Thursday, August 26, 2010

Web peer review mediates old paradigm of academic publishing; book club etiquette and Facebook

The Web (even as Web 1.0) is changing the way the academic world processes peer review of material that finally gets “published” in its scholarly and medical journals, according to a story by Patricia Cohen on Aug. 24 in the New York Times, front page, “Scholars test web alternative to venerable peer review,” link here. 

At issue, of course, would be the extent to which proposed contributions are placed on public, searchable sites, or whether they are kept private on Intranet-style virtual offices. We had an informal process like that in the workplace for internal documentation toward the end of my last job (at the end of 2001), although one enterprising staff member created a documentation website with javadocs.

It’s also possible that the concept would work with screenplay review, or particularly when a production company is developing a long television series and needs to stick to standards and maintain cohesion among the writers. It would seem to work with soap opera.

The article noted that the web technique is particular appropriate when analyzing new mathematical proofs (it wasn’t too long ago that topology’s “Four Color Problem” was solved at the University of Connecticut), and that the process might help academic research get to the bottom of some basic problems in physics faster.

Academic publishing seems the opposite of web publishing. “Getting published” is necessary for academic tenure, and things go through incredible amount of supervision before getting into the wild. But web review could change how the whole process of “academic reputation” works.

There's also a bit of personal history. In 1972, while I was working as a civilian employee ("mathematician") of the Washington Navy Yard, a coworker and friend wrote and got published a paper on vector spaces in Naval applications.  I helped him review it and checked all his proofs -- in paper and pencil.

Here’s another oddity. Let me introduce it by mentioning that I am reading Chandler Burr’s novel “You or Somebody Like You” (2009, Harper Collins/ECCO), where the female protagonist runs an elite book club. Well, it seems that you can get tossed out of a book club. Look at “Ask Amy” in the Washington Post today (Aug 26, 2010), here with The Case of Fanny Dashwood, with book-group camping trips. There are a lot of these things, including screenwriting and acting groups (I attended both in Minneapolis 2002-2003) that are still not strictly “social clubs.” Nevertheless, they could provide a pre-Facebook way to network. Imagine the “Sense and Sensibility” comeuppance on Facebook.

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