With the announcement that Mellon has funded the first year of the Public Philosophy Journal, I have been thinking more reflectively on what it means to do public scholarship. Receiving the grant is, however, only one of a confluence of recent experiences that have forced me to consider how best to cultivate habits of excellent public scholarship in digital contexts.

A second experience centers around a closed peer review I just completed for an article in a traditional journal, a third around my experimentation with hypothes.is, an open annotation platform, and still a fourth around my ongoing attempts to advocate for my enhanced digital book with Cambridge University Press.

Each experience has brought an aspect of public scholarship into sharper focus for me, even as each has also signaled the difficulties scholars committed to public scholarship face.

I have written as some length already about the challenges the Public Philosophy Journal will encounter as we attempt to build habits of excellent scholarly communication into the basic editorial and review processes of the journal itself.

One strategy the journal will leverage is the power of publicness. I first became aware of how being public itself brings with it a dimension of accountability in my undergraduate philosophy courses when I required students to post all of their writing for a course on a public blog. Simply by making them aware of the public nature of their work, the quality of their writing improved. When I noted mistakes, they were quick to correct them; because they knew their colleagues and the wider public would read their writing, their work became more compelling and more thoroughly researched.

This capacity of publicness, under certain conditions, to incentivize nuance and rigor was made concrete for me in a recent review I did of a rather aggressively argued and arrogantly written article for a traditional journal. As I read the essay, I found myself thinking about how I would write it differently if I knew my review would be made public and my name attached to it. As I crafted my review, I found myself writing as if it were going to be publicly posted in order to temper my own visceral reaction to the essay and to develop a more balanced, but also more effectively articulated critical position.

It might be argued, however, that such publicness might have a chilling effect on a reviewer’s willingness to set forth a bold critique, particularly if the reviewer is an untenured scholar. Yet, the closed review model, with its anonymity and the opaque way it determines who will review what, seems to sacrifice more in accountability than it gains in rigor. The bright light of the public forces each reviewer to reflect carefully on how best to formulate a careful critique that will reflect well both on the reviewer and the review itself.

Such public reviews can have a lasting, positive impact on a scholar’s reputation. As services like Hyopthes.is, an open annotations platform built on open standards, allow public scholars to cultivate a strong reputation for excellent annotation and commentary across the web, it will be increasingly possible to create for oneself an online presence widely recognized for nuance, creativity and intellectual acumen. Such services, however, will also open the possibility that one might cultivate a reputation for careless, reactionary and unreflective annotations and commentary. Hypothes.is associates all comments one makes across the web with one’s individual account, allowing one to develop a reputation for excellence … or not.

Here is a video about how they envision it working:

Hypothes.is Intro from Hypothes.is on Vimeo.

For more details on Hyopthes.is, listen to this episode of the Scholarly Kitchen podcast in which they talk with Peter Brantley.

The open annotation platform envisioned by Hyopthes.is is consistent with the vision of my enhanced digital book on Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy. In working with Cambridge University Press to develop a book that would invite precisely such dynamic and public annotations from readers, I hope to put into practice modes of ongoing scholarly engagement capable of cultivating habits of excellent scholarly communication. What I like about the model Hyopthes.is uses is not only that it is built to open annotation standards, but that it enables authors to retain control of their annotations and comments and enables readers to hold those authors accountable for what they write. This sort of mutual accountability between readers and writers or authors and annotators could serve as fertile soil for the cultivation of excellent habits of open scholarship.

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