Blogging and Peer Review

April 18, 2011 § 5 Comments

I know that I’ve gotten in the bad habit of metablogging a good bit lately, but I am honestly fascinated by the on going discussions among archaeological bloggers concerning the role of blogging in our academic and professional discourse (the links are too numerous to list here, so I’ll refer you to the epicenter of recent conversations). Recently there has been talk about a kind of peer-reviewed blogging in the context of a group blog on archaeology. (Alun Salt’s ideas for a group blog are worth pointing to here). This blog would both bring (to some extent) parts of the archaeological blogosphere but also have conventions for marking out certain posts with the imprimatur of peer review.

While it would be a privilege to contribute to a group blog – especially since my fellow archaeologists are often thought-provoking and articulate bloggers, I am somewhat skeptical of the value of a generalist archaeology blog.  Then again, if most of the posts are crossposted from existing blogs, I don’t see any particular downside to a group blog. Blogs are free, after all, and it is easy enough to monitor the reader stats, track comments, links and ping-backs (do people still call them that?), to determine whether people actually find a group blog useful.  I find the decentralized environment of personal archaeological blogs more appealing and the move toward more “official” forms of blogging vaguely unsettling, but this has more to do with my personal fantasy as an “outlaw blogger” than any rational view of blogging as subversive activity.

At the same time, I find the issue of peer review pretty difficult to support. As I have said, numerous times, peer review is good. It is a vital component to disciplinary critique and an important part of the discourse of professionalization in the discipline. Historically and practically, the ritual of peer review manifests many of the core values that academics in the humanities hold dear for their profession.  The anonymity of the peer-review process represents the undifferentiated and impartial body of professional practice, the value of peer review in the promotion and tenure process links the economic, social, and professional rewards with approved contributions to a clearly defined body of knowledge (and vice versa), and opacity of certain key aspects of peer review reinforces the boundaries of approved knowledge creating in-groups and out-groups. In short, peer review functions to protect our discipline as a profession and to tie scholarly production to professional standing.

At the same time, peer review is not the only mark of professional distinction.  As scholars we teach, discuss, and even practice our “crafts” (in the broadest meaning of the word) consistently without peer review. To my mind, blogging exists in that world.

It seems like at some point there has been slippage from viewing peer review as a way to recognize professional contributions to the field to seeing peer review as the process where knowledge becomes “real”.  In its most exaggerated form, works lacking peer review appear too difficult to judge, inauthentic, and misleading to include in the scholarly discourse.  Somehow the absence of peer review short circuits our ability to read text critically; and these skills seem to have become all the more attenuated in the context of the boundless content of the internet. As a result, some people have pushed back against the undifferentiated expanse of text on the web and insisted emphatically that authentic knowledge requires the imprimatur of peer review. As a result, there has emerge a view that scholarship that is peer reviewed is somehow better than scholarship that is not peer reviewed. Of course, producing better scholarship is certainly one goal of peer review, but we all know that our field would be tragically impoverished, if scholars applied this attitude in practice.

The reasons for this fetishization of peer review in the context of the internet are, to my mind, pretty obvious. For professional knowledge producers, the threat of something like Wikipedia is terrifying.  This vast body of information was produced without any professional sanction and without (much) compensation. It flies in the face of a century of rhetoric that insists on seeing professional academic scholars (with their various rituals) as the group in society responsible for the orderly production of knowledge.  This privilege has allowed professional scholars like myself to get compensated for our contribution to knowledge. No one makes money (legitimately) for contributing to Wikipedia. Its ephemeral and shifting nature undermines the idea that scholarly work is an enduring contribution to society and its use of “cognitive surplus” seems to undermine the idea that society needs scholars to produce knowledge.  In this context, peer review becomes an important rear-guard action against the growing, radical, democratization of knowledge production and the perceived (real?) risks associated with these practices.

Do we really think that extending the umbrella of peer review to blogs can provide a useful filter for the tsunami of information that crashes across our desks daily?  Can peer reviewed scholarly production on the internet compete in the same space as media like Wikipedia, popular blogs, journalism, and amateurism clamor for attention? To borrow some of Shawn Graham’s terms: I have my doubts that anyone will hear our faint signals of a kind of out-dated professional protectionism amidst the excitement and noise of the internet.  Moreover, it would risk encouraging a view of scholarly production that would run counter to what so many of us work daily to instill in our students: do not trust authority and read critically to appreciate the noise, filter it, and organize it to understand the world. While peer review would attempt to create places where the signal is particular strong, I think professional rituals carry less weight than our training, academic modes of expression, and membership in profession in competition for authority on the web.  And these aspects of professional, scholarly, and academic blogging exist outside of the context of peer review.

