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Blind Spots: Using Collaborative Open Peer Review to Support PGR Publishing. Part 1 by Sarah Pett
The editors, taken by Imke van Heerden on 3 February 2012, University of York. From left: James Fraser, Ben Madden (postcolonial hanger-on), Isabelle Hesse, Anna Bocking-Welch, and me (Sarah Pett).

The editors, taken by Imke van Heerden on 3 February 2012, University of York. From left: James Fraser, Ben Madden (postcolonial hanger-on), Isabelle Hesse, Anna Bocking-Welch, and me (Sarah Pett).

Four PhD students at the University of York are currently piloting an innovative peer review process for developing postgraduate conference papers into an edited collection. In the first of a series of posts, Sarah Pett (whose has her own blog and Tweets as @essiepett) discusses the project’s ethos, as well as the practicalities of turning an ambitious idea into a successful reality.

Prompted by a shared experience of the difficulties inherent in positioning our individual research projects in relation to postcolonial studies, in 2010 Anna Bocking-Welch, Isabelle Hesse, James Fraser and myself established Postcolonial Perspectives, an interdisciplinary reading group for postgraduates at the University of York. From the beginning, the group focused on unconventional approaches to the postcolonial, with an emphasis on contexts that troubled its paradigms. It soon became apparent that we were not alone in our frustrations – discussions with postgraduates from across the UK revealed that we were grappling with an issue of increasing relevance and concern to PGRs working in a range of disciplines, periods, and contexts. Thus the Living Beyond Theory: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Postcolonial postgraduate conference was born. The event was a resounding success, and highlighted an emerging body of research into contexts that trouble the established paradigm of postcolonial studies. But how, we wondered, to sustain the dialogue that shaped the event, and disseminate the wealth of ideas it generated? Given the different stages of our projects, it will be several years until our individual monographs appear, while their disciplinary and contextual diversity means that our shared concerns would inevitably be diluted. With the help of Dr Jason Edwards at the University of York, as well as funding from the Postcolonial Studies Association and York’s Centre for Modern Studies, we decided to keep the momentum generated during the conference going by developing a selection of the papers into an edited collection.

Why open peer review?

“Blind peer review is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.”

Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik begins his report on the Future of Peer Review session at the 2012 MLA convention with this provocative statement from CUNY’s Dr Aaron J Barlow. As Barlow points out in his paper, “The Bearable Light of Openness: Renovating Obsolete Peer-Review Bottlenecks”, the rise of digital publishing has brought traditional peer review procedures into question. For Barlow, its impression of “quality control” is no longer a fair exchange for the publication delays and complex, occasionally unethical, personal and institutional agendas blind peer review entails – a foible I know all too well. Full of the bravado of youth, I thought I’d try my hand at academic publishing soon after completing my BA. Without any knowledge of established protocol, I made the mistake of submitting my paper to two journals simultaneously. Not a wise move, but it did open my eyes at an early stage to the inconsistencies of the field. One journal returned my article within the fortnight, accompanied by a largely positive review that recommended only a handful of minor revisions. Several months later, I received a two page review from the other journal, which included an ultimatum: significantly shift the focus of the paper, or it won’t be published. The recommended shift seemed to reflect the reviewer’s research interests, rather than my own, which was an unpleasant and demoralizing experience for a young researcher. More importantly, however, it was disabling, leaving me with no platform from which to respond to the reviewer’s diktat.

Clearly, this is not something we wished to replicate in the preparation of the edited collection. What’s more, as postgraduate researchers, we have been aware from the outset that the collection has to be tip-top to stand a chance with a “proper” academic press. And finally, with an editorial committee made up of four researchers in the final stages of their PhDs, we simply couldn’t afford to commit to providing each participant with the level of feedback and writing support we hoped to offer. To optimize what we could do in the time available, we opted to select and improve articles via an intensive, collaborative process based around realtime participation. To do so, we designed a series of open peer review workshops that allowed our authors to participate in providing and responding to feedback over the course of several months: a model that closely resembles that employed by Kairos, whose editor Cheryl Ball appeared alongside Barlow at the MLA. Kairos—a journal of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy—employs a three tier review process. In tiers one and two, submissions are evaluated by individual editors before being forwarded for discussion to the editorial board as a whole. In tier three, a staff member is assigned to mentor the author in implementing revisions for up to three months. The Postcolonial Perspectives publication workshop series sought to emulate and even build on this process. In stage one, the editorial committee selected papers from the conference to invite as contributors; stage two involved refining the ethos of the project and requesting that contributors develop their papers with this in mind. Stage three is when the realtime workshops came into play, allowing contributors and reviewers to meet and discuss feedback over the course of a day.

The first workshop, which took place at York on 16 January 2012, was extremely successful—one academic staff member said he was keen to adopt our model in his own work—and demonstrates how a collaborative open peer review model can be implemented at a grassroots level to support the career development of PGRs and ECRs. The second workshop is scheduled to take place in early May, during which participants will go over the final revisions and collaborate in refining the book proposal and editorial introduction as a group. We are also looking into using an open source manuscript management and publishing system such as the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal Systems as a means of continuing the workshops’ collaborative format remotely. While the project’s aim—publication with an academic press—is ambitious, the workshop format means that, at worst, our contributors can walk away with a carefully revised paper for submission to an international peer reviewed journal, a committed mentor, and a handful of supportive peers with shared research interests and career goals.

Workshop One: From left: Dr Jason Edwards (York), Professor David Attwell (York), James Fraser (York), Anna Bocking-Welch (York), Rebecca Jones (Birmingham), and Katherine Ebury (York).

The radical in me would love the project to culminate in a high profile open access publication, accompanied by a creative and thought-provoking social media campaign to raise awareness about postcolonial studies, its contributions and its limitations. For the time being, we’ll continue to play it safe, but it won’t stop me thinking about the possibilities for reform in academic publishing, and the instrumental role PGRs have to play in changing the game. Hopefully before too long there will be a copy of Beyond the Postcolonial Paradigm: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Parapostcolonial on a library shelf—or Kindle—near you…