blogging and the true spirit of peer review 11.17.2005, 3:27 PM
posted by ben vershbow
"...academic blogging represents the fruition, not a betrayal, of the university's ideals. One might argue that blogging is in fact the very embodiment of what the political philosopher Michael Oakshott once called "The Conversation of Mankind"--an endless, thoroughly democratic dialogue about the best ideas and artifacts of our culture.
...might blogging be subversive precisely because it makes real the very vision of intellectual life that the university has never managed to achieve?"
The idea of blogging as a kind of service or outreach is just beginning (maybe) to gain traction. But what about blogging as scholarship? Most professor-bloggers I've spoken with consider blogging an invaluable tool for working through ideas, for facilitating exchange within and across disciplines. Some go so far as to say that it's redefined their lives as academics. But don't count on tenure committees to feel the same. Blogging is vaporous, they'll inevitably point out. Not edited, mixing the personal and the professional. How can you maintain standards and the appropriate barriers to entry? Traditionally, peer review has served this gatekeeping function, but can there be a peer review system for blogs? And if so, would we want one?
Boynton has a few ideas about how something like this could work (we're also wrestling with these questions on our back porch blog, Sidebar, with the eventual aim of making some sort of formal proposal). Whatever the technicalities, the approach should be to establish a middle path, something like peer review, but not a literal transposition. Some way to gauge and recognize the intellectual rigor of academic blogs without compromising their refreshing immediacy and individuality -- without crashing the party as it were.
There's already a sort of peer review going on among blog carnivals, the periodicals of the blogosphere. Carnivals are rotating showcases of exemplary blog writing in specific disciplines -- history, philosophy, science, education, and many, many more, some quite eccentric. Like blogs, carnivals suffer from an unfortunate coinage. But even with a snootier name -- blog symposiums maybe -- you would never in a million years confuse them with an official-looking peer review journal. Yet the carnivals practice peer review in its most essential form: the gathering of one's fellows (in this case academics and non-scholar enthusiasts alike) to collectively evaluate (ok, perhaps "savor" is more appropriate) a range of intellectual labors in a given area. Boynton:
In the end, peer review is just that: review by one's peers. Any particular system should be judged by its efficiency and efficacy, and not by the perceived prestige of the publication in which the work appears.
If anything, blog-influenced practices like these might reclaim for intellectuals the true spirit of peer review, which, as Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters has argued, has been all but outsourced to prestigious university presses and journals. Experimenting with open-source methods of judgment--whether of straight scholarship or academic blogs--might actually revitalize academic writing.
It's unfortunate that the accepted avenues of academic publishing -- peer-reviewed journals and monographs -- purchase prestige and job security usually at the expense of readership. It suggests an institutional bias in the academy against public intellectualism and in favor of kind of monastic seclusion (no doubt part of the legacy of this last great medieval institution). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the language of academic writing: opaque, convoluted, studded with jargon, its remoteness from ordinary human speech the surest sign of the author's membership in the academic elite.
This crisis of clarity is paired with a crisis of opportunity, as severe financial pressures on university presses are reducing the number of options for professors to get published in the approved ways. What's needed is an alternative outlet alongside traditional scholarly publishing, something between a casual, off-the-cuff web diary and a polished academic journal. Carnivals probably aren't the solution, but something descended from them might well be.
It will be to the benefit of society if blogging can be claimed, sharpened and leveraged as a recognized scholarly practice, a way to merge the academy with the traffic of the real world. The university shouldn't keep its talents locked up within a faltering publishing system that narrows rather than expands their scope. That's not to say professors shouldn't keep writing papers, books and monographs, shouldn't continue to deepen the well of knowledge. On the contrary, blogging should be viewed only as a complement to research and teaching, not a replacement. But as such, it has the potential to breathe new life into the scholarly enterprise as a whole, just as Boynton describes.
Things move quickly -- too quickly -- in the media-saturated society. To remain vital, the academy needs to stick its neck out into the current, with the confidence that it won't be swept away. What's theory, after all, without practice? It's always been publish or perish inside the academy, but these days on the outside, it's more about self-publish. A small but growing group of academics have grasped this and are now in the process of inventing the future of their profession.
