Albuquerque’s Historic Red Light District (Part 6): Who Will Peer Review My Map?

One of the questions that I have been grappling with in creating this map of Albuquerque’s historic Red Light District is this: who will peer review the map for accuracy and its validity as a genuine scholarly contribution to the history of the United States? The intention is not to create a toy map that is simply fun and informative. The map must be empirically based, theoretically grounded and plausible, and offer a new interpretation that contributes something to the field. It is true that I could just publish the map myself without peer review via a blog or website. But, I want to learn as well as produce. Having the map peer reviewed would not only assess the map, but allow me to assess my self and my work.

If this were a written article on Albuquerque’s Red Light District, it could be submitted to an academic journal where (if accepted) it would be sent out to anonymous reviewers who could assess the article’s value. But this is not an article; it is an interactive digital map that cannot be published in a printed academic journal. The idea place for this map would be on a State website where it could be used by the general public as well as scholars. But the question remains: who will perform peer review on this project?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (currently, Visiting Research Professor of English at New York University) peripherally addresses my concern about peer review of digital scholarship in her book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (2011).  Fitzpatrick’s concern, however, is more centered on peer review of traditionally produced works of written (prose) scholarship that are published digitally via online journals – as opposed to print journals or academic presses. In Planned Obsolescence, Fitzpatrick argues that the traditional method of professional assessment of scholars in the university environment (i.e., published articles) must be rethought in the face of growing online outlets for academic works. It is a thought provoking book; but it does not answer my question.

Paul Fyfe (Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University) deals with peer review of what he calls alternative scholarly production in a blog post, Open Access, Open Secrets: Peer Review and Alternative Scholarly Production. Fyfe raises similar questions to mine. For example: is the writing of source code that underlies a piece of humanities scholarship considered academic work itself, and if so who will review it and by what standard? But, like Fitzpatrick, Fyfe is primarily concerned with the written word in digital format. Where Fitzpatrick focuses on long-form prose works, Fyfe’s attention is directed towards blogs and the use of Twitter. He does point out that the Modern Language Association has developed guidelines on how to evaluate alternative forms of digital scholarship.  But, when it comes down to it, Fyfe doesn’t really answer my question either.

Both Fitzpatrick and Fyfe point to online journals that specialize in publishing works of digital scholarship, both prose and alternative forms. But, even journals like Journal of Digital Humanities and The Journal of Electronic Publishing are more-or-less prose journals published online article about digital humanities. Even Digital Humanities Quarterly (with such a promising title) is the same: articles in prose.

However, there is one online journal mentioned by Fitzpatrick that may offer a peer review for my mapping project, Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular. Published out of the University of Southern California, Vectors is unique in that it publishes scholarly works that may not have any prose at all. It is worth printing here, the “mission statement” of Vectors:

“Vectors maps the multiple contours of daily life in an unevenly digital era, crystallizing around themes that highlight the social, political, and cultural stakes of our increasingly technologically-mediated existence. As such, the journal speaks both implicitly and explicitly to key debates across varied disciplines, including issues of globalization, mobility, power, and access. Operating at the intersection of culture, creativity, and technology, the journal focuses on the myriad ways technology shapes, transforms, reconfigures, and/or impedes social relations, both in the past and in the present.

This investigation at the intersection of technology and culture is not simply thematic. Rather, Vectors is realized in multimedia, melding form and content to enact a second-order examination of the mediation of everyday life. Utilizing a peer-reviewed format and under the guidance of an international board, Vectors features submissions and specially-commissioned works comprised of moving- and still-images; voice, music, and sound; computational and interactive structures; social software; and much more. Vectors doesn’t seek to replace text; instead, we encourage a fusion of old and new media in order to foster ways of knowing and seeing that expand the rigid text-based paradigms of traditional scholarship. Simply put, we publish only works that need, for whatever reason, to exist in multimedia. In so doing, we aim to explore the immersive and experiential dimensions of emerging scholarly vernaculars across media platforms.”

One of the inspiring projects published in Vectors is “The Roaring ‘Twenties,” an interactive map and timeline that includes audio recordings of urban sounds. Developed by Emily Thompson (Professor of History at Columbia University) and designer Scott Mahoy, “The Roaring ‘Twenties” is an audio and visual landscape that explores the urban soundscape of early-twentieth century New York City. It is an expertly conceived and designed project that stands on it’s own, with little more that an introductory statement by the author. I encourage you to follow the links – only by interacting with the project, can a sense be gained of it and of the extraordinary nature of Vectors. If there is a future in this type of publishing, Vectors is good example of where it seems to be headed. Still, my question is peer review is not really answered by Vectors either. Vectors seems to promote the ideal of curation as opposed to peer review. Oh, well.


Screenshot from “The Roaring ‘Twenties.”

The possibility remains of organizing a peer review network for such digital projects – which would be a whole project unto itself. I think I’d rather just play with computers and documents.

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