Last week I published a post in which I questioned the role of online publications in academic monographs. I had just reviewed a very well-written and substantive monograph in which there were a number of footnotes containing web-based discussions. I was genuinely asking for the insight of scholars and students in the field because, as I admitted, I am still ambivalent about the practice. There was some good discussion on the blog and even more on my social media feeds. Later, James McGrath took up the question and generated further discussion both on his blog and on Facebook. It was interesting to read many of the comments, especially from those with hang-ups about peer review; funny how that topic found its way into the conversation. After reflecting on the whole experience over the past week I wanted to share several observations:
(1) First, suspicion of the critical expertise of those within the academic discipline of Biblical Studies is alive and well. I have dealt with said suspicion for a long time among people of faith. The “my-reading-is-every-bit-as-good-as-your-reading” mentality persists among lifelong readers of the Bible without any particular expertise in the field. To a certain degree I understand this mentality, even if I reject it. However, it’s one thing to have no exposure to the critical discussions in a field of study and it’s completely different to have broad awareness of those issues (even if limited expertise). Against that backdrop, I was surprised at some (e.g., pastors, seminarians, grad students, etc.) who have at least a general awareness of the critical issues in our field who seemed to be suspicious of peer review. This leads me to my second observation.
(2) For better of worse, the web, and in particular, the blogosphere has become a democratized space where everyone’s view is regarded as equal and many voices, including those without credentials are given a credence they have neither earned nor deserve. Do a search among blogs with a focus on the Bible. They are ubiquitous and they run the gamut. You have seniors scholars whose opinions carry tremendous weight, blogs run by junior scholars still trying to establish their voice(s) in the field, and even still blogs that are run by pastors, recent seminary grads, current seminary students, and even undergraduates. Everyone loves to talk about the Bible and while not everyone’s take is rooted in what specialists might consider an “expert opinion,” the ability to push “publish” has created a scenario in which everyone’s opinion is treated as if on an equal plane. (For the record, I’m not frowning on any of these attempts at blogging or finding one’s voice. My concern is the all-too-common, “well that’s just your opinion” response.)
(3) By and large, those who appear to reject peer review or find it objectionable seem to be those who want a broad hearing for their ideas but aren’t willing or don’t regularly subject their work to peer review. Here’s a fact we cannot get around: not everyone interested in a given field of study can, is, or will be considered an expert in that field. Further, not every idea is worthy of being considered or taken seriously.
Quite frankly, anyone (and I do mean ANYONE) can publish anything (and I do mean ANYTHING) on the internet. Peer review is not perfect. It is neither an exact science nor free from bias, but neither is it is completely arbitrary. While peer review may not guarantee quality in every case, it remains the necessary gate-keeping mechanism within academic biblical studies and should not be jettisoned. I’m frankly surprised we even need to have this conversation.