Olson counsels deans and department chairs—and us—to beware "commentators there who were recommending changes in how the discipline conceives scholarly work." In particular, he notes:
Among other things, the reforms call for replacing the traditional monograph-style dissertation with alternative types of final projects; reconceiving professional scholarship to be less dependent on traditional forms and standard scholarly venues; and moving more toward open-access dissemination of scholarship.Olson argues that "the proposals are wrongheaded and ill-timed" for various reasons:
Retaining the monograph-style dissertation.
- "Learning to produce a traditional monograph-style dissertation, then, is essential training for a humanities scholar these days because the experience helps neophyte scholars overcome the cultural and cognitive sway of attention deficit to which we are all prone now."
- "allowing doctoral students to produce alternative projects may well disadvantage them on the job market, as hiring committees—or at least some members of them—may not be as receptive to experimental forms and may favor candidates who have, in fact, produced a monograph."
Using traditional forms and venues; avoiding open-access scholarship.
- "more and more online journals are claiming to employ a peer-review process. That could be a positive development if we can arrive at a point where the community of scholars has confidence that the review process in online venues is as rigorous as it is in top-tier print journals. At the present, however, many scholars are still skeptical that the processes are equivalent."
Here, I only focus on Issue 1: whether the proposals will damage the scholarship itself. And in this sense, I think Olson's argument is a mixed bag.
For instance, although I strongly prefer monograph-style dissertations—they provide a strong framework for developing a research arc—monographs are not the rule in many other scholarly fields. When Olson warns that "critics of the humanities to assume that [the humanities] are inferior disciplines and therefore expendable," I remember that in many fields, the monograph is seen as a post-tenure project, one that a senior scholar can take on because her or his "real" work of articles, conference proceedings, and grants has already been done. Scholars in these other fields still manage to "produce long, in-depth, sustained projects," but those projects consist of tightly interrelated, tightly argued strings of publications. Surely we can't blame the digital age for how, for instance, molecular biologists publish.
I have a bit more sympathy for Olson's argument about online publications, though I think he hasn't quite done his homework. As many commenters have correctly noted, many online publications - including journals and books - have indeed established peer review processes. For instance, the WAC Clearinghouse includes several open-access books that are edited by top-flight scholars and dually published online and in print. The medium itself doesn't matter; the process does.
At the same time, open-access books and journals face at least two problems that impair their process.
One is a money-and-labor problem. A traditional academic press makes money from (some of) its publications, and that money goes to a lot of necessary things besides stamping ink onto dead trees: encouraging submissions, picking up the tab for sending the journal editor to recruit papers at conferences, offering small honoraria to reviewers (in the case of books), copyediting, checking references, designing book covers, and promoting publications. With scholar-supported open-access journals, this work is still necessary, but must be shifted to people who are willing to do it for free - usually scholars, who must then take time away from their own scholarship, teaching, and/or graduate mentorship to do work that they're not necessarily well prepared to do. In particular, scholars who are good at big-picture applications such as journal editing are often not good at small-picture applications such as copyediting.
The other is a chicken-and-egg problem. A traditional journal makes its reputation in part by
(a) enlisting a recognized senior scholar as editor;
(b) enlisting an editorial board of scholars who can apply a consistently high standard to reviewing articles; and
(c) recruiting high-quality papers that exceed that standard.
Without those conditions, any journal will struggle. Open-access journals are at a particular disadvantage at this present moment, though, because
(a) senior scholars recognize that they take a lot of work due to the money-and-labor problem, so they don't take them on, leaving less advanced scholars to fill the gap;
(b) without a senior scholar as editor, journals face difficulties in recruiting senior scholars to their editorial boards and enforcing consistent standards from their editorial boards, as well as
(c) recruiting papers from senior scholars.
(All these issues stand apart from the fact that senior scholars are the most likely to distrust open-access publications.)
So (a)-(c) work against open-access journals, depressing the necessary confidence that will lead scholars to submit papers and tenure review committees to accept those publications as demonstrating high-quality scholarship. In turn, that lack of confidence means that scholars tend to send their best work to traditional journals.
I do think that the prejudice in favor of print publications will fade away over time—we're in a transitional period. But unless open-access publications can decisively address both the money-and-labor problem and the chicken-and-egg problem, that transition period will be a lengthy one.