This is the first of three posts telling Brett Bonfield’s story. Because Brett is a personal friend, our conversation is more nuanced and discusses our work together as authors and editors. We talked in August of 2020. It was hot in Portland, and since I had not gone to ALA Annual the previous year and now it was the pandemic, Brett and I hadn’t connected in quite a while. Let’s learn more about Brett, and from his perspective as a public librarian, thinker, and human.
Position: Chief Operating Officer of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library
Fun Fact: Brett was in the 2012 Men of the Stacks calendar (which raised money for the It Gets Better Project).
Brett is a friend of mine. I have known him since 2008 when he was one of the driving forces behind starting In the Library with the Lead Pipe. We work well together, and he has been a conference roommate of mine for many years. I’ve incorporated a few of his and his spouse’s sayings into my life, namely: there need to be as many cats in a house as there are human hands. I could not agree more.
In any case, Brett is a positive and optimistic human being. He cares deeply about improving the world and is excited by the possibilities of innovation and imagination and creativity. He came to librarianship as a second career after one in nonprofit organizations and grant writing, and is currently the Chief Operating Officer at the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library.
When we were working to develop In the Library with the Lead Pipe, an independent, open access, and openly peer-reviewed journal, one of the things that I noticed and appreciated about Brett was his deep knowledge and appreciation for open. Open source, etc. Together we, along with the other 4 founding members, formulated our version of open peer review for it. Brett told me the only experience he has had authoring, editing, and refereeing openly reviewed works has been at Lead Pipe. As such, most of our conversation focuses on Brett’s thinking around open and our collaborative reflection back on what we did at the years we founded and served on the Editorial Board of the journal. We both served for approximately 7 years. I’ve attempted to take as much of myself out of this interview transcript as possible, but being that I am a player in Brett’s story I do appear more than in others, and our back and forth is germane to Brett’s story.
In this first part Brett reflects on relationships and their importance in peer review.
Emily: what made you feel like open peer review is something I want to talk about?
I’m passionate about open peer review. I think there are enormous problems with the way that peer review is typically done — and we can probably talk about that later I don’t know if that’s necessarily the point of this — but I think open peer review is just a really generative process. I think the articles and other publications that come out of open peer review are more interesting to me as a reader and the process for me as either the author or the editor or reviewer is also significantly more valuable and I would love for more people to have that experience.
Emily: So, when you say more interesting as a reader is it just the knowledge that it went through an open peer review process or is there something extra that you’re looking for?
I think they tend to be a lot more readable. Because I think there’s a collaboration involved in the review process. So much of the standard peer review process tends to be binary or it tends to be yay or nay and I think the kind of articles that therefore make it through the review process tend to have a great deal of sameness and take fewer risks and tend to be very defensive almost, very CYA [cover your ass] and tend to just lack the kind of creative spark and risk-taking that you can take in terms of your thought processes or your narrative when you actually know who your reviewer is and you can have a conversation.
Emily: So, was there any particular anecdote or story that you have in mind when it comes to peer review whether closed or open or in between that you feel like you want to share?
Just so you know, the story I’m going to tell isn’t so much about my own privacy, it’s about yours.
I’m trying to remember the first article of mine that you edited. I think it was you and Kim. And you just pissed me off and I really was like, “what is she even talking about?” I had written this snarky response and I was like, “well that’s too snarky,” and then I wrote one that was less snarky and then I still didn’t send that one because it was still too snarky. I forget what it was you asked and then I went back, eventually, having sent something that probably was still overly snarky, and looked at your comment and I was like, “She’s right. She’s totally right. I need to just completely delete my first three paragraphs that I’m so in love with that I worked so hard on.” Because they weren’t actually getting me any closer to the point I’m trying to make, they’re just making it longer.
Emily: I’m sorry. Was I at least kind about it?
I hope it was a good story. It was a story about personal growth for me as a writer. Yeah. You were kind about it. Like you asked a really open-ended question that made me think there was less behind it than there was. And again, I hadn’t really gotten to know you yet. Kim brought you on — we have never met in person by that point. So, I wasn’t even particularly nice about it, and I think it’s somewhere in there that we also got into comments within the blog, back when we were still both posting comments, and I think during the midst of my being annoyed with you for making whatever smart comment, I posted something in the blog where afterward I was like, “Oh that wasn’t really nice. I wish I didn’t hit post on that one.” Like you had asked a question and I posted a link to answer it or something like that kind of a thing. It wasn’t super aggressive, but it wasn’t how I like to be either. It was just really useful to have that idea that it wasn’t some nameless faceless editor and it wasn’t like I couldn’t follow up with you about it. Again, it was you saying “I don’t see what you’re trying to do here” and me having to spend a few days going… “Right, actually that’s not accomplishing anything. I don’t know why I wrote that at all.” You almost always have to edit out your opening paragraph. That’s what good writers do. But it was just a really useful thing and it really stuck with me. I was cautious about bringing you on as a reviewer for some of my earlier work until I got a better sense of how you worked and what you were looking for in me as a writer and then I tended to bring you in on the ones I cared most about toward the end, the ones where I really spent a lot of time — you became one of my go-to’s. So, again, to have a relationship with your reviewer and your editors, you just don’t get that when you don’t know who your reviewer even is, and in theory they don’t know who you are, but of course, you know exactly who, but anyway, I don’t want to go too far into that. That’s my story as a writer.
