It’s just built on trust

This is the third and final part of my conversation with Brett Bonfield. In the first part, You actually get to talk in real time…, we discussed the personal relationships between editors, authors, and reviewers. In the second part, I think that the structure helped us achieve our aims, Brett reflected more on these personal relationships, particularly in regards to open peer review. In this final part Brett and I discuss what he sees as part of the culture of open and open peer review, and the tension it has with understood social compacts, labor, and how open culture is in tension with the academic rewards system.

headshot of Brett Bonfield. Photo 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: The most interesting thing Brett ever won was tickets to the Club MTV tour. He couldn’t tell that Milli Vanilli was lip synching.

Emily: I wanted to ask you actually about an experience we had as editors I remember I think you were part of editing this article that came in and we spent so long working with this person to edit it and format it and then they ended up pulling it and publishing it somewhere else. It’s almost like we did so much work to try and get it to be something that was cohesive because it was really all over the place. There was so much good in it, but I think three or four of us actually worked really hard with this author. I don’t know if they got sick of us or all of the feedback or if it was too much work for them to do and they pulled it and they put it somewhere else. And that’s the only time I remember us having that experience. Do you have thoughts about that in the open peer-review process?

I don’t recall them publishing it elsewhere. Part of it is, in open access and in open peer review we don’t in any way take or lay any kind of claim to the—I don’t even like using the term intellectual property—so I think that’s part of it. It’s just built on trust. One of the writers who I most admire, he’s an old-time blogger who stopped blogging years ago, but he also would develop open-source code and he would publish books with open access licenses. And at one point, I guess while he was still blogging, somebody pointed out that someone had taken a book that he had written and had re-published it on Amazon and was selling it and cutting him out of the deal completely. And he blogged about it, and he said that’s just part of the rules of the game. That’s what we signed up for and you hope people won’t do that and you hope that readers understand that my real publisher is over here and if you really want to buy it it’s also available on Amazon or wherever, but I gave it away for free without restriction. And as a coder people take my code all the time and do that. I don’t ask them for money. They might sell that too and I just wouldn’t know and that’s what we signed up for. That’s part of the rules and I don’t really have an issue with it. They’re only following the rules. They’re not breaking the rules in any way. As he wrote, there’s not even an implied contract; there’s nothing there that says they shouldn’t do that.

…we weren’t doing it for the glory. We had a lot of reasons we did it, but glory wasn’t it.

For Lead Pipe, you have to go back to the question: did we think our ideas ultimately had value and did we want readers to have access to those ideas? And if that’s the case, do we need credit for it? Is it about the journal—the institution that we happen to love and create, but ultimately it’s just an institution—or is it fine if it’s over there in that other institution’s website? I’m okay with that. Again, I would prefer that everybody follows the implied social order, but people have their reasons, and we weren’t doing it for the glory. We had a lot of reasons we did it, but glory wasn’t it.

Emily: And I think it’s hard because even when I think about that experience I do have a little bit of an emotional reaction and it shouldn’t be about my emotions or my reactions; I should be able to put it aside. I think it was just very frustrating and obviously I’m still carrying it with me ten years later,  but I think it sticks out for me because it was the only time that happened.

And I think that’s the more important thing to remember. All these people could have done that and could have gone to far more prestigious publications with their work and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything at all about it and they didn’t. And I still remember how occasionally somebody might get a thank you wrong, or they would misspell somebody’s name or leave somebody out, and I kept thinking, “I hope that wasn’t on purpose.” But we would go back to them and they would fix it or they would let us fix it. But I remember moments like that where I thought “oh they’re not doing the thing they’re supposed to do,” even if they’re not obligated to. Like you hope they do. It’s nice that it sticks out as the only one.

Emily: And it’s really interesting that you’re talking about this open source culture, the culture of being like, “well I just want the work out there” and I need to take my ego or take my pride or take everything out of it. But when the people who are publishing because of an academic reward structure that’s not the way it works. It’s based in currency and the currency is your labor and if you can make transparent the labor that you put forward in open reviewing then there is currency for it. So if I were at a point where I could say I heavily edited 20 articles or something like that, which I didn’t do, but to me that would have been a loss of currency when that author went somewhere else and there’s no attribution. Because I am part of an academic rewards structure being an academic librarian in a tenure-related position, I can see where other people might have more problem with it aside from just the emotional frustration. It might also be that kind of transparency of the actual labor.

