Monday, August 23, 2010

Wiki Scholarship

Among the joys and trials of being a biblical scholar is the expectation that I will produce. Paper that is. The requirements associated with tenure and gaining recognition in the field means that you will publish. And not just anywhere. It is often the expectation that a certain percentage of your work will be peer reviewed. This means that you send an article to a journal which then sends out blind copies to two or three "anonymous" readers who give you thumbs up or down (I use quotes for "anonymous" because more then once I was able to figure out who the reader was by reading their comments on my work).

In general, it is a good practice that makes sure that only the best and tested articles are published. But it is not infallible. Most people know or have heard of someone whose work was rejected based more on politics than the quality of their scholarship.

An article in the New York Times today reports about a different approach. Rather than follow the above approach, any paper submitted to the journal is automatically put online for everyone to see. The article is then commented on by a core group of readers who leave signed comments. The author is given a chance to respond and in one instance there was 350 comments generated by 41 people. The author then revised the article which was given the final approval/disapproval by the editors.

This strikes me as an innovative way of doing scholarship that allows room for scholars to learn from one another. I like it because it retains the basic controls that help to ensure that only the best work is published. But it also gives scholars the chance to interact and improve their work. It creates a real community of learning rather than perpetuating the narrow exclusivity that sometimes is a hallmark of many a discipline.

On the other hand, this is a real act of throwing yourself to the lions. I remember the first time I gave a paper at a conference and the fear I had as I watched some of the older lions watching my every step. Having a paper posted for public evaluation could prove to be either very helpful or very embarrassing. Yet, having to sign your name as a reader might help to bring more honesty and less politics to the process.

The world is changing quickly and scholarship has to find a way to maintain the rigor of peer review while allowing technology to change the way we disseminate our discoveries. Anybody with an internet connection can post their ideas or opinions with sometimes frightening results. Scholarship has the responsibility to of making sure that quality information is available to the guild and wider public. I hope a biblical studies journal will incorporate such an approach in the near future.

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