Without Peer

Peer review makes the world go round.  Well, at least the academic world.  It’s based on a simple enough premise: if your academic work is passable other scholars will be able to tell.  It’s a process fraught with peril, however.  Scholars, being human, are subject to fits of pique or of hypersensitivity, or just having gotten out of the wrong side of bed that morning.  Perfectly good projects can be shot down with a single, well-placed arrow.  Or even dart.  Problem is, there’s no better system for deciding if academic work is adequate, or even good.  There may be some objective measure out there in the universe, but if there is we don’t have access to it.  We have to rely on peer review.

During my teaching years, which numbered nearly twenty, I was never asked to peer review anything.  My first invitation came while I was working as an editor.  Of course I said “yes.”  A number of scholars, however, don’t share the basic reality that if nobody peer reviewed their work, they’d never get published.  Many scholars decline offers to review their colleagues’ work.  I even had a very senior scholar once blithely tell me that he had his own research to do, so why should he take time to review that of others.  Professional reserve prevented me from pointing out that if his colleagues felt the same way he’d be as unpublished as a fresh doctorate-holder.  Scholarship is a cooperative venture, no matter how many Lone Rangers ride the cuesta.  So why is it so difficult to find peer reviewers?

I’ll read your book if you’ll read mine!

Something I’ve noticed is that many scholars are coddled.  Constantly told that they’re brilliant and gifted, they come to believe it like miniature Trumps.  More to the point, perhaps, is the shrinking number of academic positions.  The few who hold actual jobs are bombarded with other tasks, including committee work, advisory duties, and sometimes even teaching (depending on the adjunct pool).  I know it’s tough.  Been there, done that.  Nevertheless, academia cannot survive without the basic peer reviewer.  Education is a cooperative venture.  We may imagine the academic alone in her or his study, but breakthroughs generally come through when people work together.  Of course, my job is one performed in isolation.  Increasingly, academics can be found not in their offices, but working remotely from home.  Is the sense of “peer” itself breaking down?  My own book, Nightmares with the Bible, was slowed down by peer review.  In a sense I’m glad it was.  Hi ho Silver, away!

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.