When you’re doing unpaid labor already to then not even get any credit for it or thanks and to feel like it’s the opposite, I totally get the sting of it. But I think almost all of us ultimately did get things out of it. I mean, it was part of your tenure portfolio, it helped you get a book contract, it helped me be named a Mover and Shaker. It helped Kim with her Mover and Shaker recognition, which, again, all those things have rewards which is really nice, but I don’t think any of us expected anything like that out of it. I remember how much you agonized over whether you could even include it in your CV or your tenure portfolio. It was clear you weren’t sure that it would even be eligible and I think some of us included it also if I’m not mistaken. But again, same thing: I remember you were doing it because you cared. You just wanted good work out there. There was no sense that we were going to get anything out of it. I think open peer review has come a lot farther than that now and so because it’s a lot more standard people do expect that there’s more of an economic benefit or a reputational benefit.

Emily: I wanted to ask you your perspective as somebody who you had some experience in academic libraries right at the beginning of your librarian career but you’ve pivoted and you’ve come into public librarianship and you’ve become officially on paper a leader. And the reason I say that is because leadership but where your job description is officially as a director or a manager kind of higher up in administration, where do you see these values or do you see a role for open peer review in a very different kind of professional setting than academic librarianship?

They don’t want to clear a hurdle, they want to have an experience that feels supportive and will put their best ideas out there.

I can say that in public libraries there’s very, very little incentive to publish and I think we do see that there’s many, many fewer people who work in public libraries that are actively doing scholarly publishing. But I don’t think that Lead Pipe, for instance, is limited in terms of its readership to academic librarians even though there’s a greater incentive for academic librarians to write in it. I suspect that the public librarians tend to skip the ones that are solely about academic libraries or at least give them a little bit less of a reading. But people bring up Fobazi’s article [Vocational Awe and Librarianship] all the time in public libraries or Performing Whiteness [Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias], or several of the other pieces that were published by academic librarians and so I think the ones that speak to the profession as a whole have an enormous readership and an enormous influence and some of these are also getting up there in terms of age, but I hear about them regularly and in a good way. It’s changed how we think about ourselves. So yeah, I think there’s a place. I think we [public librarians] tend to be a little bit more practical because we’re not always looking for anything that we have to write in order to meet an obligation, but if there’s a thing that we’re doing that we really care about, we want to share it. A lot of public librarians have come to me and asked about getting into writing or what the steps are that are involved in sharing their ideas with the profession. And I think that the open peer-review model is a lot more appealing to them because, again, they just want to feel good about the article. They don’t want to clear a hurdle, they want to have an experience that feels supportive and will put their best ideas out there.

Emily: I can just imagine a scientist listening to what you’re saying, that you want the writing, editing and publishing process to feel good and I can imagine a scientist like my dad being “this is not about your feelings.”

I actually don’t know that I buy into that. First of all, it’s really science, the hard sciences that have embraced open access far more and I think they also have done a really superb job of building collaboration into the editing process. And in the initial authoring process because there’s usually multitudes of authors. I think that it does feel good to them. I think it does feel collaborative to them, I think they’ve just baked it into a different stage of the process. But I think they’ve also rejected the standard peer-review model with the exception of Nature or Science or a couple of others. With arXiv and PLOS and all these other journals that are total alternative models, I think they do it because it feels good. I think they also do it because they’re annoyed with how long the traditional peer-review process tends to take. I think they think it’s really stupid—and they’re right—that it takes a year [try more like 2 or 3!] to publish something and share it with your colleagues. It treats the authors like adults. It says “I’m going to put something out there that’s good” and I’m going to work with other people until it’s good enough to share and they’re going to judge me on the merits of it. And I think that’s really valuable and undoes a bit of the patriarchy. I mean it’s not a perfectly level playing field because, again, you still need access to certain resources in order to publish these things, but as long as you have access to relatively minimal resources you can put it up there in the same place everybody else is putting it out there and it’s going to be evaluated on its merits, which is certainly leveling relative to trying to get into Science or Nature where the institution you’re part of is going to play an enormous part in whether or not it gets accepted, and factors in all these other things that shouldn’t necessarily be factors. Again, Nature and Science are awesome, but they’re kind of at an extreme end and they do have issues.

Emily: Do you have any other anecdotes that are coming to mind for you? Specific things that have stuck with you?

…she so clearly knew what they were trying to say and wasn’t going to say it for them but wasn’t going to let them get away with not saying it clearly and accurately.

