I think that the structure helped to achieve our aims

This is the second of three parts to Brett’s story. The first part, You actually get to talk in real time…I think better things come of that, discusses his approach and thoughts about open peer review and relationships with our reviewers.

In this second part of Brett’s story, we continue to unpack this relationship theme, but dive into thinking about power structures. Admittedly, I am often not as optimistic as Brett is, but I appreciate his optimism and idealism, partially because they are somewhat infectious and can challenge my own views. We were speaking in August of 2020. My city, Portland, had nightly police riots against Black Lives Matters protestors, and downtown was filled with tear gas. Sometimes the Proud Boys would show up and protestors would witness difference police treatment of these avowed white supremacists and Black Lives Matter protestors. When protests moved into residential neighborhoods—often the historically Black neighborhood—people were choking from tear gas in their own homes. I share this to frame what was in my conscience and the context of our conversation.

Brett Bonfield headshot taken by Cindi Blyberg
Brett Bonfield. Photo by Cindi Blyberg

Pronouns: He/Him/His

Position: Chief Operating Officer of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library

Fun Fact: Brett has “won” NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) twice. He says you wouldn’t want to read either of his novels.

Emily: The other thing I was thinking about when you were mentioning the word relationship is that inherent in relationship is power and privilege and particularly right we’re starting as a society to look a lot more critically at racism, systemic racism and white supremacy. So, in light of that but also in light of the person who I know you are who has always cared about anti-racism, who has always been a feminist, and intersectional feminist—I’m wondering if in this development of relationships how do power and privilege get reproduced so that we might still be engaging in a dominant culture or a dominant paradigm and in what way could that relationship get in the way?

I don’t believe that what I’m seeing in traditional editorial review seems to be undoing the power structures.

I think a lot of what society has been trying to overcome by setting up certain rules has been to try to undermine the cycles of racism and sexism and other factors that have been part of American society for as long as there’s been—well before there was a United States—as soon as we invaded what’s now the United States. I think everybody knows the Malcolm Gladwell anecdote about the idea of occluding views when auditioning musicians. As soon as you put up the curtain more women get hired. So I think that that is really important to be aware of, but at the same time I’m not sure that the remedies that we’ve come up with have fulfilled the promise as well as we would like. I’ve been an external reviewer for job interviews at an urban library, not Cincinnati, but an urban library. What the administration and the union had come up with was meant to pull biases out of the process and it was just awful. It was obvious that it was just reinforcing biases. I don’t think anybody had bad intentions in coming up with the process, but it wasn’t actually resulting in what anybody wanted either; neither the union nor the administration was happy with the outcome of the process. I appreciate the impulses behind randomized control trials or artificial intelligence, because it would be useful if it worked. But that’s the thing we keep seeing, randomized controlled trials often times just end up reinforcing power structures. Artificial intelligence often times reinforces power structures. The algorithm that judges are supposed to use in deciding cases—so all these things that theoretically are unbiased often just reinforce power structures and in a way that nobody is actually trying to do. I don’t believe that that’s the intention behind – I think it’s a bug in the AI, I hope that it’s a bug in the judicial system that people are trying to work through. Or take standardized tests or all these other things that are supposed to be leveling the playing field and just do the opposite. I don’t believe that what I’m seeing in traditional editorial review seems to be undoing the power structures. What I’m seeing in open peer review seems to be doing a much better job of it. And I think it’s because it gives a lot more agency to the authors and, frankly, to the editors, too, to be able to say this is the world as we want it to function, and these are the beliefs that we have, and these are the power structures we want to undermine. And it gives you, again, the ability to be an adult and ability to have agency and the ability to have conversations and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that In the Library with the Lead Pipe has become one of the leading voices for anti-racism, feminism, all the values that we care about in the profession. And the six people who founded it were pretty demographically similar [we are all white], but we came up with a structure that worked pretty well. We had beliefs that we cared an awful lot about, and we worked toward creating something that would actually give voice to what we cared about. I don’t think that’s any kind of coincidence. I think that the structure helped to achieve our aims.

Emily: Thinking about that word relationship and like having a relationship either as friends or editors or something that’s a little bit deeper than a relationship you have with AI or with a journal and thinking about bias is that when you’re in relationship you can have a conversation like this and say what are we missing or what do we need to be critical of and we can develop that together and we can try and think together about how we might together be reinforcing white supremacy or reinforcing something we don’t want to be reinforcing and then hopefully work to dismantle it a little bit. That’s what I see as a difference.

Yeah. You’ve just said it a lot more succinctly than I did.

Emily: Maybe there’s a reason I asked you to cut three paragraphs Brett.

You knew what the questions were in advance. You got a chance to pare down your thoughts.

Emily: I’ve been having many conversations about this. I have practice.

Yeah. You have your bullets worked out. I’m still editing on the fly.

Emily: I think one of the things that’s been so fascinating about these conversations for me at least is being able to have them in this time when we’re all locked in our houses and forgetting what day it is and still wearing their yoga clothes and like did I shower today or do I even need to shower? But then to be able to come and have these conversations and maybe escape a little bit of the world but also incorporate everything that’s wrong with the world into our conversation I find really fulfilling personally. Anyway, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about, especially when it comes to open peer review, what do you think peer review should do and what should it be for? Why are we even doing this thing that we call peer review?

I think there are a lot of people with a lot of really good ideas and I think the way to help other people find those ideas is to work in partnership with people who will challenge you and support you to make sure that the idea really is new and that it’s being presented clearly and that it’s being presented in a way that welcomes the reader to engage with the ideas. I think there’s so much noise, and finding the signal can be really challenging. I think that review can make that signal a little bit brighter and clearer and help it find its audience.

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