The advantage of an approach that resists ritualized authority of peer review (while still recognizing that bloggers will employ  some ritualized aspect of professional knowledge production) is that in the absence of peer review scholars can make the most of a less structured, less professionalized, more experimental, and more conversational medium that the looming threat of institutional sanction would almost certainly extinguish. The existence of blogs at the fringe of the professional academic world – as liminal space – allows them playful space to critique the nature of academic professionalism, blur the distinction between professional and personal identities, and reach out to audiences that regard with suspicion the wall-garden of the academy.  Imposing peer review in the blogosphere would partitioned off as professional space another corner of the world and, as a result, appropriate it for the crude economy of knowledge production.

§ 5 Responses to Blogging and Peer Review

  • Shawn says:

    Hi Bill,

    A somewhat related discussion goes on here:

    http://www.dancohen.org/2010/05/27/open-access-publishing-and-scholarly-values/

    and here:

    http://lenz.unl.edu/wordpress/?p=190

    …tangential, yes; I was thinking about blogging about how all this fits together, but…

  • Alun says:

    Over the past few months I’ve come round to your way of thinking Bill, on peer-review and blogging. I think one reason why peer-review still has an allure is that it’s often put in opposition to ‘scholarly’ work. Time spent blogging is time that could be spent writing peer-reviewed articles or tenure. The idea that you could do both, and that blogging in your spare time could add value to your on-hours work doesn’t seem to be well accepted. Marking blog posts as ‘peer-reviewed’ is the most obvious way to diffuse the tension. If you blogging as ancillary to research writing, like a tool for practicing forming coherent sentences, or distilling vague notions into an expressible idea, then the pressure for peer-reviewed blogging eases. It depends on what you’re blogging for.

    Another element in your post is the importance of filtering information. I’ve seen discussion of information filtering in the Life Sciences, but not really in the Humanities. Yet, Shawn gives an excellent example. I hadn’t read Stephen Ramsay’s post. Now I have because Shawn has created link where I can see it. Filtering is not a matter of digesting the whole internet, it’s about building personal networks.

    This is where a group blog could help. Blogging Archaeology introduced me to some blogs that I hadn’t seen, and it also got some attention for some new blogs. Blog carnivals used to be another way a new blogger could get known quickly, but these are dying as Twitter and Facebook make a 2 week or monthly turnaround look stale. A group blog could be a way of using established bloggers to gain readers for new bloggers. It could also provide a home for those who only want to blog infrequently. Anyone blogging less than once a month isn’t going to be noticed if they just have their own blog.

    A group blog could help with community building, but it’s going to take an awful lot of social working as well as blogging. Before the Blogging Archaeology session I was certain there wasn’t the will to do that among archaeology bloggers. I think the way Colleen has pulled in so many people into doing something has shown that I might be wrong.

  • Sam Hardy says:

    I’m so tired I can’t even remember what I said about peer-reviewed blogging before – probably “meh” – but group blogging, network blogging, or thingamebob seem ideal.

    As Alun says, it would grow from and as a trusted community, and it would give exposure/access to new/small/occasional blogs.

    Could we shamelessly rip off ScienceBlogs?

    • Sam Hardy says:

      Thank God for transient blogs – apparently I liked the idea of peer-reviewed blogging (though it was Colleen’s open-reviewed, rather than journals’ traditional, one).

  • Amalia T. says:

    This reminds me so much of the self-published vs. traditionally published tension in fiction. Self-published novels still carry the stigma of being somehow inferior to traditionally published novels, and traditional publishers are more than happy to keep it that way in order to preserve themselves. I can’t blame them, and the glut of self-published works by people who clearly skipped the revision/editing stage of writing doesn’t help anything, but there are people who self-publish well and produce quality works. It just takes a critical eye to find them in the market– and the easiest way to determine reliably what is up to par and what isn’t, is still to look at the publisher.

    Obviously we can’t all read every self-published book out there to find the diamonds, just like academics can’t read every blog related to their field, but they can subscribe to peer-reviewed journals, which through the process of peer-review (in theory) sift out the most legitimate or most important or more relevant information for them.

    Peer-reviewed blogs sound like they would add another level of access and filtering– kind of like how online literary (and less literary) magazines serve writers. It gets you the foot in the door and the extra exposure, as well as the validation of the community that you are in fact doing something to contribute and accomplishing something worth publication. In that regard, I’m not sure that it should be looked at only from the perspective of those who would be reading, but also as a helpful stepping stone to people who want to share their research with a larger audience (not to mention an audience that can do something constructive with the information) and have something worth contributing to the field, but perhaps lack the access to traditional academic journals.

    Decentralizing that filtering process a bit might well allow more opportunity, for academics and non-academics alike, to find new and critical information to their own studies, or even just allow new ways of approaching the information already in hand where a traditional journal might have rejected it for well, political reasons? With more and more access to a glut of information, it’s only natural that we create new ways of sifting through it for the good stuff by relying on peer-review, or editors, even among blogs. Perhaps especially so.

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