Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Peer Review: A Casualty of the Pandemic?

I confess: even in the best of times, my first impulse upon spotting an email from a journal or book publisher or tenure and promotion committee that I just know is a request for peer review has not been to rejoice at yet another chance to serve and sustain the Republic of Scholars.  Now, with so many other unexpected demands on our time–personal as well as professional–how could we not be expected to reply “Sorry; just can’t,” hit send, and return to whatever mishegas had been enveloping us?

When the latest request arrived, I clicked “yes,” then paused to wonder why I did.  My first thought was simply that I could: with my children employed and out of the house and my family members healthy, the pandemic has disrupted my personal far less than many, many other legal historians; it was time for the fortunately situated to step up. 

A second thought was more self-ish.  The pandemic disrupted many of the behaviors through which I realize and affirm aspects my professional identity.  So much of my sense of myself as a teacher, for example, is borne of spontaneous interactions in the classroom; with the start of remote teaching, I wasn’t quite sure I was who I always thought I was until my students, eager to affirm their own emerging identity as professionals, reassured me with their enthusiastic engagement.  I’m not sure which of us was more grateful for the experience.

Peer review is an opportunity to affirm another part of a professor’s professional identity, that of a contributor to a scholarly discipline.  I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not wrong: “I can do that by producing my own scholarship, an activity that’s gotten a lot harder recently, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Well, of course you can, and it has.  And yet we all know that, however solitary it sometimes feels, scholarship is a collective activity, which we advance no more vitally than when we explain what a particular manuscript or body of work contributes to the whole.  Peer review, then, is a way to affirm the collaborative side of one's scholarly identity

A third thought used to strike me as alarmist, but, with so many stopping their ears to the warnings of epidemiologists, it now seems undeniable: credentialed knowledge is, if not quite an endangered species, under stress in an increasingly hostile epistemological habitat.  Such authority as it retains would collapse without collective, expert assessment.  Call it the Tinkerbell effect if you must, but a demonstrated belief in the value of peer review anywhere can help sustain it everywhere.

So when the next request arrives, if you just can't, don't.  But, if it's a close question, before declining consider what we would lose if peer review became a casualty of the pandemic.  

--Dan Ernst