Peer Review and Biblical Studies Scholarship
In a number of comment-exchanges and in a few postings on this site I’ve emphasized that genuinely scholarly claims are submitted for review by other scholars competent to judge matters. This is how real scholarship works, not by rushing into print with some sensational claim (for which the author is scarcely qualified), by-passing scholarly review critique. I thought it might be helpful to say something more about how scholarly work is rightly done, with special reference to Biblical Studies and allied areas that I know personally.
“Peer review” is the essence of scholarly work and discourse. It means, simply, that claims, findings, interpretations, etc., are submitted for the criticism and assessment of other competent scholars before one makes any further claim about them. And the more innovative, dramatic, or significantly different one’s purported findings or interpretation, the more such critical review is necessary, certainly before one can make public claims about the validity of one’s proposed view.
This peer review takes place in a variety of ways. It may well commence with sending one’s essay or other written work to another scholar for comment and critique. It may also involve presentation of one’s work in a conference or seminar where other scholars are present to comment. Indeed, often these seminars may involve the work being provided to other scholars in advance, so that they have the chance to check data, etc., and so come better prepared to engage the work.
In publishing one’s work, peer review is done this way. Peer-reviewed journals are those that send out submitted articles to other scholars in the field for review as to whether to publish them, revise them for publication, or reject them outright. This process now typically is “double-blind”: I.e., the name of the author is removed from the article, and the names of the reviewers are also confidential.
I understand that there is now a certain concern in at least some fields in the Sciences about falsification of data, and inadequate peer-reviewing, which has allowed articles to be published that have been shown later to rest on phantom data or rigged results. I suspect that part of the problem in peer-reviewing articles based on experimental data is that one would really need to try to replicate the experiment to test the claims, and that would be difficult to do in many cases. (Reviewers are themselves engaged in their own set of experiments on other questions, and couldn’t easily gear up for some other one.) There are other factors, perhaps: e.g., peer-reviewing typically isn’t remunerated, but is done as part of one’s participation in the field. So, there may be a temptation to give a “light touch” and not spend the time required really to test things, e.g., re-running the statistics, etc.
But in Humanities fields, typically, the data are there and available: A body of relevant texts, or images, or inscriptions, etc. So what is involved usually is assessing how adequately and cogently the data are addressed, and also how adequately the author has engaged prior scholarship (e.g., giving adequate reasons why previous views are likely faulty).
There are, however, various questions that can be posed to the data, and various methods and standpoints from which this can be done. So, a good part of assessing a work involves how explicitly the approach is stated, assumptions identified, method correctly followed, and arguments laid out clearly.
In some cases, it simply isn’t possible to settle the matter under dispute in some empirical manner. So, assessing the work involves how cogently the author has presented what is at least a plausible view, at least as plausible as alternatives, and preferably more plausible/likely than other views. Judging this requires a knowledge of relevant issues, evidence and alternative viewpoints, as well as first-hand ability in the data.
After work has survived this and been published, the peer-review doesn’t stop. This is especially the case with scholarly books. Publishers of academic books will typically also get outside reviews prior to publication. But then after publication of books the really crucial book-review process kicks in. As well, other scholars (including PhD students) engage work and subject it to testing as they pursue their own research analysis of the data. “Post-publication review” of books has a major role in determining whether they manage to achieve positive recognition as valuable studies.
However one may cherish one’s view of a given thing, as a scholar one can’t really claim or know that it’s really valid until this peer-review work has been done. If your work survives this process, it just might be valid.
This scholarly critique should form part of doing a PhD, with supervisor(s) and examiners assessing the validity of the thesis as it progresses and then is submitted for examination. This is why a PhD in the field is a good earmark of someone with competence and also someone who understands the scholarly process.
This peer reviewing all takes time, and a lot of behind-the-scenes work, scholars quietly going about the business of trying to produce good work, and trying to review and assess the work of fellow scholars. It’s not glamorous, and it doesn’t typically hit the press or TV. It doesn’t typically generate big royalties or public speaking fees. But, for those who care to follow discussions of a given subject that are more reliable and worth the time, this is the kind of work, and these are the kinds of people who count.