There’s been a lot of talk in my Twitter feed and elsewhere online about this NYT story on open-access online peer review of literary scholarship. For me, this model marks an obviously significant improvement over the usual peer-review model. Pretty much everyone else whose views I’ve seen feels the same way, but their emphasis — and for the most part that of the story itself — is chiefly on the value of making decisions more open and transparent and therefore more accountable.
Those are good things, but I’m more interested in how this richer, denser, and yet also faster process could make scholarship just plain better. By aggregating responses, this model allows the author to see how people in general are responding to his or her argument — and then to reply in turn, either by agreeing with the criticisms or by re-emphasizing the original argument. In either case, the author then has the opportunity to revise the article in ways that can greatly strengthen its argument. After all, even if you don't agree with your critics, the clearer understanding you have of their objections the more effectively you can address those objections. And if you do agree with your critics, at least to a point, you can revise your argument accordingly.
Also, the more eyes that read your work — assuming, as is fair to assume in this case, that they are pretty well-informed eyes — the more likely it is that someone will come up with an apposite quotation that helps or challenges your thesis, or will alert you to some research that you hadn’t known about that affects the argument. This won't always be an obviously good thing for you — it wouldn't be pleasant to discover data that undermines your whole thesis, or to find that someone else has already made your argument — but for serious scholars this will almost never happen, and less serious ones will benefit from the lesson in the need to cover all your research bases.
More important, this model will be better for the cause of knowledge itself. Stronger arguments are stronger because they take the legitimate available evidence more fully into account. If we can get interested parties to do more to share the evidence they have, we will have more of what the Bible calls iron sharpening iron. And that’s good for the cause of scholarship.