The holiday season, conference travel to Australia, and finishing off grading exams and essays has gotten the best of me, and it has been a long time since I’ve managed to post anything to this blog.

However, there are a number of important developments in the world of digital scholarly communication that should interest the archaeological community.

The first item has been the active development of open scholarly communication in Anthropology. In the wake of the AAA decision to lobby against FRPAA (a bill that would require open access to drafts of papers accepted for peer-review publication for research that results from federal funding), several anthropologists have banded together to do some grass roots organizing to bootstrap high quality, peer-review open access publication for anthropology. There is now an active blog and discussion group around the issue, plus experimentation with open source e-journal management software. Check out the blog, wiki, and other resources!

A second important item has been the recent launch of PLoS One. PLoS One is an experimental ejournal system developed by the publishers of the leading open access journals in the sciences (Peter Suber has some great links here and here). PLoS first earned well-deserved recognition for successfully demonstrating that open access publication is fully compatible with rigorous peer-review. They now publish several highly competitive and selective journals which basically mirror traditional journals, except for their open access electronic distribution. PLoS journals, including PLoS One, are (partially) financed through author-side fees. Such fees seem inappropriate for archaeology and anthropology, disciplines where research is conducted on shoe-string budgets, but there are other models for sustaining open journals. In fact, most such journals charge no fees.

Anyway, the success of their journals shows that PLoS has the credibility of a “serious” scientific publisher. Because they have earned this kind of reputation, they have some freedom to experiment with the electronic medium and explore new forms of scholarly dissemination. PLoS One differs from traditional journals in how peer-review is structured. PLoS One’s editorial staff will review articles to make sure that they are technically reasonable and scientifically valid. This review makes no judgment about the significance of the research being communicated. Once papers pass this initial review, they are made available for continued review, evaluation, and commentary by members of the community.

Perhaps the PLoS One system is not “peer-reviewed” in the traditional sense (as suggested by Kris Hirst), especially if we consider peer-review to be only a one off evaluation leading to a binary “publish” / “don’t publish” decision. However, I think the PLoS One approach of review and evaluation may be more valuable and lead to better scholarship. With PLoS One, review and evaluation is much more dynamic, and can be conducted by a broader range of reviewers with diverse backgrounds and expertise. Reviews can be more nuanced and paper authors can have the chance to respond to comments and concerns as they crop up over time.

This kind of “Web 2.0” (now a somewhat cliché term) participatory, fluid, social model of knowledge production is very different from traditional publication models. Kris Hirst suggested that PLoS One abandoned the traditional “one-off” form of peer-review as a way to cut costs for open access publication. There may be some truth to this, but I think the rapid proliferation of open access journals using traditional forms of peer-review shows that peer-review costs need not be prohibitive for open dissemination. Most peer-review is typically done by volunteers and new journal management software saves time and money in administrative costs. What PLoS One does is build upon this common practice of volunteer peer-review, and “lubricate” and extend it with social software. Good social software frameworks facilitate the collaborative efforts of dedicated individuals to build rich information resources. Thus PLoS One will hopefully help encourage some of the best sides of scientific practice.

However, collaborative social-software facilitated frameworks are pretty alien and new to many areas of the sciences. It remains to be seen how much commentary and review PLoS One articles will actually attract, since I’m not sure how this kind of participation fits with the larger social and economic realities of professional life in the sciences. If “publish or perish” continues to mean only publishing article length papers in peer-review journals (or volunteering as editors of such journals), it may be hard for PLoS One to attract enough participation to add value to the papers it publishes. In other words, participants in PLoS One may need some sort of professional recognition for their role in critiquing and commenting on papers.

Hopefully, such novel forms of participation will become valued. If PLoS One is effective at negotiating through these social and professional issues, they will open many doors for other forms of social-software facilitated scholarship.