Readers in the Making of Scholarly Knowledge or… how article (e)valuation has become more democratic

The wonderful book entitled Reassembling Scholarly Communications. Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access, edited by Martin Paul Eve and Jonathan Gray at MIT Press is finally out!

So to push you to read the work of diverse and enlightning contributors, I have remixed and shortened our chapter about readers and their empowerement in contemporary peer review. In the full version, we underlined one of the most decisive effect of open access: the accelerating rise to power of ordinary readers1.

Pre-Publication Peer Review as Reading

Throughout the history of peer review, the three judging instances (editors-in-chief, editorial committees, outside reviewers) that have gradually emerged were the first readers of submitted manuscripts. This may seem trivial, but the essential activity of evaluating an article – unlike other types of academic evaluatiion – is indeed the handling of a text. Admittedly, the peer review article can be considered to include many other things, such as checking that ethical rules are being followed or that data is actually being made available, but the question of taking into account the content of the article – whether in the form of a paper file or a computer file – has always been essential. The acts of reading are far from being simple, whether you consider “geographies of reading”2 (with whom, where, in what setting), what attracts the attention of readers, how texts are annotated,  how journals inform those practicies and what are the purposes of such acts.

Their respective importance and the way in which their readings are coordinated may be subject to local conventions at a journal, disciplinary, or historical level. They are also marked by profound divergences due to distinct issues in manuscript evaluation. The space of possibilities within which these readings are conducted is a subject for public debate that leads to the invention of labels and the stabilization of categories, and to the elaboration of procedural and moral norms. For example, on the respective anonymity of authors and referees, four labels have been coined since the 1980s

Authors Anonymized Identifed
Anonymized Double Blind Blind review
Identified Single Blind Open review

Source: David Pontille and Didier Torny, “The Blind Shall See! The Question of Anonymiity in Journal Peer Review,” Ada 4 (2014),

These spaces of possibility currently coexist in each discipline, being attached to different scientific and moral values, pertaining to the responsi- bility of reviewers, objectivity of judgements, transparency of process, and equity toward authors. The different possibilities here show that Merton’s “organized skepticism” and the agonistic nature of the production of scientific facts described by Latour and Woolgar long ago are, indeed, not self-evident. The contemporary moment is characterized by reflexive readings of peer- review technologies: manuscript evaluation has itself become an object of systematic scientific investigation. Authors, manuscripts, reviewers, journals, and readers have been scrupulously examined for their qualities and competencies, as well as for their “biases,” faults, or even unacceptable behavior. The diverse arrangements of manuscript evaluation are thus themselves systematically subjected to evaluation procedures.

Post-Publication Peer Review
as Ordinary Readers empowerement?

Peer review in the twenty-first century can also be distinguished by a growing trend: the empowerment of “ordinary” readers as new key judging instances. If editors and reviewers produce judgments, it is through a reading within a very specific framework, as it is confined to restricted interaction, essentially via written correspondence, which aims at authorizing the dissemination of manuscripts-become-articles. Other forms of reading accompany publications and participate in their evaluation, inde-pendently of their initial validation.

Citing Articles : with the popularization of bibliometric tools, citation counting has become a central element of journal and article evaluation. But it also need a transformation of formats, an identification of references and a fundamental transformation: the act of referencing relates to a given author, whereas a citation is a new and perhaps calculable property of the source text, creating what Wouters called “citation culture”. Then, highly disparate forms of intertextuality are rendered commensurable: the measured or radical criticism of a thought or result, integration within a scientific tradition, reliance on a standardized method described elsewhere, existence of data for a literary journal or meta-study, simple recopying of sources or self-promotion. Citation thus points towards two complementary horizons of reading: science as a system for accumulating knowledge via a referencing operation, and research as a necessary discussion of this same knowledge through criticism and commentary.

Commenting texts: in a view of publication as explicitly dialogical or polyphonic, reader can become commentersTraditionally, before an article was published, comments were mainly directed toward the editor- in-chief or the editorial committee. Through open review, commenters enter into a dialogue with the authors and thus open up a space for direct confrontation. Prior to the emergence of electronic spaces for discussion, objects like “special issues” or “reports” in which a series of articles are brought together around a given theme to feed off one another after a short presentation. Post-publication commenting was also common through two elementary forms: by referring to the original article or by sending a letter to the editor. The electronic space led to many experiments of post-commenting: most of them met no success (PLOS, Nature, Pubmedcentral…), until the unexpected success of anonymized comments on PubPeer.

