Monday, November 22, 2004

A Proposal: The Peer Review

Briggs Seekins describes the incestuous, careerist nightmare that is the current poetry publishing scene. Now, Seekins sounds like a rather unpleasant individual to be around (how many alcoholic depressives with inferiority complexes aren't?); and as for Dan Schneider (the owner/operator of the site publishing Seekins's essay) --- well, just look at his site's front page. Still, the dysfunction in the literary community seems real.

As an ersatz scientist, I can't help but observe that one of the major problems with the poetry business ("PoBiz") is that there's no effective system to encourage publication based on merit instead of nepotism. Therefore, I propose a new poetry journal: The Peer Review.

Editorial staff: Unlike today's poetry journals, the Peer Review will not have an editorial staff as such. Rather, the Peer Review will be run by two entities: a general chair, who is responsible for administrative matters, and a program committee (or, as we call it, a PC) that is responsible for substantive editorial judgments. The PC shall be led by an individual, called the program chair, who shall be responsible for twisting the arms of PC members to get their reviews done and such (see below). The composition of the general chair and program committee shall rotate from issue to issue; serving on the Peer Review shall be considered a service to the poetry community. PC members may not serve on the committee for two consecutive issues.

Rules for submission: Work by PC members or their current students shall be barred from submission to the issue over which they preside. Works shall be submitted with the author's name attached, but these names shall be concealed from the program committee throughout the review process. Authors must disclose any personal or professional relationships with program committee members.

Review process: All PC members shall be responsible for at least skimming over every submission. Additionally, each submission shall have no fewer than three written reviews by PC members (the PC chair shall distribute the burden of writing reviews equitably among PC members). Each review shall be several paragraphs long, discussing the work's merits and weaknesses, and recommending "accept" or "reject". Once all submissions for an issue have been collected and reviewed, the whole program committee shall arrange to convene in person, over several days, to discuss the relative merits of each poem. The program chair and committee shall cooperate beforehand to discover conflicts of interest between poems and committee members (poems written by former students, etc.), and committee members with a conflict of interest shall be asked to leave the room while the rest of the committee discusses those poems. If a committee member fails to disclose a conflict of interest, and a poem gets in regardless, then that member shall be shunned from the Peer Review forever after and he or she shall be pilloried within the poetry community.

Author notification: Along with notification of the program committee's decision, the written reviews shall be sent back to the poets in full, promptly and predictably after the program committee meeting.

In case it's not obvious: to someone coming from the world of scientific conference publication, all of the above is utterly boring and standard. But someone coming from the world of literary journals, considering the above measures, will probably be caught somewhere between laughter and tears. Anonymized submissions! Rotating editorial staff! Program committee members and their students barred from submitting! Disclosed conflicts of interest, and procedures to eliminate them! Prompt and transparent notification of acceptance or rejection! If only the world could be so fair and bright!

Would the Peer Review work? There are practical concerns: a poetry journal receives an order of magnitude more submissions than a top scientific conference; poets may not be able to afford to fly off to a program committee meeting several times a year; since the poetry world doesn't have a tradition of "professional service", it may be difficult to convince people to serve on program committees. I think these obstacles and others could be overcome by someone with determination. I just doubt that anyone with influence in the poetry world would actually be willing to try it.

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