Peer-Review, Biblical Studies, and the Web (Skinner)

Peer ReviewLast 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.

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11 thoughts on “Peer-Review, Biblical Studies, and the Web (Skinner)

  1. Chris, you say that “the blogosphere has become a democratized space where everyone’s view is regarded as equal”. I don’t know anyone who reads the blogosphere that way. I would hope that most people read it critically and spend their time on sites that they know, from experience, produce valuable work.

    If there is a problem, it is not with the medium itself, but with the way that some people use it. Instead of rejecting the internet, we need to encourage more experts to use it and contribute to it. They should post more of their own work on blogs and interact with each other there. And all bloggers should allow comments and be open to criticism from anyone with the time to “peer review” their work. Instead of having a snobbish aversion to the internet, we should peer review its contents (in areas where we have expertise). And anyone who is offering something for publication should first search the internet, if only to see if their idea has been proposed before.

    Though I am an infrequent blogger, I have three unrelated blog posts the main points of which have since been published in print by three different authors. I don’t suspect them of plagiarism: they just independently came to the same original conclusions. I don’t think that my other blog posts are any less publishable, in general. I have published two articles, so I have a reasonable sense of this. So why have I not attempted to publish more than I have? Because it is a huge about of work, and that work does not, in my opinion, greatly improve the product. Journals require authors to interact excessively with secondary literature, and sometimes add gratuitous references to French and German authors. All this requires time and adds so much to the word count that substantial arguments have to be dropped. They also have idiosyncratic house rules for style.

    The peer reviewed publications have produced a lot of valuable stuff, but we should not rely on them alone. Specialist sub-disciplines, in particular, require other forums. Also, blogs offer important technical advantages over journals. They are not limited to 8000 words. They can link to other resources. They offer a convenient place for other specialists to leave comments. They can be made available free of charge and can be searchable by Google. Importantly, the author can make corrections and additions in response to new information or comments by others.

    Like you, Chris, I don’t think we should jettison the traditional peer reviewed publications. We should, however, think more creatively about how to best use the other media.

  2. I agree with you, Chris. I try to think of this situation happening in some other field, like medicine or aviation. Anyone can acquaint themselves to an extent with a body of knowledge, but I don’t know anyone who would agree to have a person not formally trained as a surgeon operate on their heart or fly in a plane with someone who has simply read a few books on being a pilot. There would seem to be a difference in having gone through recognized training and demonstrating one’s expertise through publicly accepted channels (such a medical school and residency, or pilot training and licensing) rather than simply asserting knowledge with no demonstrable means to substantiate it. The blogosphere seems to be a perfect example of this. Even 20 years ago someone would have to go through a standard rigorous process in order to have a public audience for intellectual discourse. Now all they need to do is push publish and their voice is inserted in a conversation, such as I am doing right here (!).

  3. Chris,
    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing. On a minor note, it is worth remembering that it isn’t just people of faith who push the “my-reading-is-every-bit-as-good-as-your-reading” mentality. I’ve noticed, especially in reaction to certain political happenings in recent weeks, that many of those who insist on the legitimacy of their readings of the Bible are un-credentialed critics/skeptics for whom no hermeneutical restraints apply.

  4. I blame the Holy Spirit, myself. Or at least a great many people’s conception of the Spirit as a means of claiming equality, if not superiority, of interpretation.

  5. Here you go, I’ve got two cents:

    1. Online resources, blog posts, forums, symposia, etc. are where we are headed. You better get used to it.
    2. There is a lot of crap online! A LOT!!!
    3. There is a lot of good stuff online that biblical (all!) scholars ought to be aware of and engage.
    4. Discernment, not rejection, is the key. Discernment with regard to source and genre is of primary importance. From where/whom is this coming? Ideological undergrad with an axe to grind? Pawn of a group or institution with an axe to grind? Active young scholar testing an idea? Established scholar making her research available to a wider audience? What is it? Random reflections? Well-researched but inchoate essay?
    5. Books are really no different. Anyone (and I do mean ANYONE) can publish anything (and I do mean ANYTHING) in a book. Amazon and a host of other platforms are more than willing to help you do just that. Again discernment with regard to source and genre is important.
    6. Biblical studies, theology, and related fields are more like art, music, or photography than medicine and aviation (sorry to disagree with you here, mattnewkirk). Anyone can paint or bang on a piano or push the button on a camera. But doing so does not make them an expert artist, musician, or photographer. I imagine some of these experts have blog posts bemoaning the ascent of the internet and how it has allowed anyone with a camera and a blog to cast themselves as photographers. But I imagine there are just as many talented photographers who are thrilled to have a platform for people to see their work without having to get selected by their “peers” for a gallery showing. Sure a gallery showing is more prestigious and can be a highlight on a CV, but hey, I take pretty good pictures and I’m just happy to have people see them. If they can give me feedback about how to be a better photographer, I’d appreciate it. If they find a picture of mine worthy of publication, that would be great. But if they want to use the picture of my son standing in the hallway with his underwear on his head and his cowboy boots on his feet for the cover of Time, then I’m going to question their expert ability to discern what is and is not good photography. Likewise, we ought not rule out the use of blog posts and other online resources in books and articles tout court. But rather, we have to consider the source and genre of the online resource and ask how it is the book’s or article’s author is using that resource.
    7. In the end I think there is a whole lot more chaff to winnow, but there is also a good deal more wheat to be had.

  6. I hear you, Chris Spinks, although anyone (at least physically) could pick up a scalpel or put their hands behind the controls of a plane just as much as anyone can bang on a piano or throw paint on a canvas. Like photography and music, medicine and aviation (done well) require both technical capability as well as a degree of artsiness. I suppose where my view differs is that I see the stakes as obviously much higher for one presuming to engage in medicine or aviation without proper training vs. one snapping sloppy photographs or butchering a song on the guitar. How we view the significance and responsibility of biblical interpretation will inform how we respond to those who engage in it publicly without due preparation or training. In my opinion, presuming to teach the Bible is a huge responsibility (a la Jas 3:1) and therefore the stakes for public interpretation are much more akin to medicine/aviation vs. the fairly insignificant effects of poorly executed art or music. But unfortunately I think you’re right that this is where we are headed.

  7. “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.” – I may be speaking only for myself, but I’ve never thought this. As a junior blogger, I fully recognize that James McGrath, Bart Ehrman, and Thomas Jay Oord are all far more reliable than I. Though, I do see this in some people and can understand where this mentality may come from. Perhaps I am an outlier.

    As for people who don’t trust peer-review, that is unfortunate.

    “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.” – I don’t believe this is true. Again, at least from my vantage point, I don’t consider myself to be more reliable or receive more credence. I do hope, however, that people might dialogue with me. If I am coming across thinking as if I am reliable and deserve credence, it is because I blog in order that I may dialogue with people and hear other thoughts. If somebody would like to say that I am completely wrong or unoriginal, I gladly accept that criticism.

    “well that’s just your opinion” response.” – If that is how people respond, it is quite unfortunate.

    Perhaps I am, at the end of the day, not the typical blogger. And I must also note that, were it not for blogging, I would be unable to engage with the world about my interests and preparation for an MA program due to my current location.

    Cheers!

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