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An academic’s podcast gets the peer-review treatment

Experiment between a professor and a university press examines the question: can a podcast be academic research?

By NATALIE SAMSON | DEC 05 2018

In the past few years, universities and scholars have turned to podcasts as a research communication and pedagogical tool. Now, a researcher at Simon Fraser University has teamed up with Wilfrid Laurier University Press to take academic podcasting a step further. In this experiment, the podcast is the research, with peer review to back it up.

The Scholarly Podcasting in Canada project is a collaboration between Hannah McGregor, an assistant professor of publishing at SFU, and Siobhan McMenemy, a senior editor at WLU Press. Their immediate goal has been to figure out a model of peer review that could be applied to a podcast, and they’ve been using Dr. McGregor’s own show, Secret Feminist Agenda, as a test case.

Secret Feminist Agenda launched in June 2017.

The process looks something like this: Dr. McGregor records, edits and uploads the weekly show to the internet. As Ms. McMenemy listens along with the rest of the public, she might offer feedback on individual episodes or on the arc of a season. Her main task, however, comes at the end of a season when she administers an open peer review of several episodes.

For the review of season one, Ms. McMenemy sought out scholars who are engaged in alternative forms of scholarly communication or who work in the digital humanities. “They understand – frankly, better than I could – what is at stake with respect to opening up, not setting aside, the conventions of scholarly publishing,” she says. To those scholars, she asked: “Could a podcast like this be considered scholarly?” And, “Could the reviewers find reasonable equivalencies between a podcast series of this kind and, say, a book publication with a university press imprint on it?”

The names and photos of the reviewers as well as their comments were published on WLU Press’s website along with Dr. McGregor’s response. Some of the feedback was practical, focusing on technical details like how many microphones Dr. McGregor should use, or how she could change the show’s format (which has since shifted from a weekly interview format between Dr. McGregor and a guest in season one, to an interview every other week with an audio essay by Dr. McGregor in between for season two). But, the podcaster says, the reviews mostly challenged her to push against conventions while consciously connecting the work of the podcast back to scholarship in her fields.

“The peer reviewers keep pushing me to be open to what is possible, to stop second-guessing myself on whether or not dialogue counts as a legitimate scholarly form,” says Dr. McGregor. Podcasting’s strength as a mode of research, she says, is in its ability to convey and create a sense of intimacy between creator and listener, “but you only get that sense of intimacy when you’re willing to be vulnerable, and vulnerability isn’t always something that we’re taught to model in our scholarship.”

Dr. McGregor has interviewed academics, activists, artists, authors as well as many others on her podcast. Photo by Christopher M. Turbulence.

The second round of peer review is now underway for season two and reviewers have been asked to focus more on the content of the podcast and its contributions to critical feminist theory. The team is still ironing out the details of the review process for the third and final season of the podcast, but Ms. McMenemy says it could take the form of a roundtable review.

“There’s a technical side that the press needs to figure out, and how we might conduct such a thing publicly. It’s not something we’ve done before,” she says. “But we know we want to push the form of the review further still for that third round.”

Despite the enthusiasm that Dr. McGregor and Ms. McMenemy now have for the project, it almost didn’t happen. When the editor first pitched the idea of a peer-reviewed podcast, Dr. McGregor balked. She had had such fun making her first podcast, Witch, Please, which she started in 2015 with her friend Marcelle Kosman, why ruin podcasting, she thought, by forcing the trappings of “academic legitimacy” on it?

“My sense of what peer review was, and the sense that most scholars have, is [there’s] only one version of it: the double-blind, closed peer review, with all of the jokes that come with it about Reviewer 2 and all the mean things they say. But it’s not the only version that exists,” Dr. McGregor says. It wasn’t until the editors at WLU Press proposed the open peer-review process that Dr. McGregor came on board.

Unlike prior experiences with peer review on monographs and journal articles, which she describes as “gatekeeping – something keeping you out rather than welcoming you in,” Dr. McGregor says this project has shifted her perspective on the process, seeing it now as “generous and valuable work. It feels so much like my scholarly community trying to help me do something productive, which is what it should be.”

As the project starts to wind down – both the podcast and funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will come to an end in 2019 – the researchers are reflecting on what might come next. Dr. McGregor hopes to launch a network for academic podcasters, while WLU Press is keen to take on more podcasting projects in the future. In the meantime, Dr. McGregor is unequivocal about how she feels the experiment has played out: “It is without a doubt my favourite thing I have ever done and the most fun I’ve ever had as a scholar.”

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  1. James / December 7, 2018 at 13:44

    And who says humanities and social sciences aren’t legitimate fields of study worthy of the taxpayers’ dollars… just look at this wonderful podcast funded by SSHRC!

  2. David Arendale / December 7, 2018 at 14:30

    This article was very helpful. I just participated in a meeting this week where one of the topics was using a rubric to evaluate a podcast. I realize that the article describes something different, but both approaches share the goal of evaluating the worth of the podcast. We need to see more articles about this in other publications as well.

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