As a reviewer, honestly just getting a chance to recruit so many writers that I admired, oftentimes from outside of libraries and then to get to bring them toward what our readers wanted. It wasn’t that they weren’t writing really, really well, I mean Ann Helen Peterson is still one of my role models and a superstar. She’s amazing. I got to recruit her and edit her. David Morris, who is this academic writer but hadn’t written about libraries before but his wife as it turned out was a librarian — his deceased wife — and he wrote his article as an homage to her. Just the chance to have that relationship and to be in conversation with them about what it was that we wanted to accomplish as a journal, what we hoped their piece might actually accomplish. It just really is incredibly satisfying. And to be open peer review as opposed to just, “I’m your editor,” I think it’s a very different They take it seriously and they take it differently and their questions are different. They’re not being journalists in that moment, they’re writing a more scholarly, well researched document to share.
Emily: Can I go back to the story where I made you mad and then circle back to this? I want to reflect a little bit that I don’t remember this at all. And I think it goes to show that the reason I asked if I was kind is because that was, more than ten years ago.
I think so. Yeah. I think it was in 2008, probably 2008 or 2009.
Emily: So, I guess I feel like I felt – in reflecting back I feel like I was so young and naïve and idealistic, didn’t really know what the hell I was doing and I feel like all the experiences that I’ve had since then have made me a much more thoughtful person when it comes to giving feedback so that’s why I asked that. And to hear that I guess I wonder or maybe it’s me internalizing feedback I’ve gotten from people that I’m “too East Coast” or that I’m too direct or I’m too just like say it like it is. To have that feedback that even in open peer review like feelings do get hurt and so it’s just interesting to hear you talking about that and it’s an opportunity for me to reflect on my own personal growth with being able to be reflective about how I interact with people and give feedback and then feeling like at that time I was probably a lot more thoughtless than I am now.
Just to be clear where I was coming from. First of all I am East Coast; I was in New Jersey at the time—you can’t get more East Coast—and I had been a writer at the University of Pennsylvania development office working with writers who were my parents’ age. I had put in five years doing that. I have the thickest skin so nothing affects me personally, but it wasn’t even about that. My feelings weren’t hurt, I was just like, “She just doesn’t get it. Like clearly if she were reading this she would have gotten it and she would see the brilliance of it.” It wasn’t that I thought “I’m so great” it was just like, “Oh, this is a really great, nuanced point that I have made here and you’re like, I don’t really see what you’re saying,” which I viewed not as rude but just —well, clearly she needs to read this again. No, you didn’t. You read it and you were right. You were spot on. It just didn’t really say anything. There was a whole lot of preamble that wasn’t necessary. There was nothing wrong with the feedback you gave, there was nothing wrong with the way you presented it, it was just more like, “Who did Kim bring in?”
Emily: To hear you say that it made you really cautious about asking for my feedback is really interesting to me because that could be a negative for open peer review if you think about it. If somebody had a negative experience with someone, or an emotional experience, or a reactive experience, I mean whatever that reaction is positive or negative. Because if there’s a veil of opacity and somebody says something that just rubs you the wrong way, whether or not they should have said it, you don’t know who that person is and so you’re not carrying around “that Emily I won’t ask her for advice again until I trust her more” or whatever it was.
Well, I think I probably pigeonholed you as an editor. I mostly went to Hilary initially just because we had a good relationship and then as our [Brett and Emily’s] relationship developed, I started to get a feeling for who would do different things with different pieces. Again, I think that’s the other aspect of it. It gives the author a certain amount of responsibility and we always said it. When authors would ask who should be the external reviewer, we would say pick somebody who’s going to be hard on you. Don’t just pick somebody who is going to be “yeah that’s great,” you pick the person that’s going to make it a better piece. And I think it was figuring out who would be hard on me in a way that I felt would truly bring out the best in me. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t respect the outcome, it was that you were an unknown. I didn’t know what to expect. And as I started to read more of your articles, and we started to work more together I got more and more of the sense of who you were and which pieces to bring to you. Again, I think that’s, treating the author as an adult. Your only goal is to produce a really good piece and so it’s up to you to have a relationship with somebody who is going to bring that out. Standard peer review can be sort of infantilizing. I mean you have so little control; you just send it off into the void and then eventually you get some comments from somebody who in theory doesn’t know who you are and you don’t know who they are and you can’t have a conversation. That’s treating adult scholars like children. It just seems really foolish to me. Yes, everybody has biases and it’s really important to get past biases, but again, I think an open peer review process can account for that.
Emily: You have been mentioning the word relationship probably three or four times in this conversation both in your discussion of our relationship when I was editing your work so when you were an author but also when you were developing relationships with other people as an editor. So, how do you see that word different in closed peer review?
I think the thing that people who defend closed peer review, who defend pay-walled journals, who sometimes even defend the kind of standard classic tenure process, they’ll talk about the importance of having a relationship with a journal. And so you want to put your best work into this journal and develop a relationship with that journal so they’ll continue publishing your work there. I don’t think you can have a relationship with a journal. First of all, the people at the journal change and second of all they’re putting walls between you and your readers, walls between you and your editors, there’s barriers to having an actual human relationship with anybody involved in the process with the possible exception of those that pay editors. Sometimes they’re very talented and sometimes they’re really good at cultivating authors. I think humans can overcome a lot of barriers. But, again, I think when you’re talking about an open peer review process, I think that’s the kind of relationship that we typically mean when we use the word relationship. It’s an actual collegial or professional or even personal interaction and relationship that you’ve developed. You get to have conversation in the way that we actually mean conversation. You actually get to talk in real time, or with slight asynchrony between email or comments in a document or whatever. I think better things come of that.