Interview with James Collier of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

James H. Collier is the editor of Social Epistemology as well as the editor of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. In 2010 SE produced a special issue on the future of academic publishing, and the SERRC is in many ways enacting one possible future. It is a kind of hybrid journal-blog that interacts very closely with the Social Epistemology journal. In light of many recent discussions over the role of blogs in academia here and elsewhere, I was very excited when Jim agreed to answer some interview questions here on The Bubble Chamber. I was even more excited when he wrote back with such deep and thoughtful replies.

If you have thoughts or questions, please post them below and hopefully we can keep this discussion going!

SERRC is closely-connected with Social Epistemology, the journal. You are currently the editor of both, and most of the “reply” posts are replies to articles posted in Social Epistemology. How are these entities related? Do you think of them as two parts of a larger endeavour, or are they independent-yet-related?

Both the SERRC, founded in November 2011, and Social Epistemology belong to a larger endeavour. Both outlets offer forums that seek to advance new and inclusive ways to think about, and practice, knowing as a social activity. By interrogating the activities through which we derive knowledge, social epistemologists want to refine their judgments about how knowledge should be pursued. In part, social epistemologists look to bring their analyses and judgments to bear on the research, and political interests, of the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). And as STS offers a gateway to larger public issues related to knowledge, both the SERRC and Social Epistemology wish to contribute to that project.

The journal and the blog have had a one-way relationship that is growing into a sustained dialectic. Since the publication of Social Epistemology 26.1 (the first issue of 2012), every article appearing in the journal has received a critical reply on the SERRC. In each instance, the authors of the articles have responded to their interlocutors.

A nice example of what the SERRC can do comes in the dialogue among Johannes Persson, Daniel Little and Kimberly Chuang (the final installment is here). Johannes published “Mechanistic explanation in social contexts: Elster and the problem of local scientific growth” in Social Epistemology 26.1, 2012. I solicited a reply from Daniel. Daniel wrote an incredibly thoughtful piece that succeeded in focusing both on the details of Johannes’ argument and in raising broader, related issues in Jon Elster’s work. Johannes graciously responded. When informed of Johannes’ response, Daniel told me that he was teaching a graduate course in which Kimberly was a student. Kimberly had written an excellent paper, Daniel said, based on his exchange with Johannes. I contacted Kimberly about posting her work to the SERRC. She agreed. Then, both Daniel and Johannes replied to Kimberly and to one another.

I offer this example to highlight the SERRC’s potential. The dialogue featured two established scholars — one a philosophy professor in Lund, Sweden the other the Chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn (also a philosophy professor) — and an early-career scholar in philosophy at the University of Michigan. I believe the SERRC succeeded in lending a forum for scholars, at a distance, to engage in meaningful public dialogue. I trust that dialogue will serve as a helpful resource for anyone interested the issues examined. Kimberly’s paper, I believe, illustrates how an exchange might lead to new, significant scholarship. I invite anyone interested to pick up the threads of this exchange, or any other on the SERRC, and reconsider the dialogue through comments, replies or original scholarship.

Let me hasten to add that the SERRC offers more than article replies and responses. The twenty-three members of the Collective have developed original and significant content on a range of issues. The Collective also suggests issues of interest and I will solicit contributions accordingly, or follow my own initiative.

Social Epistemology had a special issue on scientific publications in 2010. Among other things, the authors in this issue challenged the academic journal as the best venue for presenting academic research, and challenged the authority and epistemic role of the peer review process. SERRC was founded about a year later. Is there a relationship between this issue and the creation of the SERRC?

Not directly. However, the SERRC attempts to address aspects of the proposals and questions that Gloria Origgi and Judith Simon (the guest editors of the issue) raise. For example, in their introduction, Origgi and Simon describe “reputation-based epistemic practices” such as “recommender systems” — “… trust-based recommendations, visualization tools (such as, for example, WikiDashboards), rankings, public evaluations  …” that have become prominent on the Web (2010, 146). The SERRC serves as a way for scholars — at least those who have published in Social Epistemology and whom I have contacted — to take some responsibility for “reputation-based epistemic practices” by answering publicly the queries and statements in the critical replies. In this sense, the SERRC encourages an open form of peer review. This practice, in keeping with the spirit of a comprehensive social epistemology, may speak to Origgi and Simon’s challenge to traditional peer review.

Although SERRC is structured as a blog, and the posts tend to be shorter than typical academic articles, the style of these posts is still very academic. Often academic blogs are used as platforms for academics to reach a wider audience. It doesn’t seem like this is necessarily the mission of SERRC. Who is your target audience?

Currently, because much of the SERRC’s content comes in the form of replies to articles in Social Epistemology, and responses to those replies, the blog’s tone and style is decidedly academic. Academic prose, as you suggest (especially regarding relatively technical epistemological matters), does not engender a wide following. The SERRC’s desire to attract a wider audience to social epistemology resides in some tension with the careful, close reading approach of the replies and responses. While I certainly believe the scholarship published in Social Epistemology deserves a thoughtful hearing and reception, I also need to encourage and show ways to imagine, and express, the arguments in a general interest framework.

