Other Literatures: Thoughts on Peer Review

Walter Henry
Published in AIC Newsletter, 22(6): Nov 1997

In the January 1997 issue of the AIC News, Barbara Applebaum published an excellent piece on the several functions of peer review within the conservation community. This article quite properly downplays what is perhaps its most familiar role, that of legitimation or authorization. Nonetheless, we cannot avoid acknowledging that part of review's role is to sanction, to welcome into the canon what was outside it. Review, if not actually normative, at least intends to situate information within the boundaries of the commonly acceptable. But it is important to keep in mind that this authorization in no way invalidates information presented outside the canon. Unreviewed literature is not, ipso facto, failed literature; it is a different order of literature, occupying its own niche in the total system of professional communication.

When an author submits a work for review, it is an act of questioning. The author asks the community to examine the work, to suggest ways to improve it, to point out ways in which it deviates from common understanding, to root out inconsistencies and failures of logic; to ask, in effect, does this work have the right stuff, is it, in whatever sense we take the term, "correct".

Although we tend to think of casual and unreviewed texts as tentative, and articles submitted to review as final and authoritative, unreviewed works should be understood as essentially declarative in character. They make assertions. When an author gives a talk describing, a treatment, or an observation, the author is saying "I, the author, have done this treatment, observed this phenomenon". Because it is an assertion about the author's experience, not about the treatment or phenomenon, the assertion is, barring charges of outright dissembling, inherently unchallengable.

The relation of such works to the canonical literature is sometimes tributary, sometimes orthogonal. Some works, published casually, or given at conferences, will eventually find their way through the review process and take their place in the canon. Other works have no natural place in the canonical literature, and need not apologize for that position. These works may represent matters of only temporary, but critical import; others may represent exploratory thinking, speculation, tentative positions, all intellectual gestures necessary to the full development of a mature technical discourse.

To say that some work does not have a place in the canonical literature is not to suggest that it does not need and deserve to be documented in the literature. Indeed, it is critical to the success of our profession's project that all planes of discourse, be they formal or casual, traditional or novel, be made visible, available for scrutiny, for critique, and, ultimately for reference.

There are, of course, risks to contend with, as casual, unreviewed documents make their way through and beyond the conservation community.

Not too many years ago, banks looked like banks, solid, massive, impenetrable. Today we find banks in grocery stores looking like customer service kiosks, in office buildings in the guise of ordinary businesses, and soon we will probably find them in cyberspace, lacking any remnant of their substantial form. Less and less can we look to the sign for assurance of authenticity. Similarly, since the 15th century, publishing conventions have signaled the content of books and serials; even today we can distinguish an encyclopedia from a romance novel at a glance. More to the point, for most of this time, we pretty much recognized a learned journal when we saw one. In an era of rapid, easy information dissemination, of quick printing, the Web, and desktop publishing, we can no longer presume upon these associations between presentation and content; they are no longer dependable indicators of either the nature or the source of information. The proliferation of publications of varying degrees of formality and review requires that information providers make explicit the intellectual context of the published work. JAIC and other traditional journals have done this well, declaring the nature of the review process, the criteria for judgement, and noting the review history of each article. Less formal publications have not always been consistent in this regard, a serious situation but one that is easily remedied.

In order that conservation thinking continue to mature, new information/thought must be examined in light of earlier writing, which is only possible if the entire literature is documented and made accessible. Ideally, this is rarely the case in practice , since all stages of the development of a concept would persist in print. Seeing the effects on the "finished work", of various levels of review over the course of its life (casual commentary on drafts shared with colleagues, questions and critiques following conference papers, formal review for journal publication) is a way by which we come to understand the shape and texture of our thinking. To the extent that we can say that the field has a common perspective, a set of shared values, a normative stance, it is comprehended precisely in the network of interactions that are embodied in this cycle of critique and revision; it is in a sense, the corporate mind that shapes disparate thought into something like a self, the ego of the profession if you will. Our mode of thinking is as specific to us as a community, as that of the sociologist, molecular biologist, or lawyer. By exposing our complete literature, we expose the mind beneath it. Perhaps we have come to a point in our maturation where we can begin to have the self-confidence to expose, to ourselves, to our friends in allied, professions, and even to the public, in full depth and breadth, the manner in which we as a unique cohort, think.

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