Peer review has not only served us badly: it’s cost academics more and more cultural authority. The general public, having more sources available online, is less willing to trust experts, and sees peer review as akin to the monkeys in Kipling’s Jungle Book: “We all say so, and so it must be true.”
Kathleen Fitzpatrick made an excellent post on peer review. I highly recommend it as a deeper and more nuanced take than my earlier polemical version.
Fitzpatrick explains more about what Google does, and how unclear Google is about how it ranks pages: since peer review is central to promotion and tenure and career evaluation, it’s doubly problematic that Google hides its methods. She adds that talking about open sourcing peer review it won’t produce people willing to do the hard work. She’s right on all points.
But I still think a case can be made for ignoring a specifically academic audience for peer review, just ignoring it, and entering academic work in the general internet fray. Here’s why.
When GOP Candidate for Congress Rich Iott was revealed to be a Nazi reenactor in his spare time, there was a brief blog frenzy and I made a couple posts about the value/utility of historical reenacting.1
I got a comment from a very thoughtful guy, “gepaeck,” a serious reenactor who said that more and more, people in the reenactor community simply were not interested in what historians had to say: historians, and the documents they used, were all “biased” and subjective and therefore far less reliable than the physical experience of playing soldier in the hot sun. “Gepaeck” said he was quitting reenacting for this reason: in the community of reenactors the act itself, the itchy wool and the loaded pack, had acquired an unimpeachable authority and replaced scholarly research.
Yes, sources are biased and clearly, the skeptical reenactors don’t really understand how academic history works.
But the larger point, relevant especially in today’s political climate, is that the practice of peer review no longer claims the cultural authority it once claimed. Reenactors, who are fascinated by history and should be a natural audience for well grounded research, increasingly dismiss it altogether.
It’s not just history: global warming skeptics simply deride peer review as a small community of biased scholars, an echo chamber. Global warming skeptics are not some kind of oddball fringe: they’re pretty much synonymous with the Republican Party at this moment: VA’s Attorney General: the Senate minority leader, Sarah Palin.
So not only does peer review not serve the needs of the in-group (us) very well: it does not enhance the prestige of the in-group among the out group, which as I take it was probably the whole point of peer review to begin with.2
And this skepticism about peer review among the general public is not just some momentary blip: because global warming skeptics and Nazi reenactors can find any kind of agreeable crap on the internet, they have no reason to depend on or accept the wisdom of peer reviewed academics. And so we find ourselves in a situation, here in Virginia for example, where the State’s fourth grade textbook currently claims Stonewall Jackson commanded two battalions of black Confederates.
It’s not as if I don’t partly agree with these skeptics: peer review does tend towards in-group received wisdom, and a shared secret language. That’s not all it does, of course. But at this cultural moment, more and more, no amount of in-group peer review can overcome the internet’s ability to present you with what you want to believe, when you want to believe it.
So I want to imagine googling peer review not just because I want to break out of an ineffective and inefficient in-group system: it’s partly because I’d like to restore an active voice for thoughtful, “deep,” verifiable work that’s well documented and well argued, and that enters into the public sphere. Peer review that only speaks to and among “peers” won’t get it.
I’ll say right out that I think academics should have more cultural authority: the work we do is vital to a healthy republic and a healthy culture. And the way to reclaim it is to get our process as much into public view as possible: to stop speaking to “peers” in the sense of fellow club members and start speaking to “peers” in the sense of thoughtful concerned fellow citizens. That way we can make it clear how solid arguments derive from “biased” sources, and show what reasoned and careful arguments look like.
If you want to see a good example of what I mean, look at the extraordinary exchange on the Civil War conducted at the Atlantic blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, which you can find collected at this link. Or look at a specific thread from that series, like this one. Here we have a blogger with a deep community of informed readers, engaged in a respectful dialogue, concerned with both hard evidence and empathy and with the emotional resonance of the past. This is a group of peers in the best sense, doing the public work of making sense of the past from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
Here is another excellent example of the same dynamic. I made a post about the alleged black Confederates, in which I pointed out some reasons why the main source for the claim that there were large numbers of black confederates was suspect. I linked it in comments at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog. The blogger at “Dead Confederates” took it, amplified it, and did more research and contextualizing to dramatically improve it. He used freely available resources and framed it in a way that speaks directly to the community most concerned. My original post was in effect peer reviewed, sourced, and improved upon, then set in a context where it speaks to the people most engaged in the debate. This is exactly the kind of thing peer review should do. His blog lists more than 16, 000 hits: do that many people read a scholarly article?
It should be clear that this argument calls for reconsidering not just peer review, but the shape and form of scholarly work. I think we all know and understand the value of traditional scholarly work: carefully argued, scrupulously documented, it argued very fine points with accuracy and precision. Sadly, that value is rapidly declining. Scholarly work in the future needs to get out of the box: keep the fine point, and the accuracy and precision, but broaden the meaning of “peer” and engage in the questions that concern the larger public.
I don’t mean pander, or dumb down: I’m not imagining vast audiences. But in the modern era virtually any subject has a large nonspecialist constituency. These are the people we need to engage.
I don’t know if I can persuade a tenure and promotion review committee to accept this as serious work, but if I can’t, it will be for the same reason the first mate couldn’t convince the captain of Titanic to watch out for icebergs. 3
- http://theaporetic.com/?p=413 and http://theaporetic.com/?p=427 ↩
- A reasonable response might be that academics never enjoyed much cultural authority, and I’m guilty of imagining a golden age. I would certainly agree that academics never enjoyed unchecked cultural authority in the past, and I’d add that they probably shouldn’t–skepticism is a good thing for the most part. But I’m very comfortable arguing that the cultural authority of peer reviewed academic work has declined in the last decade. ↩
- now we’ll see if the community of titanic enthusiasts takes me to task for misunderstanding the causes of the ship’s demise. I hope so! ↩