Daniel Anderson on November 18, 2005 6:49 AM:
Thanks for the pointer to the Slate piece and the terrific encapsulation of some of the transitional issues for potential academic blog writers. I hear at least two concerns that generate some reactions in my mind. First, we might visit the tenure issues related to blogging in terms of challenges people have been working through for some time now related to the general integration of technologies into the academy. I know that in humanities fields like English these recognition issues have come up for the last decade or so for people working with things like the Web or new media. Five or so years ago Randy Bass who had been doing great amounts of work with Web resources for American Studies had piece in which he pondered and demonstrated what it might be like to try to get tenure without a book--the issue was wrestling with the "have to do both" model or just saying, forget it, I'm doing what I need to do with technology. At that point, and still, a lot of the moves slid toward smuggling technology in with the teaching, so one might play up the tech work as extreme teaching and worthy of recognition. Seems like a similar concern might relate to blogging--really this might do damage to the ability to champion technology (or blogging) as scholarly.
To that end, at least in the computers and writing field, a number of people started working on ways to make innovations with technology count. The key theme there was the multiple senses of recognition. Really what it meant was a bit of an added burden in asking people to explain work that was not easy to comprehend (sometimes even see) to people unfamiliar with it. Strategies involve really taking what is easily recognizable about quality academic work and then layering technology work over those criteria. Something like innovation needed to be pitched in conceptual rather than technical terms. Something like extension could be brought in, but in terms of moving knowledge forward in a field. Notions of impact and reach could be layered on. The general sense I have of these efforts was that promotion committees were willing to be education, and that it took som extra work to make visible these qualities, but it was not as bad as having to do both--and could also be seen as an obligation, really, to articulate what made the tech work valuable. Finally, layered over this was a sort of peer review in that one would need to find outside reviewers who could understand and help forward these kinds of arguments.
These are huge issues still, so I think these strategies are probably worth keeping in mind. At the same time, though, I'd also like to separate out the tenure concerns to get at something in the peer review models alluded to in Slate and in the post here. I'm really intrigued by the sense of shared public composition people are stretching toward with blogging. I like the points be made that suggest that this is in many ways radical but also in line with the theorizing about academic work as conversation. I feel like its worth thinking about its radicalness by imagining the value of still private forms of writing. This may come across as blasphemy, but I'm not ready to walk away from the lone author or notions of (gasp) originality, individuality. We can see their value by weighing the complaints often levied against textbooks, especially multiply authored texts--"they are written by committee; they have no voice." For me the question trends back toward epistemology and modes of composition. Sure bloggers can just sit under a tree and keep personal diaries separately before jumping into the fray at the keyboard, but really if the composition is going to move toward the collaborative and public, we need to wiegh what gets lost as a possible (and valued) point of resistance.
That said, I think the middle ground points to some of the ways in which this shared writing is already happening in the academy. I just finished a book with two co-authors in which we met face to face just once. The rest of the process was done through collaboration tools in word processors, e-mail, and telephones. Which brings me to some final thoughts about these social dimensions to the process. The shared writing worked well with the participation of three of us. Not sure how it would play out with five, fifteen, or fifty. What thinking about that questions does for me is complicates the notion of audience. What happens if what we are talking about is not collaboaring with authors, but collaborating with our audience? An audience of three with shared knowledge of an academic concerns is one thing. An audience of fifty with wide ranging levels of knowledge and interest is another. I don't want to say it, but at this point it would seem that the first still offers some benefits for creating focused forms of knowledge. Thanks for the post and the chance to chime in,
Lisa Lynch on November 18, 2005 2:19 PM:
Daniel Drezner has responded to the article at length, making several corrections about how his own blogging/tenure case was represented and thinking through some of the issues Boynton raises.
ben vershbow on November 18, 2005 4:15 PM:
Thanks, Dan, for your thoughts. The story certainly goes deeper than just blogging, and your point about collaborative authorship/readership is particularly interesting. I agree we have to weigh what is lost or compromised. For me, though, individuality comes across quite strong in blogs. In some ways, blogs are about just that: the development of a voice. It's the social vs. private distinction that is perhaps more crucial, and potentially of concern if the blogging thing does take hold in academia. I guess I'm cautiously optimistic about maintaining a balance.
Also, adding to Lisa's link, two other responses to the Boynton piece:
- Ann Althouse has some thoughts on why blogging feels like a threat to many in academia, and also points to law professors as a group curiously outside the peer review system, suggesting possible take-aways for some kind of evaluation apparatus for academic blogging. A commenter registers an interesting complaint about this.
- Then there's anthropologist John Hawks, one of the prof-bloggers mentioned in the piece. Hawks likes what blogging has done for his research, for his broader awareness of what's going on in his field, and for connecting him with a general readership.