I fear that one subtle element was lost in the discussion, and it’s one of the elements that argues most strongly for the retention of peer review, at least in academic environments. I think that it is helpful to look at peer review as a system to which a scholar poses a question (“What do you think of my work?”) and which in turn provides a response (“Here’s what I [that is, the system] think[s]….”). The important nuance here is that the response that the system offers is not purely binary.
To explore some of the nuances, take the plunge….
Instead of responding with a mere yes or no, the peer review system’s response usually comes in the form of qualitative comments and critiques, acknowledgment of what works in a particular piece of research and suggestions for what might need to be improved upon. The system is in place in order to impose a certain threshold of quality upon scholarship that is considered for publication in a particular journal. The key is that it acts not simply as a gatekeeper, but as an integral part of the scholarly investigative process. Research that is rejected is not finished, nor is it necessarily discredited. It is often the case that it is simply not yet developed to the point where it merits being granted the authority and credibility that accompany publication.
So, what does the blog system have to offer? Isn’t it just peer review in a more democratic form? Discussions provoked by bloggers’ posts do accomplish some of the same goals as peer review. But there remain some important differences. First, the piece of intellectual production that precipitates discussion and review is already public and, as noted by GreenSooner in the original thread, has already been granted a certain degree of credibility by virtue of its being available to a wide audience. Second, those of us who are doing the reviewing are not necessarily experts. Some of the people who choose to participate in this discussion are indeed academics and the vast majority of us are probably just as intelligent. But what structural devices are in place to ensure that the critiques of those with some relevant expertise are able to make that authority count for something. Anti-authoritarian attitudes may be useful when standing in opposition to oppressive governmental apparatuses. But they are not productive when it comes to rational critiques of ideas because they allow those who are able to sell ideas to gain credence instead of ensuring that those ideas that merit discussion can earn their place in the intellectual discourse. Peer review is suspicious of ideas that challenge established theories. But this is not merely because academics seek to preserve some old-fashioned way of thinking. Rather it is because established theories became established because they made sense to a lot of people who knew a lot about the theories’ topics at a particular moment and the peer review system helps to guarantee that new theories advance due to their merits and not just because they are splashy or sexy.
The peer review system is slow and it does not always work perfectly (ATinMN mentioned the Sokal affair, a brilliant example of what happens when people allow themselves to be so swept up in who’s saying something that they neglect to think about what’s actually been said), but it does have an important regulatory role to play in maintaining a minimum level of quality in intellectual discussions and it has an essential role in fostering the development of new ideas that challenge the existing theories.
The blogosphere does have an important function to play. It allows those of us who are not experts, but who are intelligent (or sometimes not) to participate in a conversation of ideas. This means, if nothing else, that more people are thinking about more issues that are important to us as individuals, as citizens, as voters, as intellectuals, as parents, as students, as workers, as activists, as children. By merely engaging the conversation, even if it is a conversation from which the academic peer review system would exclude us due to our non-expertise, we are forced to think about questions that were previously reserved for experts. The blogosphere is an important factor in the democratization of politics, culture, and ideas: it empowers us all to be active and participatory stakeholders in issues that affect our personal lives, the health of our nation and the future of our global community. But this is a role that is best viewed as complementary to, not usurpatory of, the role that peer review plays in regulating academic discourse.
(This is a modified and expanded version of a comment made to Thursday’s discussion of peer review begun by ePluribus Media. I am reposting it as a diary because I believe this is an important conversation for the blogosphere to pursue and, in keeping with the spirit of the question at hand, because I would love to hear your reactions and critiques.)