In a recent post at the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s “Scholarly Kitchen” blog, the always-astute Joseph Esposito considers the unwieldiness of “post-publication peer review” as both locution and concept. The term signals an inversion in the traditional model of scholarly publishing, which typically relies on the evaluation of materials prior to release as a critical node in the determination of a work’s suitability for publication. The post-publication peer review scheme, as Esposito explains, is developing as a means for gauging the value of a text after its publication because new models for the online publication of scholarly work may not necessarily involve rigorous pre-publication evaluation.
Esposito identifies a series of complications obscured by the notion that the peer review process can just be tacked on to new models and serve the same function. Like the term “horseless carriage” used to describe early automobiles, he writes, “ ‘post-publication peer review’ seems like an early and imprecise way of describing something that is just coming into existence.”
The shift to Open Access publishing, particularly for scholarly journals, has been a major stimulant for theorizing the restructuring of evaluation, for reasons partly to do with business models that we won’t get into here. For Esposito, the issue—which involves not just peer review but the very definition of “publication”—gives rise to the question of “whether publication in an OA journal represents the end of a process or the beginning of a different one.”
Rather than talking about post-publication peer review, we really should be talking about an ongoing conversation that begins with colleagues and perhaps never really ends. This is going to be frustrating for those who yearn for the solidity of a fixed text, and these people have my sympathy. But the Web is developing its own kinds of systems, some of which may prove valuable, some of which are at best silly.
The implicit comparison here is to traditional scholarly publication, where peer reviewed works are published as “fixed text.” Though they hope to be discussed, their contribution to that discussion is essentially final on arrival. Bells rang, then, when historian Matthew Pratt Guterl wrote a week later of the collaborative process that has emerged since our recent publication of his Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe.
Guterl’s post, “The Afterlife of Josephine,” is about “the way that work and text and image move and circulate.” His book tells of Baker’s quixotic project of building “the family of the future,” a multi-racial brood of adopted children whom she put on display in a veritable theme park as a demonstration of harmonious diversity. That Baker created her “Rainbow Tribe” decades before Benetton marketed such imagery, before Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch opened another star’s home life to the public, and before Angelina Jolie’s international adoptions became tabloid fodder meant that Guterl’s project necessarily considered the legacies of Baker’s.
And now his book, too, has its own afterlife:
Last spring, I published a “life” of Baker. And it—circulating well beyond my control—has started to return. An email here. And letter there. A comment made in conversation elsewhere. This entirely unsurprising return has reminded me, though, that writers and readers share a responsibility to curate objects publicly and collaboratively, and to encourage conversation across communities, long after the book is published or the exhibit is closed down. Attending to the life of Josephine requires that one also attend to the post-life of Josephine.
The larger takeaway is clear: no book is ever finished, really, because a book is a part of a conversation, not a declaration of permanent authority. A conversation, I might add, that includes a wider range of people—readers as well as writers and reviewers. This set of enduring afterlives—our obligations and responsibilities to the subject, to the public, to one’s self, long after the book appears as if by magic at a store—is, I think, why we imagine writing as a professional commitment, and not merely as a pleasurable hobby. It doesn’t stop with publication.
Not to make a straw man of Esposito, but Guterl’s “Afterlife of Josephine” is a nice reminder that even horse-drawn publication can represent a beginning.