Rozensweig explains that the project seemed worth doing because it was time to move past merely theoretical discussions of on-line publishing, to explore the terrain by actually putting foot on it. In the attempt, Rozensweig says that the major problem that emerged was really a technical one, but a problem of equity, of the experimenters being fair and responsible to the contributors, the experimental subjects:
If we asked people to submit hypertext essays for review and then, as would be expected, we rejected many of them, the authors would have no other journals where they could submit their work. In other words, if we were the only game in town, then they would not have the option generally open to those whose work is rejected by a scholarly journal--submitting their work elsewhere. In that context, it seemed unfair to require completed projects from authors.
The editors' solution was to solicit proposals rather than completed work, to constitute a peer-review panel to evaluate the projects, a panel which consulted with the four authors chosen to go forward and then to consult with them periodically as they drafted and revised their projects; the result is clearly marked as draft-work as the authors continue to revise what are offered as their Beta versions of their work. Whatever their state, the articles will be reviewed soon by a panel of three experts who will then present their findings in the June Issue of American Quarterly. The concern about equitable treatment of the authors has veered off into an underlying question about how to determine the validity of their work in the New Technologies.
I find the experiment courageous and imaginative on the part of both authors and editors, but what they construe as a question of equity, actually seems to me a question of validity. We do not, individually or collectively, have much of an idea about the evaluation of research conducted through, conceived in, or delivered by, the new technologies. When the New Technologies are used merely as a delivery system for the product of the Old Technologies -- long since rendered invisible by time and custom -- we're not likely to have problems; but we often and quite literally don't know how to read something genuinely new in the New Technologies, let alone how to evaluate it. Peer review is our traditional answer to this question, but in the world of the new technologies, there are virtually no peers for the people who use them.
Thus, there's clearly a cultural and institutional problem lurking beneath the surface of the editor's comments. He notes, parenthetically but positively, that the initial group of twenty proposals included a surprising number graduate students or recent Ph.D.s and a significant number of groups of scholars. It wasn't his purpose to suggest that students and groups lack validity, but that seems very much the buried implication. The problem of how to read is entwined with the problem of who gets to read and, at precisely this point, the New Technologies reveal an important dimension of their danger and power. Like any truly new technology, they serve to destabilize existing ways of knowing and institutions of knowledge. They call into question traditional assumptions about expertise and authority. And they posit alternative definitions of both expertise and authority, definitions that privelege the variously marginalized within any institution. Of course, we've already seen something like this once in our lifetime, the rise of theory and hyphenated American Studies in the 70s; it seems likely that the New Technologies are about to allow us to repeat that particular part of our institutional history, this time with those who gained place and status in the 80s now cast as the party of memory, playing the uncomfortable role of reactionary defenders of the status quo. This should be really interesting!
Complete text of the Editor's Preface