Nice provocative title, eh? I’m still thinking about Chris Anderson’s discussion of free (see previous post). As he remarks there, when the cost of memory, bandwidth, and processing speed drops so low as to be essentially free then there is no reason to worry about scarcity or waste. He notes that when things that are so fundamental to how we communicate become free, we are bound to see some significant changes.
Take our own disciplines for example. Peer review in humanities scholarship is kind of a curious thing. First of all it’s about reputation: a journal can’t have a good reputation unless submissions are peer-reviewed. Second, it’s about scarcity, and in some senses an enforced scarcity. That is, paper journals and book publishers have material limits to what can be published. This is both in terms of each issue of a journal and what kinds of journals or books make sense in the marketplace. There is also an enforced scarcity in that peer-reviewed publications only have academic value if some people have them and others don’t. If everyone can publish easily then the value of the publication as a unit of currency goes down. Third, it’s a mechanism for controlling disciplinary discourses. I don’t mean this in a conspiratorial way. It’s just simply the case that if you limit the places where scholars can publish articles that "count" then you automatically create a mechanism for controlling the discourse.
Of course the primary argument for peer-review and limiting scholarship is quality. Enforced scarcity and peer review result in better, or at least more disciplinary, scholarship. Without it, it become increasingly difficult to find quality work awash in a sea of "lower quality" publications. There’s no doubt though that quality is a loaded term. This may be different in other fields, but in the humanities, a lot of scholarship really just amounts to an interpretation or argument or point of view. It’s not so much that you’d get rejected for making an argument reviewers disagree with as you would for making the wrong kind of argument. Or for citing a, b, and c when you ought to have cited x, y, and z. Different reviews at a different journal might have the opposite opinion. And all that’s fine, but it just indicates that "quality" is quite relative when it comes to humanities scholarship.
Like everyone else I’ve read articles that I thought were dull or unimaginative or obvious or even "deeply problematic" (to summon my inner grad student) in the top journals in rhet/comp, and I’ve read really interesting and thoughtful pieces in backwater online journals–to say nothing of what I’ve read on people’s blogs. And obviously the opposite is also true. I imagine that my evaluation of pieces is different from many others in rhet/comp, but I’m sure we’ve all experienced this.
The point is that there’s no reason not to "waste" memory and bandwidth by publishing every scholarly article, essay, monograph, and multimedia production. Of course we would have to develop new practices for developing our scholarship as there are certainly aspects to the reviewing and editing process that are very valuable. I wouldn’t want to do away with those! In a way we have those with listservs and conferences, as well as in the blogosphere. We would have to intensify those. Over time, it would become clear which scholarship has lasting value, and that would happen in the same way it has in the past: people will make references to it; there will be links to the pieces; there will be discussions here and there. We’ve always had these post-filters, and they’ve always ultimately been more important than the pre-filters anyway.