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Lawrence Owusu-Ansah

I've been invited to lead a workshop on academic publishing in a Ghanaian university - I'm Ghanaian. In preparing for this task I've found this paper very helpful in the sessions in which I'll be dealing with peer review, and I definitely will be recommending it to my audience. It is also entertaining. Thank you

Gideon Burton

Thanks for commenting, but let me paraphrase myself so you can see that I did in fact intend those words. Essentially, peer review has been set up as a way of testing and verifying knowledge. This is rightly seen as necessary to advancing knowledge. To exempt peer review itself from the same scrutiny demonstrates that those holding it up do not actually believe in peer review's ostensible purpose, and I am claiming that the peer review process is, for them, actually more about sustaining the existing knowledge exchange system than the actual advancement of learning. A threat to conventional peer review is a threat to those institutions built upon it, not to learning or to sound ideas. If one believes that only institutionalized knowledge counts as knowledge or advances the cause of learning, then my argument will not make sense. But I am trying to appeal to those whose loyalty is more to intellectual progress than to institutional preservation.


I haven't finished reading this yet, but you seem to have some editing errors that are interfering with your meaning:

"Those who believe everything except peer review is subject to rigorous examination are hypocrites whose loyalty is not to advancing knowledge or extending the reach and impact of learning; no, their primary loyalty is to institutions and to the power structures fueled by peer review."

I think you mean "nothing except peer review".

Jon Ogden

In part this blog post is a 21st century approach to Wayne Booth's 1982 MLA address "The Credo of an English Teacher." One of the more memorable lines from the address comes when Booth rebukes scholars who forget the public: "When we fail to test our scholarship by making its most important results accessible to non-specialists," he says, "we also lose our capacity to address, and thus recreate in each generation, the literate public who can understand its stake in what we do." To me, this is the center of Gideon's argument. While I'm not a huge proponent of the cavalier tone he employs (though I can see his motives for using it), I think that Gideon's fight to make scholarship more accessible is very needed. I should say, I need it.

As I've tried to enter the academic discourse I've felt continually excluded. As an undergraduate and even as a graduate student I find that most scholars tend to be talking to their peers, not to me. (Booth's work is a rare exception.) My perception of scholars so far has not been good. I like them in person more than in writing. I feel that I've honestly tried, am trying, to enter the discourse, but to me most scholarship seems very aware of being intentionally difficult, hard to access, exclusive. Gideon's efforts work in opposition to this trend. As a student I appreciate this very much. To me, any work that is influencing me to be a better student is real and is needed. Any work that obfuscates meaning or is obscure and abstract in its rhetorical approach is phony and unneeded.

I hope, above all, that the changes in the digital age will lead to the emergence of more accessible and more useful scholarship. The quest for a more literate public is, in my mind, a most important goal for any scholar.


I'm beginning to wonder if part of the problem might be the great divide between the sciences and the liberal arts. (My thinking on this subject is informed in part by an interesting essay by web guru Paul Graham: http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html .)

While I think the blind peer-review methodology works fairly well in the sciences, I can see how it is somewhat more problematic in the liberal arts. The sciences of course benefit greatly from the objective testing of evidence. However, the liberal arts as benefit much more from the free and open exchange of ideas. I like Natalie Goldberg's metaphor of the compost pile from which good writing/ideas bloom. There's a lot of value in half-baked ideas that can one day grow up to become serious scholarship. And I can see how the new digital age can facilitate that by providing quick and timely feedback.

Incidentally, I enjoy a blog post defending the peer-review process by Steve Peck, a member of the biology department at BYU: http://sciencebysteve.net/?p=45 It strikes me that he would be a good guest on your podcast if you wanted someone with whom you could debate this issue and who has a background in science. In any case, his blog is pretty entertaining in its own right.

Gideon Burton

I think you really get where I'm coming from. Thanks for a thoughtful reply. Why didn't I know about that Zuniga book? I'll have to get it right away. That point about bypassing the gatekeepers was something I was getting at in my "Dear Students" post earlier. I'm searching for others, like you or Zuniga, who have thought these things through.

In a future post I do plan to give attention to various alternative models to conventional peer review. That British journal's efforts sound interesting--do you recall the name of that periodical? I had a very positive experience with open peer review from JIME that I plan to discuss.

Thanks for the ongoing thought on this. I appreciate it.


First of all, Waking Tiger, I love your lurid pulp fiction style of prose! It actually makes your points stronger and it's a very creative example of an academically unacceptable writing style used to support an academically rigorous argument.

I think what you are mostly railing at is the fact that academia isn't even willing to open the conversation about alternatives to traditional peer review. But as Markos Zuniga says in his brilliant book "Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era", the new realities allow us to sometimes simply bypass the gatekeepers. What is going to happen when the best and brightest academics of the new generation are putting more and more of their work into new media?

I, like all academics, have greatly benefited but also unjustly suffered at the hands of reviewers. It can just be the luck of the draw. Sometimes they have no clue about your methodology and critique it based on the rules of another paradigm. Or American reviewers ask for corrections that are ethnocentric (e.g., asking a Canadian author to change "blacks" to "African-Americans").

I have seen some glimpses of different peer review models under the traditional system. One colleague submitted to a British journal on group practice that really coaches and mentors authors to bring their articles up to publication standards. They want to encourage practitioners to submit, not only academics.

But like you, I am incredibly excited about the possibilities for new forms of peer review that may bring a broader and more immediate kind of review to our work.

Bravo for taking on this beast!

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