-for-all upload sites: they utilize the same peer-review methods that traditional journals require.

Will that eventually change? Maybe. I don’t know. Check with your Magic 8 Ball.

In the meantime, what I’m saying is this:

If what you have to say is credible, useful, and coherently presented, it can (and should!) be published through regular peer-reviewed channels. Almost all journals (at least the ones worth a darn) maintain a blind peer-review process, meaning that articles are judged simply on their merits, not on the degrees or reputations of the writers. The reviewer doesn’t know if the person who wrote the article is you, me, or Bobby McGee.

So if it’s worth getting out there, please try to do so through regular channels. It means that it’ll be taken seriously by the people who most need to take these things seriously. That’s the option you should probably want to take.

Yes, it means more work. You’ll need to make your work a genuine piece of scholarship.

Yes, it means taking more time. Sometimes the review can take weeks, even months.

Yes, it means facing rejection. Indeed, it may face rejection after rejection, as gatekeeper after gatekeeper turns it down.

So what do you do then?

Well, either you attribute it to a grand conspiracy of reviewers who hate you or — and this is statistically more likely, I’m afraid — you accept that your work is flawed.

The conspiracy is tempting mainly because the other option (being wrong) is so unpalatable to most people. It’s a lot easier to blame others for our failings.

“I’m saying all the academics are wrong, so the academics won’t let me publish it!”

Maybe. I can’t sit here and swear that this sort of rubbish doesn’t happen from time to time. But it’s abnormal. Honestly.

“They won’t let me publish it because I don’t have a PhD!”

Doubt it. I published multiple articles and two books before I had mine in hand, and I’ve had multiple undergraduate students publish their work in peer-reviewed journals. If the review is blind, no one is checking credentials. After all, the fact that I’m a professor with a PhD doesn’t make me smarter than someone who doesn’t have these things; it really just means I took a graduate degree career path and managed to get through it — which arguably has more to do with determination than with intelligence. I know lots of idiots with PhDs. For all I know I may be one of them.

No, if the gatekeepers consistently turn you down it might be because — sorry — your idea is fundamentally flawed, and everyone can see it but you.

Nobody likes to hear that, I know. But the truth hurts. Like a tell my students: “Life’s hard, kids; get a helmet.”

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