For many academics, including myself, navigating thoughtfully and effectively in, and among, the multiple registers of expression in both traditional and digital media offers no small challenge. Writing a concise, critical reply to an academic journal article for a general, international readership of a public blog does not fit into the repertoire of most academics. But we learn as we go. As good social epistemologists, we try to be alive to how describing our pursuits may lend a basis for prescribing them.

We have two target audiences. We want potential readers of Social Epistemology to come to the SERRC, look through the replies and responses, then follow the links to view and download the journal articles being discussed. We want to foster a dialogue with the growing audience of international scholars interested in issues in, and related to, the field of social epistemology.

We also want to have a dialogue with people interested in “knowledge matters” generally conceived. We have made steps in that direction — most prominently in the contributions by Collective members. Early on, we had an extensive interview with Carl Mitcham conducted by William Davis. Elisabeth Simbürger interviewed Steve Fuller on video. We held a forum on the future of the public university and on the debate over intelligent design. I solicited reports on public lectures — a local lecture by Michael Hardt, a public panel at the New America Foundation. I would us develop more content along related lines.

SERRC straddles the journal-blog divide in a very interesting way. Each post has a pdf version with page numbers and you even organize articles into volumes and issues. But each article also has all the trimmings of blog posts – a comment section, sharing buttons, and so on. How did you decide upon this hybrid format? 

I decided from the outset to provide pdf versions of the blog posts. I wanted to mimic that aspect of a traditional journal — the “take- away” of a document one might print and read offline. Perhaps it’s the old guy in me (still, my undergraduate students seem honestly to agree), but reading online defies the comprehension gained from reading a hard copy or even a pdf. With long complex philosophical arguments, I need to read slowly or take a second or third pass. Imminent online distractions render close reading on a blog a near impossible task.

I decided to add volume, issue and page numbers a bit later — especially as content grew. I wanted ways to organize, reference and archive posts. PDFs I suspect, may encourage citation. Toward that end, I also give a citation listing at the head of the blog post and on the pdf.

Each post on the SERRC includes citation information as well as a link to the pdf version with page numbers.
Each post on the SERRC includes citation information as well as a link to the pdf version with page numbers.

With a structure that provides for customary reference and citation, I highlight the quality and significance of the work while taking advantage of the blog’s accessibility.

How difficult has it been to solicit contributors to the SERRC? Do they tend to be junior or senior scholars—or is it a representative mix? It seems like many academics find it hard to justify contributing to blogs or anything like that because they don’t have the same prestige as other forms of publishing.

I am heartened by the relative ease in finding contributors. We get a fairly representative mix of junior and senior scholars. Recently, Susan Dieleman (in the Collective) proposed that we engage with members of the lay public interested in knowledge “kinetics” — how knowledge circulates in society and how we might direct its movement and location.

The Collective members, especially as most are early career academics with the formidable responsibilities coming from establishing research programs, new positions and families, are exceptionally generous with original contributions.

The replies to articles tend to come from more senior scholars. One purpose of the SERRC is to bring together scholars from different points in their careers. Apparently, the potential mutual benefit, and the opportunity to reach a new audience, outweighs the lack of prestige in publishing on a blog. Established scholars recognize the changing landscape of publishing. The SERRC lends a unique opportunity not only to shape the direction of a particular disciplinary path, but also to try forms of expression more in keeping with the scholarly ideals of refining ideas through sustained dialogue.

Here’s how I think about certain contributions: Referee reports and the book reviews, both forms of writing academics scholars see as necessary for disciplinary maintenance and development, help bridge the seeming divide between traditional journals and academic blogs. As part of their active disciplinary membership most scholars referee articles and proposals and review books. For early career scholars, such work serves as an entrance to publishing. However one accrues little, if any, professional currency for reviewing the work of others (no matter the clear value of this task).

In editing Social Epistemology I received peer reviews that showed great attention to detail, a clear narrative sense and concern for the author’s development. As the SERRC got underway, I contacted reviewers who wrote significant referee reports and asked if they might revise them as public replies. In the era of academic accountancy, the opportunity to repurpose significant work that often goes unnoticed holds a certain appeal. I also ask the authors of article to respond to the replies. To this point, all have. With reviews, I contact book authors and let them know they have forum to respond. Many have, but not all. While my correspondence gestures, more or less subtly, to the obligations we have for the reception of our work the author, of course, owes me nothing. And, as you may well imagine, I am quite sympathetic to how busy scholars are.

I believe a process that includes adapting peer reviews into critical replies on a published article and inviting responses helps make scholarship more transparent, develops inter- generational and disciplinary relationships and seeds future work.

SERRC recently published a “special issue” on Normative Functionalism. It is structured just like a special issue of an academic journal. What led to the production of this special issue? Is this something we should expect to see more of in the future?

