Lessons for Academics: What Journalists Know About Gatekeeping (Part 1)

In preparing my talk on peer review for the MLA conference in Seattle last week, I forgot that few of my fellow academics have much familiarity with ‘gatekeeping,’ certainly not to the extent that journalists have, especially after the upheavals of the past decade. Though the situations are different (journalists working with a responsibility to the public sphere directly where academics look to the needs of specific disciplines away from more generalized discussions), academics should know as much about the responsibilities and ramifications of gatekeeping as do journalists. But they don’t.
In journalism, the discussion of the problems of gatekeeping has been public and even heated ever since Benjamin Franklin’s 1731 “Apology for Printers.” The responsibility of the venue, both to the public and to the author, is keenly felt and its implications hotly contested. As this is something I have written about, both in the first two of my blogosphere books (The Rise of the Blogosphere and Blogging America: The New Public Sphere) and in “The Citizen Journalism as Gatekeeper: A Critical Evolution” (for Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise andReality of a Citizen-Involved Press), I made the mistaken assumption that editors and writers in academia have parallel concerns.
In a way, of course, they do. But the discussion has never been as public as in journalism. The academic gatekeepers, also, have never been challenged from outside, as gatekeepers in journalism, given the nature of the profession, always have been. In addition, the field of journalism, in keeping with the concept of freedom of the press, is not limited to credentialed professionals. As Gary Hudson and Mick Temple write in “We Are All Journalists Now”:

Despite the belief that the forums that debate the question of “what is journalism” are controlled by communities (for example, the journalism academic community) with a vested interest in a limited definition, we have no wish to limit access to “the profession”. Indeed, such a wish would be ludicrous in today’s world. The blogger, the online pundit, the producer of an online community newsletter can call themselves journalists, but unless they are committed to writing new and accurate material they have no right to do so. (73-74)

Things are, of course, quite different in academia. In addition to entry qualifications, scholars have found themselves beholden to the gatekeepers in other ways never the case in journalism, where stepping outside the establishment has always been easier than in academia. It is much simpler to start a newspaper than a college; an academic journal needs more behind it than The Journal from Joe’s Garage.
Gatekeeping is a major topic in journalism today, and has been for quite some time. It should be in academia, too, but the conversation has yet to be either as broad or as deep as in journalism. One reason for this is that the gatekeepers have tremendous impact on scholars—through editorial and review functions for journals and presses and through procedures for tenure and promotion. People are loathe to challenge, for fear for their own careers. Gatekeeping has greater impact on individual scholars than is found in journalism on individual reporters, for journalism has less formulaic structures and more alternatives.
As I write in “The Citizen Journalism as Gatekeeper: A Critical Evolution”:

During the second half of the twentieth century, theories of gatekeeping began to appear, generally extending the work of Kurt Lewin (1947) whose explorations of leadership and group dynamics provided a starting point and initially were applied to journalism by David Manning White (1950). Examinations of gatekeeping continue today in the work of Pamela Shoemaker, whose recent book (with Timothy Vos) is Gatekeeping Theory (2008). Shoemaker has provided the framework for study of gatekeeping on a theoretical level since the 1980s, with her 1991 work (written with Stephen Reese), Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media content, examining the gap between experienced and mediated version of events. (46)

Over the past half century, journalism has developed a complex understanding of gatekeeping that, perhaps, still eludes most academic publishing. This goes back at least to White, who studied the gatekeeping of an editor he calls “Mr. Gates”:

It is a well-known fact in individual psychology that people tend to perceive as true only those happenings which fit into their own beliefs concerning what is likely to happen. It begins to appear (if Mr. Gates is a fair representative of his class) that in his position as “gatekeeper” the newspaper editor sees to it (even though he may never be consciously aware of it) that the community shall hear as a fact only those events which the newsman, as the representative of his culture, believes to be true. (171) 

Though, even in academia, as Shoemaker and Reese write, “gatekeeping involves the selection, shaping, and repetition of information” (255), we don’t really question the ability of academic gatekeepers to do this competently and honestly, referring to academic credentials as proof enough that they can and will. Journalism has never been quite so complacent, recognizing that, as Shoemaker and Reese also claim:

the media gatekeeper must winnow down a larger number of potential messages to a few. The book publisher chooses from many possible titles; the network programmer selects from among several ideas for sitcoms, serials, and dramas to compose a prime-time schedule; and the newspaper editor must decide on a handful of stories to run on the front page. These decisions directly affect the media content that reaches the audience. But are those decisions made at the whim of the individual? (100)

Their question needs to be addressed in academia also, especially by anyone who is going to argue in favor of retaining blind pre-publication peer review, where the possibility of “whim” decision-making can warp a field of study in all sorts of unanticipated ways. This is especially important when “whim” can have great impact on careers, far more than in journalism, as well as on the course of future research.
Unlike journalism, where traditional forms of gatekeeping are being re-assessed in light of changes brought on through new digital possibilities, the grip of traditional academic gatekeepers is still strong. The forces granting tenure and promotion continue to use “peer review” as a shortcut in their decision-making and there is no alternate system of higher education for scholars to turn to. That is beginning to change, and it will have to, as digital possibilities make themselves even more strongly felt in scholarship and its publication.
The question is, can we academics learn enough quickly enough to replace reliance on peer review with a fair and open system that promotes genuine effort and scholarship without placing limitations on either means or avenues of exploration? I’ll try to provide a few suggestions for such a system in Part 2.