Blogging as a Supplement to Peer Review: My SBL 2011 Paper

At the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Francisco I gave a paper in the Blogger and Online Publication session entitled “Blogging as a Supplement to Peer Review“. It occurred to me today that I have never published it on MandM so here it is.

This paper will not be a normal academic paper. Normally, when I present one of them, I have a specific thesis I try and offer an argument for it and rebut arguments against it. Today however I will present more of a narrative based on some reflections from my own experience as a blogger and scholar and someone who blends the two.

Peer ReviewI began engaging in “biblical blogging” with great reluctance.  One of my biggest reservations was that blogs are not peer reviewed. Anyone can, and does, write anything at all and get it published on the internet – even, if it’s complete nonsense. One only has to surf the net for a few minutes to see the problem.

Further, the readership of blogs is not restricted to scholars. Many blogs feature a person writing on a subject with little or no understanding of it who have a following of devoted readers who are equally ignorant, but nevertheless read and comment on the same topic as if they were knowledgeable. My impression was that blogs on theological topics were no less immune to this problem than blogs on other topics.

So my first reservation was that a blog post really carried no stature; I felt it would be embarrassing to be known as a blogger – I was seeking to be a scholar.

My second reservation based on my experience with online communication. There are subtle social constraints on face to face communication. If I have to stand up and speak in front of an audience at a conference I will be nervous.  If I say something stupid publically others will laugh at me and I will be embarrassed. If I get really nasty and cross a line someone might get physically threatening and even hit me if I provoke them. There are social consequences to what I say. Online, however, many of these social constraints are muted, one can be completely anonymous or communicate from a fictional personae. People can say things they would never say saying in public without facing the normal social consequences of such comments. This means that online discussions can be counter-productive. Most bloggers will be familiar with the phenomena of “trolls” people who enter into online discussions simply to insult, attack and distract the discussion. I could not see the attraction much less the benefit of engaging in a medium like that.

I think both these reservations have some merit. However I now believe that, despite them, blogging can serve as a supplement to peer review. It is hard to not believe that given what blogging has done for me but before I get into that, note that I said supplement, my suggestion is that it can supplement not replace peer review.

Some Challenges of Traditional Peer Review
In 2006 I graduated with a PhD in Theology. The prospects in the job market were bad in New Zealand – my part of the world – particularly for an unknown fresh graduate. An immediate goal of mine was to establish myself as a credible theological scholar which, of course, meant getting my work known. I resolved that I needed to be published. If I developed a series of publications, others in my field will read my work, and as a result my work will become known. I began by following the usual route of submitting articles to journals for publication and I found it hard going.

Let me note two challenges I found with this:

First, almost no one reads your article until it gets published, and this can affect you motivationally. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to write something I feel good about but then let months pass by knowing no one is reading it.

Second, as I have just implied, this method takes a long time. Often I would not hear back from journals for as much as 12 months and I would have minimal feedback on the article before that time. After 12 months the article was sometimes turned down for reasons other than content, such as, that the editor had recently accepted for publication a piece on that topic before. Or sometimes, after months, you’ll get an acceptance with feedback, when you then write and respond to this and wait for their response, even more months elapse. until this process is completed no one apart from the editor and reviewer are reading your work and in the mean-time you remain unknown and struggling to find work in your field. You might have to take a non-academic job and then when do you find time to research and write and pursue publications.

The point is it can take a long time to get your ideas or work widely read or interacted with by this method and the waiting time can be difficult.

Of course you can attend conferences such as this one; you can present papers you are working on to the wider scholarly community and have them critiqued and also hear and discuss work of other scholars. But you will face obstacles of geography and expense and if you live in New Zealand, for example, and many of the best in your field work in the United States or the United Kingdom, then you really do have to travel a great distance and pay substantive finances to do this. So it is particularly tough on people who are recent graduates and trying to establish themselves as scholars and may not yet have a full time faculty position where they can get both support and encouragement as well as financial assistance.

Blogging as an Alternative
In 2006 Madeleine and I started a blog called MandM. At first it contained short social commentary type pieces reflecting what we thought was the accepted genre of blogging – light, easy for people to dip in and out of without really investing any reading time on. We tried to make ours interesting and it gave me an outlet to share snippets of what was in my head with the world – a need built into most of us academics.

But two years on, in 2008, when I found myself still with limited employment opportunities – I was adjunct teaching and trying to get published of my own bat and it was frustrating and felt like I had barely gained any ground pursuing both employment and publication – Madeleine suggested that I focus on blogging. She suggested I focus on publishing on different theological topics I was researching and writing on or just thinking about, on the blog and that we should try to get as wider readership for these online pieces as I could.

Both For the reasons I suggested above and the fact that as far as I could see at that time, no one was doing this (probably for the same reasons I was adverse to the idea) I thought this was a terrible idea. Madeleine kept saying “everyone uses Google, even academics” but I just thought that she did not get academia.

I worried that even if she was right that the right academics would stumble across my work online that they would write me off as a popularist for putting my work online; I worried it would do more harm than good. We actually argued about it. Every time I raised these issues Madeleine pointed out to me that “it’s not an either or”, she’d say “I am not saying you should stop trying to publish peer reviewed articles just that while you’re working on bigger longer term projects use the blog to get these ideas out and widely read. It will put your name in their minds then when they see your CV or one of your publications, your name will ring a bell.”

I remained very sceptical, but she wouldn’t let up so I gave it a go.

I discovered several things from the experience of biblical blogging, not the least of which was  that I should listen to my wife.