The special issue arose through a bit of luck and digital initiative. Patrick Reider contacted me late last spring about performing a review of Chauncey Maher’s The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy for Social Epistemology. As I had recently established the SERRC, I asked Patrick if he was interested not only in publishing his review online, but also in having Chauncey respond. Patrick agreed and Chauncey was generous enough to write a response.

Based on his exchange with Chauncey, Patrick decided to develop the special issue. In a very short time, he managed to get ten scholars on board (including himself and Chauncey)  — among them Joseph Margolis, John Lyne and Tom Rockmore. Quite the coup. Since then, Patrick has joined the Collective.

It just so happens Patrick is in the process of developing a special issue on the future of social epistemology. The anchor will be Steve Fuller’s article in the most recent issue of the journal “Social Epistemology: A Quarter-Century Itinerary”. I am curious to see who signs on for the issue.

Long-term, I am unsure if special issues will make regular appearances. I am open to any similar initiatives by Collective members — or anyone, like Patrick, who contacts me about a performing a book review and then takes the ball and runs with it! The issue on Normative Functionalism certainly increased our blog traffic.

Five, ten years down the road, how do you see *Social Epistemology*, the SERRC, and maybe academic publishing in general evolving? Are the days of traditional academic journals numbered?

I love print. But I am not sentimental about it. I do think traditional journals — at least journals traditionally conceived and operated and absent the tender mercies of publishing conglomerates — may be in danger.

When I started editing Social Epistemology in 2009, the use of ScholarOne Manuscripts (Thomson Reuters — also called Manuscript Central) was becoming widespread. For readers unfamiliar with ScholarOne, it is an automated (to a degree) peer review system. Now, the system can be clunky, and has eluded my full understanding, but editors can now handle the peer review process with greater efficiency. For example, I can contact a wider range of referees quickly and easily — a boon for an interdisciplinary journal. Turnaround time for revised manuscripts and publishing decisions has lessened.

In addition, Taylor & Francis/Routledge (T&F publishes Social Epistemology) promotes “rapid online publication” in which the final, accepted manuscript (absent editing and correction) gets published online, with a DOI number, five days after receipt. I am just beginning to use this service to help backlogged papers see daylight. The SERRC aids in generating discussion about the article before the print version of the journal appears.

I mention ScholarOne and rapid online publication to illustrate how some traditional academic journals are adapting to the digital environment. The SERRC is another adaptation — one that may have a trajectory separate from the journal.

In the near term, I think traditional journals may evolve to serve a kind of archival function — a storage medium that retains, and may magnify through rare use, the permanence and legitimacy ascribed to ideas in print. In that instance, our task may well be to reimagine the social ecology of scholarship in which an archive resides.

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  • Boaz Miller
    Boaz Miller Reply

    Thanks for the interesting interview. I don’t see academic blogs taking over academic journals soon, especially now when it’s very easy to create new online journals, though more difficult to maintain them (our own Spontaneous Generations is a successful example). What this means, in my view, is that competition between journals will become more intense. In this respect, I find Social Epistemology to be an excellent journal, both in quality and diversity of subjects. (Disclosure: I have published in it.) Now, that Episteme has changed its charterer , Social Epistemology is the only journal dedicated purely to social epistemology. Yet, this fact is not always reflected in the various surveys and rankings in philosophy and HPS, which seem to have a strong conservative bias. For example, in the ESF ranking in HPS Social Studies of Science – a leading non-conservative journal in the field – is ranked only as a B journal, and in the philosophy ranking, Hypatia is also ranked as a B journal, which means that a feminist philosopher who publishes in the top journal in her filed, can make it only to a B journal (while a formal logician can make it to an A). Social Epistemology is not listed in this ranking at all, where lesser journals are. My question to Jim is how he thinks this situation can be improved.

  • Jim Collier Reply

    Mike, again, my thanks on your excellent questions and Boaz, I appreciate your kind words and queries. I agree — the academic journal will endure, but I less sure as to what purpose. To address that issue somewhat, we are trying to work out a print-digital dialectic (if you will) of mutual benefit to both Social Epistemology and the SERRC. Academic blogs, as you rightly point out, demand great care and copious, if not great, content. Online audiences are ravenous. I feel a constant pressure to provide blog content. I have been lucky to get content with relative persistence and, so, with relative ease. Still, content and interest can dry up. Established journals have a cyclical rhythm, an established set of contributors and, often, a backlog of submissions. Social Epistemology (SE) faces the headwind of being interdisciplinary and not easy to categorize. If you check SCImago (http://www.scimagojr.com/) we’re a sociology journal. SE is not currently in the Thomson Reuters stable (we’re under review) — so no ranking. How to improve the situation? One can advocate for open source journal ranking and different formulae for determining impact values (Google seems to have something to say on this matter). One can work within the system and make sure articles are downloaded (by students, say) from journal and library sources (downloads are figured into rankings) One can site valued journals as much as possible and appropriate. And we can address directly the issue of the reception of ideas. That is, do we value our inquiry enough to make arrangements for its reception and distribution outside of sharing journal offprints for example? The SERRC exists, in part, to make explicit the questions and practices of the reception of ideas.

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