I worked with newer authors on a piece that was about all the other things you could do to collect data aside from just surveys. And we brought in the editor from – she was a librarian, but she had also been the editor-in-chief for some years of Evidence-Based Librarianship and Practice. And it was great to see her patiently bring them along. I mean, they were really excited, they had gone through as a cohort in a training in California [possibly IRDL?] and so they wanted to share the best of this training with Lead Pipe and they were really excited about the topic, but in some places they were skipping steps, and in some places they were getting things slightly wrong, and the patience she demonstrated as they went through repeated iterations over a fairly short time period, it was under a week, but it was just like she so clearly knew what they were trying to say and wasn’t going to say it for them but wasn’t going to let them get away with not saying it clearly and accurately. I think that was a wonderful mix of what it means to be a writer but also what it means to be a scientist and what it means to help other people think more scientifically as readers as well as a group of writers. And they were so earnest, they took her feedback well, so it took both sides trying to make this article better and it was very much their article. She wasn’t telling them what to say, she was just saying, “I think this isn’t really clear. I think you need to tighten this up. I’m not sure what you mean by this piece,” — just little comments here and there. That one really stuck with me. I was their internal editor and she was the external editor.

Emily: I like it when I hear those stories of real skill in letting people’s voices still be their own because I’ve heard many stories where in the review process you’re being asked to perform some other voice. People are mad that you’re using first person, which is one of my pet peeves, or people don’t like your writing style essentially. It’s like your writing style doesn’t sound important or elitist or academic and it’s like, well, that’s kind of the point—to be able to be talking about research but to have it be much more approachable. So I find it really interesting that that’s what you’re highlighting with open review, which has been my experience, too. But I think that’s maybe, at least in our profession, one of the distinguishing things. Maybe it’s we’re able to strip away that performative aspect of peer review in that your writing should look like this, but nobody has ever articulated what the “should” is until you’re being rejected or until you’re receiving criticism for it, when what they want is just for you to perform academically, like putting on a costume or a mask. And that to me comes back to thinking about particularly academia, and I feel like in academic writing we can frequently be asked to perform male whiteness and so when we do open review and we make room for people to have their own style and voice but still get across the ideas.

I touched on this, and I think you’ve touched on it, too. If the hurdle is 42 inches high in the standard peer-review process, people are going to aim for the academic equivalent of 43 inches. They going to clear it just enough and they’re going to do it the exact same way every single time with the exact same voice and tell themselves, “okay this is what I need to do.” And, yes, with an open peer-review process we’re going to have a certain threshold that you’ve got to clear or we’re not going to approve it for publication, but we’re going to try to help you jump as high as your ideas in the piece will take you and, ideally, we’re going to help you do it looking like yourself. Many of the writers we worked with were grateful for what we brought out in them and for the experience itself, even some of the writers who really struggled along the way. And I certainly was grateful to the editors and reviewers who made my pieces far, far better than they would have been—and especially the ones who dug in. Again, some of them were just like, “yeah that seems fine, you might want to change this or this” and I was grateful that they read it and they put some thought into it, but it was the ones who pushed me that I appreciated the most.

…it was the ones who pushed me that I appreciated the most.

I actually went through and read basically every article in every open access journal that was in libraries a couple of years in a row. The Lead Pipe editors would list our favorite articles of the year and most of those were not open peer-review publications, and most of the articles were just terrible. In many journals I couldn’t even find anything I liked for the entire year because you couldn’t even tell which journal you were reading, you could barely even tell what they were writing about, there was just so much sameness to it. The ones where the editors engaged with the writers — you could always tell, and it just brought out a spark. So even though they weren’t Lead Pipe and they weren’t blowing stuff up, you could tell the few that did actually engage with writers, like Code4Lib. You could just tell that they were having some fun with it, that it was an enjoyable process, that there was passion in it for them.

Emily: I think my experience on the editorial board and writing for Lead Pipe as often as we were writing really kind of ruined my expectations for what it was like after that. And I think that’s part of why I’m post tenure going the route of well I wrote a book instead of pursuing articles. But also why right now I’m going outside of the norm of traditional scholarship, working around IRB to publish these stories. I’m just going to do some basic analysis and cleaning up and re-organizing and call it good because I can. The robustness of an open peer-review process was incredible for me to experience and it’s always made my writing so much better and I’ve just been very disappointed by opaque review processes. Just so disappointed.

I’ve done writing before and after and, yeah, it just wasn’t nearly as much fun. It didn’t make me want to go back and do it. At some point people were talking to me about writing a book and I asked them about the process and I was just like — this doesn’t sound like a thing I want to do. I mean, I would like to write a book at some point, but the way they were talking about it I—I don’t want to just give you a manuscript and then you go do something with it. I want to engage. I want it to be fun.

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