Sharing papers: until recently, readers other than citers and commenters remained very much in the shadows. Yet library users, students in classes, and col- leagues in seminars, as just a few examples, also ascribe value to articles; for example, through annotation. The existence of articles in electronic form has made their readers more visible. Persons who access an “HTML” page or who download a “PDF” file are now taken into account, whereas in the past it was only the distribution of journals and texts, mostly through libraries, which allowed one to assess potential readership. By inventorying and aggregating the audience in this way, it is possible to assign readers the capacity to evaluate articles. The creation of online academic social networks (e.g., ResearchGate, Academia .edu) has trivialized this figure of the public, not only by counting “academic users,” but also by naming them and offering contact. At the same time, online bibliographic tools (e.g., CiteULike, Mendeley, Zotero) that objectify the readers and taggers who introduce references and attached documents into their bibliographic databases. Without being citers them selves, these readers select publications by sharing lists of references, the pertinence of which is notified by the use of “tags.” These reader-taggers are also embedded in the use of hyperlinks within “generalist” social net-works (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), by alerting others to interesting articles, or by briefly commenting on their content, feeding the whole “article-level metrics” movement. Here the readers, tracked by number and diversity, revalidate articles in the place of the judging instances historically qualified to do so.

Examining Documents : This movement is even more significant in that these tools are applied not only to published articles but also to documents which have not been vali-dated through the growth of prerint servers. This flow of electronic manuscripts feeds the enthusiasm of the most visionary who, since the 1990s, have been announcing the end of journals. On the contrary, we obsersed new technologies have been built on these archives, suchas “overlay journals,” in which available manuscripts are later validated by reading peers in various ways. With a view to dissemination, advocates of readers as a judging instance tend to downplay the importance of prior validation. While the valida- tion process sorts manuscripts in a binary fashion (accepted or rejected), such advocates contend that varied forms of dissemination instead encour- age permanent discussion and argument along a text’s entire trajectory. In this perspective, articles remain “alive” after publication and are therefore always subject not only to various reader appropriations, but also to public evaluations, which can reverse their initial validation through flagging articles in official journal policies.

The Academic Closet
vs. The Readers Bazaar

Driven by a constant process of specialization, the extension of judging instances to readers may appear as a reallocation of expertise, empowering a growing number of people in the name of distributed knowledge. In an ongoing context of revelations of massive scientific fraud, which often implicates editorial processes and journals themselves, the dereliction inherent to judging instances prior to publication has transformed the mass of readers in a vital resource for unearthing error and fraud. As in other domains where public expertise used to be exclusively held by a few professionals, crowdsourcing has become a collective gatekeeper for science publishing. Thus peerdom shall be reshaped, as lay readers have now full access to a large part of the scientific literature and have become valued audiences as quantified end-users of published articles.

If open science has become a motto, it encompasses two different visions for journal peer review. The first one, which includes open identities, takes place within the academic closet, where the dissemination of manuscripts is made possible by small discourse collectives which shape consensual facts. This vision is supported by the validation processes designed by Robert Boyle during the emergence of modern scientific practices. By contrast, in a Hobbesian fashion, the second one urges an openness in multiple ways, building an academic democracy where each reading may litterally been accounted. The disentanglement of peer evaluation goes througdh the ability given to readers to comment on published articles, to produce social media metrics through the sharing of documents, and to observe the whole evaluation process of each manuscript. In this vision, scholarly communication not only relies on crowdsourced peer review but on a plurality of instances that generates a continuous process of judgment. The first vision has been at the heart of the scientific article as a genre, and a key component of the scientific journal as the most important channel for scholarly communication. Whether journals remain central in the second world has yet to be determined.

  1. We means David Pontille and myself. You can read the full chapter here. Of course, as readers, you are welcome to cite, comment, share & examine this chapter []
  2. Livingstone, David N. “Science, text and space: thoughts on the geography of reading.” Transactions of the institute of British geographers 30.4 (2005): 391-401. []