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  • Shannon Honl

Peer Review Needs "A-Changin'" with the Times


21st-century technology has ushered in profound changes to scholarship. Researchers and writers are wielding many digital tools across numerous multimedia platforms. As discussed in the last post, projects such as podcasts, websites, films, and exhibitions constitute legitimate scholarship. Moreover, these new mediums invigorate fresh methodologies that contribute to developing, expanding, and reshaping disciplines. But how has the peer review process kept up with and responded to this revolution in scholarly dissemination?


Peer review of scholarship has been slow – at best – in responding to digital projects. Sheila Cavanagh, a professor of English at Emory College, argues that the traditional peer review system has failed to evolve with new 21st-century modes of publication. She insists that the archaic criteria of peer evaluation not only undermines but inhibits untenured scholars from embracing new methodologies. Out-dated procedures, according to Cavanagh, discourage “the kind of exciting new research that keeps our disciplines vibrant.”


For Cavanagh, the discrepancy hinges on the process. Non-digital scholarship tends to receive recognition and approval once the project is complete and its value is self-evident. Digital scholarship’s process is the inverse. Digital projects require advanced buy-in and support before initiation. Ongoing digital projects, which may never culminate in a finite publication akin to a monograph, rely upon stakeholders and interdisciplinary collaborators is an indicator of a project’s potential and importance. Unfortunately, 20th-century peer evaluations fail to compensate for these differences.


But bold scholars are calling their peers to take over-due action. Brian Clites, a professor of Catholic studies at Case Western Reserve University, drafted Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Scholarship for the American Academy of Religion. He agrees with Cavanagh that old guidelines are insufficient. They hinder the discipline’s mission, weaken a department’s ability to recruit and retain talented faculty, and discourage data dissemination across more visible platforms. In redefining the guidelines, Clites hopes to “promote the evaluation of scholarship in new and emerging media in ways that take into account the distinctive characteristics of digital projects and work.”


Clites differentiates digital from traditional scholarship based on interdisciplinary collaboration, multimodal, multimedia, opened-ended, and accessible characteristics. His evaluation parameters, based on core attributes of digital scholarship, suggest ways scholars and their departments can collaborate to evaluate digital projects. The proposed standards consider awards, grants, collaborators, target audience, design, sustainability, and analytics. The idea is that the evaluation criteria must be as fluid and responsive as the scholarship it assesses.


As evidenced by the scholarly conversation, peer review is long overdue for reconsideration. Thanks to insistent digital humanists, it is apparent that scholarly evaluation must expand its scope of consideration. Clites’s guidelines deserve kudos for initiating a conversation. Nathan Loewen, a professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama, adds his voice to the discussion by synthesizing Clite’s criteria. In doing so, he makes a compelling argument that peer review need not be a binary system – one set of standards for digital projects and another for non-digital ones. Instead, he suggests that whatever is deemed crucial for scholarship should be implemented across the board.


Loewen's synthesis of Clite's evaluation criteria. Could these apply to all forms of scholarship?

Peer review needs to get with the times. But would it make more sense if the new guidelines apply to all 21st-century scholarship? Especially since today’s researchers, regardless of delivery medium, rely on some form of digital to create, write, and disseminate their work.

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