Openness and Safety in Community-Sourced Scholarly Work

Last week’s Public Philosophy Journal planning session at MSU, with our partners from Matrix and from the Department of Philosophy, further increased our enthusiasm about making the journal function according to the ideas we have been developing over the course of the last two years. I cannot say enough about the hospitality and excitement for the project with which we were greeted or about the thoughtful, critical, and collegial input we were given concerning the various aspects of the journal ecosystem. (For an idea of some of the central points we addressed, you can listen to this Digital Dialogue produced during our visit.)

As important as the excitement and the feeling of shared purpose we generated, however, was the awareness we developed concerning various facets of the challenges we will face. The meeting forced us to focus somewhat explicitly on the values that have informed the project from the start and on the guidance these values provide for addressing its challenges. Chris Long has shared some of his thoughts on these matters in a recent post on The Disciplinary Economy of Open Peer Review. My aim here will be to call attention to two central commitments guiding the growing community of developer/users in the design process; i.e., openness and safety. Having done that, I will signal a potentially troubling tension we see between them, and then invite members and would-be members of the PPJ community to contribute to addressing this tension in productive ways.

We want the PPJ to be open in a variety of ways: Open Access and Open Peer-Review; open to various modes of expression, to academics and non-academics alike, and to the public; open to addressing issues of general public concern, to input from community members concerning how it will function, and to criticism followed by discussion of how we can improve any and all aspects of the process.

We also want the journal to signal openly, and to provide the necessary structures to ensure, that it will be a safe space. We want people from all backgrounds, disciplines, spheres of activity, and ways of life to feel welcome, to feel appreciated, and to be encouraged to open up to others in the community in ways that will be beneficial for everyone.

As doggedly optimistic as we have chosen to be about the possibility of achieving both of these simultaneously, we are not simply choosing to ignore the potentially troublesome tension created by adherence to each of these two values. In many cases, it appears that offering anonymity to all parties involved in processes of review and evaluation provides each party with an important sense of safety that they might otherwise lack. If this sense of safety is what enables them to express their judgments openly and forthrightly, then our pursuit of one kind of openness would threaten to undermine the possibility of achieving another kind.

Assume, for the moment, that we address these challenges effectively and that we are successful in maintaining an open process of identification, production, review, collaboration, and ongoing discussion that is characterized by charity, generosity, and mutual respect. Won’t we also be forced to recognize that ours is not the only network in which would-be members of the PPJ community are required to function? It would be short-sighted for us to leave out of account all the other dynamics of any given interested party’s position that can affect his or her ability to participate as openly as desired in the work of the PPJ.

Thus, we are faced with the following pressing questions:

How can we develop the culture of charity, generosity, and respect necessary for potential community members to feel safe participating openly and honestly in our forum?

Given that all potential community members will find themselves operating within networks of power that may function very differently from the one present in the journal ecosystem, how can we provide safeguards to ensure that openness within the space provided by the journal would not further exacerbate power-related difficulties that would-be community members might face while operating in these other arenas?

For all of us who have involved ourselves in the community so far, and for all of the many more we hope to include in the near future, these cannot be treated as merely rhetorical questions, or as questions posing theoretically interesting problems that we may, or may not, decide to weigh in on. These are questions we have to put to the community itself as practical issues in the hope that its members will consider them carefully and be willing to share their thoughts with us.

We hope that all who have showed interest in the project thus far will help us here by thinking about these challenges both from a standpoint of respect and concern for all members of the community and from the standpoint of what each can provide on the basis of his or her unique positions vis a vis the other networks of power with which the Public Philosophy Journal will have to coexist.

If you would, please take a few minutes to contribute to the community discussion of this issue by filling out this form and/or by replying to this post in the space provided below.

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