|God & Nature Magazine
PEER REVIEW: AVOIDING JUDGMENTALISM
by Gareth Jones
Many of us are called upon to undertake peer review of other people’s work while also having to endure reviews of our own work by our peers. Regardless of which side of the fence we find ourselves on, we are confronted with challenges. Peer review is always threatening, especially for those just starting in academia, because it involves exposing ourselves to the scrutiny of others. Can we trust others to be fair? And when we are the reviewers, are we fair ourselves?
Peer review is often regarded as one of the gold standards of science, in which scientists evaluate the quality of the work of other scientists. The goal is to “ensure the work is rigorous, coherent, uses past research and adds to what we already knew” (Spicer and Roulet 2014). The aim is to ensure as far as possible that flawed ideas are eliminated and good ideas are improved. While peer review has become well and truly embedded in the scientific literature, it is not without its problems and critics. This is because scientists are not always as impartial as they should be and may well object to ideas with which they disagree or which go against accepted notions. In an attempt to forestall such problems, some peer reviewing is double-blinded, meaning that neither the reviewer nor the author is identified, but even this is far from foolproof. Less common is open review, in which reviewer and author are revealed, the hope being that the transparency of the process will lead to more open, honest reviewing. Some writers go as far as to suggest that peer reviewing achieves very little by way of improving the quality of what is published. For instance, peer review is of little value in identifying scientific fraud, even in the case of very prestigious journals like Nature and Science.
What we learn from peer review is the importance of transparency and a willingness to learn from others within one’s field. It indicates a readiness to listen to the input of others, even when you may not agree with them. This is a delicate process to navigate, and it can go badly wrong, as when a reviewer is arrogant and unfairly dismisses ideas foreign to him/her, or when the anonymous reviewer insults the author. One hopes that the editor of the journal will recognize such indiscretions and ignore such a review.
Peer review is best authenticated in the sciences, and yet it is not confined to the sciences. It is also used in the humanities, including theology, and in connection with the publishing of Christian writings. In my experience, there are greater difficulties outside the sciences, since perspectives and approaches may differ substantially here, leading in some instances to diametrically opposing viewpoints on the merit or otherwise of a piece of work.
What relevance does this discussion have for Christians? In terms of scientific publishing, it goes without saying that Christians are to abide by the very highest standards when reviewing manuscripts. They will remember Jesus’ strictures about judging others and about noticing the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye but ignoring the plank in one’s own eye (Matthew 7:1-5). When at the receiving end of reviews, they should be the first to acknowledge that they can always benefit from thoughtful and insightful comments, since nothing they write will be perfect. When reviews are unhelpful or even derogatory, they have to learn patience and discretion, and sometimes forgive those who have failed in such an important task (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-35).
But what about Christians writing as Christians for other Christians? This is where peer review should be invaluable and yet is often far from being so. How does one review a manuscript of a book or article where one disagrees with the theological position of the author or with the way in which it works out in practice? Controversial areas are all around us, and so often the publisher of the book or article has a pre-determined position on the topic in question. Under these circumstances, the job of the reviewer may be to protect this position and therefore criticize any other position. Does this mean that peer review in its conventional sense does not, and perhaps even cannot, apply within Christian circles? If Christian publishers or journals are wedded to some perspectives at the expense of others on, say, homosexuality, male headship, the status of the embryo, or the mode of creation, objective peer review will struggle to be accepted. Alternative perspectives will, by definition, be rejected as unacceptable, regardless of the quality of the arguments put forward or any attempts made to assess competing positions.
The reality is that some Christian professionals, including scientists, find that they cannot get published by evangelical publishers, even though their aim is to be faithful to Scripture (Jones 1996). Under these circumstances peer review, such as it is, takes on the hue of censorship, even though this may not be intended. This is a shame, since it limits the literature readily available to evangelical church members. The result is that authors in this situation have a number of options if they are determined to be published: self-publication, publication by publishing houses with a broader theological base, or publication in the religious lists of academic publishers.
For myself, I have insisted on writing as an academic, attempting to balance arguments, to search the Scriptures, to take seriously traditional theological stances, but also to insist on taking note of input from contemporary scientific research. I refuse to be little more than an advocate for any one ethical/theological position in, say, the reproductive technologies. There is much we do not know and much we have to learn, as long as we strive to do so humbly, always seeking the counsel of God and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. And I, like everyone else, may be wrong.
Whatever directions are taken, Christians should take seriously the notion of peer review and what it means for the church and for truth. It forces us to question the strength of our own position, especially when other Christians in good conscience and starting from a similar Scriptural and theological base come to different conclusions. Peer review forces us to look closely at other perspectives and be prepared to listen to others and talk to others. Only in this way do we begin to function as members of the body of Christ, learning from each other and contributing to their thinking and attitudes.
Spicer A and Roulet T, Explainer: what is peer review? The Conversation 19 June, 2014.
Jones G, Coping with Controversy, Solway: Carlisle, UK, 1996.
Gareth Jones is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He trained as a neuroscientist, but has also written widely in the field of bioethics especially in relation to the human body. Gareth has had extensive experience in reviewing journal articles and book manuscripts, and has been subject on numerous occasions to the assessment of reviewers of his own manuscripts. The most difficult situations have arisen in Christian publishing, where he has encountered vigorous opposition to some of his writings on the reproductive technologies. He has had to learn grace and forgiveness in responding to these criticisms.