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Feminist reflections on an open peer review project

Ashley Champagne and Crystine Miller

Image by James Yang, http://www.jamesyang.com

Feminist ideologies often stress the importance of revising traditional power structures, but how do teachers foster such ideologies in practice?  Considering that university classrooms are often spaces where traditional modes of power can be reified despite more progressive intentions, we wanted to explore how an open peer review process might put feminist theory into practice.  Part of the goal of graduate programs is to train students to become professional scholars, a large part of which is peer review and publishing scholarship. However, in graduate school, students typically produce papers individually, and only receive comments back from their professor. Editors expect that academics understand the peer review process, yet graduate school often provides few opportunities to see peer review in action or learn how it works effectively: feedback from professors is discrete (if not a secret source of shame).  Feedback in graduate school, then, models a vertical hierarchy where the professor’s voice is seemingly the only voice that matters.  But what would peer review look like if not only the professor could model it effectively, but also the students themselves?  What if a class stressed the importance of student voices by having them peer review each other’s work?    We wanted to explore an alternative model of peer review that emphasized the importance of a community of scholars and ideas, and decided to use Commentpress’s open peer review platform to create our first beta model.

Our project was inspired by Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s online open review version of Planned Obsolescence, in which she argues for “the need to reform peer review for the digital age, insisting that peer review will be a more productive, more helpful, more transparent, and more effective process if conducted in the open” (See here).  Taking a pragmatic approach to Fitzpatrick’s argument, we attempted to put our theory of revising traditional power structures into practice by modeling alternative modes of peer review in the classroom.   Using a Commentpress site similar to Fitzpatrick’s, a group of graduate students and professors from the University of Oregon submitted seminar and conferences papers for open peer review.

We realized after completing the project that an open peer review platform can serve as a pedagogical model to teach peer review and academic writing that emphasizes what many feminists are concerned with in their own scholarship.  By using an open peer review platform, the community of scholars that helps produce academic writing that is often attributed to one individual becomes more visible. By making the collaborative process of academic writing visible, we also found that students working within our beta model were more intellectually invested because there was an actual audience reading and responding to their work. And, after students produced the first version of their essays and then received feedback on them, students wanted to do justice to their peer’s comments by making substantive changes and engaging in questions and comments.  As a result, the class was able to produce higher quality papers through the openness of the peer review platform.

More significantly, though, we found that much of the value of open peer review comes from the very fact that it is open.  This model of review relies on a community of readers and writers in which readers are not anonymous and have some obligation to examine and make open their ideological leanings from which suggestions, questions, and comments are produced.

We did, however, notice one way in which traditional power structures were still operating even while using an open peer review platform. While the professor became a horizontal member of the discourse community by submitting an essay for student comments, none of the students commented on the draft. The professor’s position of power within the classroom, then, continued to operate within a vertical hierarchical model because his voice remained uncritiqued. That vertical hierarchies still existed in our beta model could indicate a flaw in the way that the peer review was facilitated (students were assigned groups and were required to comment on student papers within that group; the professor was not assigned to a group).  But it could also indicate that traditional academic hierarchies can still operate even when a class consciously tries to construct alternative peer review models.

While the existence of vertical hierarchy within an alternative peer review model leaves unanswered questions, the Commentpress experiment gave students, for the first time among the cohort, a formal avenue to learn about and participate in a collaborative peer review process.  While Commentpress is certainly not a cure-all or a single means of revising traditional modes of peer review, it does offer an a practical avenue that puts theory into practice and that helps scholars see their work as both having a wide audience and as the product of a community.[1]

[1] We would like to thank University of Oregon Professor Carol Stabile for her support and guidance throughout our Commentpress experiment, and Karen Estlund and Bryce Peake for creating the University of Oregon’s Commentpress website.