20 November 2015

Peer-Review and Publication of Unprintable Materials

The following was a panel presentation given at the American Musicological Society meeting in Louisville, November 2015, as part of the discussion "Beyond the Printed Page: Electronic Publishing and its Implications for Musicology," sponsored by the Committee on Career-Related Issues, the Committee on Technology, and the Committee on Publications, organized by James V. Maiello.

In thinking about the future, I find it’s always helpful to reconsider the past.  What were the roles of publishing in the age of print and print only? Why was it important to have ideas published? Only publishers could get an idea out to a large audience that would want to read it. Publishers had distribution networks that could take it from a single location (the city that we still cite in footnotes) and make it available throughout the world. The publishers took on financial risk in printing and distributing material: if they did not print ideas that were worth reading, scholars and librarians would stop subscribing to journals or purchasing books, leaving them unsold inventory in the present and less influence in the future. The publishers’ sense of the market would give an idea of how much interest there would be in the idea while peer review would ensure the quality of that idea. Initially, the reputation of a journal or publisher would determine how many people purchased and read it. Later, public review would help individuals and libraries decide which material to pick up after the initial sales.

While people sometimes speak of electronic publishing, particularly open access publishing, as changing everything, some of the prior paradigms remain and some disappear. Costs in production have certainly changed: The costs of an online publication (rights, editing, hosting) are basically the same whether its distributed to one reader or a million. Access, in the case of OA publishing, has absolutely changed. I doubt there is a single person on earth who has access to a print journal such as Acta musicologica who doesn’t also have access to the Internet.

What hasn’t changed at all though is the mark of quality and reputation that one journal or press has over another. Perceived differences in reputation or importance for online vs. paper has largely to do with the newness of most online journals. If the Journal of the American Musicological Society or Oxford University Press started publishing exclusively online, I doubt they’d take any hit to their reputation. It’s the name and the history that determines the importance of what is published, not the method of distribution. This authority—bound to decades of (mostly) good decisions about what to publish—is what is generally lost with electronic publishing.


If this hypothesis be true, then one need ask how can journals and publishers use their authority and reputation to advance scholarship better through digital publishing. I’d like to call on journals and the Society to be more open to peer-reviewing and “publishing” born digital materials, especially data collections, such as image archives, score collections, and spreadsheets that are of particular value to the scholarly community. Such publications used to be common in Anglo-American scholarship and particularly on the European continent. Here’s an example of what used to be published: An article by Gilbert Reaney in Musica Disciplina, where the text is largely introduction and connecting tissue around the main contribution of the article: pages and pages of charts describing the actual contents of some new finds. 






Or this contribution by Claude Palisca to JAMS in the 1950s, whose second part largely consists of organized musical examples of a surprising nature extracted from a large counterpoint treatise.  



Yes, both articles have text, but what mainly was peer-reviewed and published was data and a short justification for the significance of this data.

You won’t find many articles like these published today. In part there’s been a backlash against perceived empiricism without theoretical reflection, a new direction for scholarship, and so on, but this is not all of it. A larger reason is that our data has gotten too big to publish on paper, economically.  The best theoretically grounded article still would never appear in a major journal if it included a 300-page chart. Relatively forward-thinking journals have started to sometimes offer these tables, etc. as digital appendices. That may be fine for some people, but sometimes the table is not the appendix: it’s the article; if anything, it’s the introductory text that’s the appendix. The tables, hopefully in an original layout, sortable, filterable, and in original formats, can be the main text.
There are other important contributions to scholarship that are not included in peer-reviewed publication not because of their lengths but their formats: video, interactive explorations, computer software, or raw music notation files (such a curated collection of all the parallel perfect consonances in Bach chorales).

JAMS has begun to open one part of the publishing process to digital projects: the public peer review. The “digital and multimedia scholarship” section since 2014 has reviewed scholarly contributions that have already been released publicly on the internet or through other means.  It is a valuable part of e-publishing, validating, though after the fact, scholarship in non-traditional forms; Ian Quinn’s review of my music21 toolkit helped my tenure committee understand it as a book-equivalent project.(Dmitri Tymoczko's review in Music Theory Online had a similar impact for the theory world). But not all digital projects are book-length and thus subject to public review. And many projects would benefit from the process of peer-review earlier. It may seem odd at first to open an issue of JAMS and see nothing but a title, author, one or two page introduction and a web link to the materiel of the publication, but it is a necessary step towards using publication to even out the playing field between traditional and newer forms of scholarship.

Given the sponsor of the session, and the importance of teaching in our careers, I’d like to end with an appeal to pedagogy. We try to teach our students to distinguish between good information and less reputable. Articles appearing in JSTOR tend to be pretty good; random websites turning up from a google search are more problematic. Yet, if there are whole classes of scholarship: digital projects, data sets, videos, that cannot be recommended due to lack of peer review, lack of a press or journal name attached to them, we are shutting out our students to many of the top fruits of our scholarly labor. I hope we can change that.

Errata: 2015-11-20: The original version of this post mistakenly identified the third committee sponsoring the session. It is the Committee on Publications. It also referred to a slide of parallel perfect consonances in Bach chorales that was not included. The text has been adjusted.

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