First, my motivation was different. in blogging one needs to write relatively short pieces, and you also have to blog fairly regularly if your blog is to be one people regularly read and interact with. This therefore created a self-imposed deadline. When I was working on a 10,000 word article I would often break the topic down into smaller sections and I was sure to refer back and forward to different parts of the text because I had in the back of my mind that it would be broken into a 3 part blog series. I was also aware that the piece had to read well or people would just surf on. This focus, I believe, helped me to write more concisely, succinctly, engagingly and clearly.

I also used the blog to keep me on track, to not lose momentum and have large gaps of time interrupt my focus as once part 1 was published the readers would want part 2. It also forced me to have the work regularly edited and spell checked a way that would not have been the case if I was aiming to write a major article. Of course, there is a temptation to rush the work and not give it the research and thinking time it deserves because of the demand for part 2 but if your goal is to be a scholarly blogger you just have to ignore that temptation and do the work properly.

I really found my motivation towards writing was enhanced when I knew hundreds or thousands of people were reading what I wrote weekly. It tends to motivate you in a way normal publications do not. For example I felt a commitment to our readers some of whom gave immediate and constant feedback, and while some was obviously troll-ish, not all responses were, most made an effort to engage the subject even if they were not academics in it, which was nice because while we all want the feedback of our peers and those we admire in the field, we do not do what we do for just their benefit alone. Many of us want to influence how society and culture understand and respond to our fields as well as gain academic stature.

In the comments section I would find that I needed to clarify X or explain Y better, or address a foray of objections to what I had written, many of which did not immediately occur to me as I wrote.  Because my readers were asking questions or offering criticism publicly in front of the whole world I felt often obligated to write follow up posts and so on, and I often found these posts and the comments section and the follow up to them would become a kind of draft material from which articles could be built.

There are now many times I have written an article for publication or for a conference or a debate where, I have searched the comments section of MandM because I remembered an important objection that someone raised and that I had written a really short, to the point, response to it, in fact, it is now rare for me to produce any academic work that does not have some part of it that began on my blog.

In addition to blogging simply being a helpful tool for my own thinking about my topics of interest I really began to find it was also a good way of getting my work out there and known and not as a popularist despite the growing popularity our blog was receiving.

Blogging alongside Madeleine’s marketing of MandM meant my work was getting widely read, really widely read. However, contrary to what I had supposed, becoming popular – in the sense of gathering a wide readership and following – does not necessarily entail popularism. The problem with popularists is not that their work is widely read, it is the content of their work. If quality work is being widely read then that is a good thing.

My wife was making sure that we were being read. Through her blog promotion efforts, our blog rose and rose in Google results and readership. My peers were becoming aware of my work. You see, it turned out that fellow academics do use the internet and they do use Google when doing research and they being knowledgeable in their field, can tell if your work is of low quality or not. My wife was right. If one is doing good work on a subject and publishing online then others who are working in that subject are likely to get to know you are doing good work even if it is yet to be published.

This last fact helps to overcome some of the challenges to traditional peer review I mentioned at the start. Blogging means that hundreds, even thousands of other people all over the world working in your field can know what you are working on and give instant feedback. With traditional publication you would have to get something published in the specific journals they read or give a paper at a conference they attended. Blogging can get your pre-published ideas out to the scholarly community quickly and widely. This can have other spin-offs.

Many established scholars have connections with publishers and projects with publishers which lesser known scholars do not have access to. Think of editors of collected works or special editions of journals devoted to a topic, or conferences where many speakers are invited where the proceedings are going to be published and so on.  In these sorts of contexts, the editor’s knowledge of who can contribute to a given topic has an important role in deciding whose will be accepted for inclusion.  If you are doing work on a topic and are still in the process of getting published but your ideas are widely known and being taken seriously then opportunities can arise that would not have arisen if your pre-published work was not so widely read. This has definitely been the experience I have had from blogging.

Madeleine began marketing MandM fairly actively in 2008. By 2009 we began noticing that occasionally other scholars in the fields we were writing on would leave comments on our blog or write to us with feedback. It was very exciting to turn on the computer and see a name you recognised in the comments list under something you had written. We would be stunned when a leader in our respective fields would email asking for my resources to help with their own research based off our blog posts.

Over the past two years this sort of thing happening, directly as a result of our blog and Facebook activities, has lead to a significant increase in my professional output and my standing in my field. Some ideas I wrote on the binding of Isaac were taken up and developed by the writer of a recently published book which is being well received – the footnotes include links to my blog posts.

In 2010 I was invited to address the Evangelical Philosophical Society in Atlanta on the basis of some ideas I put into a blog post. I was also invited to be part of Panel discussion at the society of biblical literature the same year, again for my blog posts. This resulted in me being asked to write a chapter for a forthcoming book, and three other co-publications, and a dictionary articles – all very respectable items for my CV. On the basis of another blog post, I was asked to review a book in a major peer reviewed journal. In some cases editors of these works then contacted me again and invited me to submit work for different projects – I have even had editors email me saying “I read your blog post on such and such, we’d like to publish it, can we?”

I am currently in San Francisco because I was invited to present two papers other than this one, one to the EPS and the other to the EPS Aplogetics Conference, both papers were based on blog posts I had written.

Further, I funded both my attendance at last year’s conferences in Atlanta and this year’s conferences in San Francsico – coming all the way from Auckland, New Zealand – with donations largely received via my blog.

It does not stop there. I have been in receipt of 3 invitations to apply for upcoming vacancies in faculties both in the United States and in New Zealand based off recommendations received from peers who know me solely because of my blog or in one instance, solely because of my blog.

In most cases I would never have received these opportunities if it were not for blogging – I think in the last year, only my publication in the Westminster Theological Journal was not connected in some way to my blogging. Every other academic opportunity was. So it is fair to say that in the last two years I have had more success publishing and establishing myself as a scholar by using my blog as a supplement to peer review than I did through the traditional route of simply writing articles for publication.

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