Last week, Tim Lacy brought to my attention this interesting, recent blog post by Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor of Religion at Duke and author of the NT Blog. Back in 2010, Goodacre had put up a blog post concerning a mysterious passage in the non-Canonical Gospel of Peter, in which a walking cross emerges from Jesus’s tomb and conducts a conversation with a heavenly voice. Goodacre suggested that perhaps the best explanation for this passage was a Greek scribal error, that rather than a cross, the walking and talking was being done by a crucified-one, i.e. Jesus.
Goodacre now reports that the peer-reviewed Journal of Theological Studies has published a critique of his earlier blog post by Paul Foster. Goodacre feels that there’s something odd about a major, peer-reviewed journal responding to a blog post and has some thoughts about how we might more profitably think about the status of posts like his. While I agree with Goodacre that this incident raises interesting questions, I come to somewhat different conclusions from him.
Goodacre describes his feelings about the publication of the Foster article as “mixed.” While he’s flattered that both Foster and the JTS saw fit to respond to his earlier post, he’s also troubled by their decision:
I have to admit that it makes me slightly uneasy to see my random jottings here subjected to the same kind of detailed critique that one would normally reserve for scholarly books and peer-reviewed articles.
Goodacre rightly argues that blog posts are fundamentally unlike these more established kinds of academic publications. Their tone tends to be more informal and colloquial. And their content is often more speculative.
He argues that we lack any “established etiquette” for dealing with blog posts. So he suggests that one model for doing so can be borrowed from another, more traditional, academic genre: the conference paper:
Many scholars add a kind of rider to their conference papers, “Work in progress; not to be cited” and so on. The point there is that conference papers are for discussion at conferences but not (yet) in formal publications. I think I see something similar for blog sketches like mine — it will, I hope, eventually make its way to publication, but it does not yet have that kind of status. Indeed, in the case in question, I did subsequently present the idea in a conference paper (International SBL, London, 2011), which will form the basis of a future formal publication.
The problem with this argument, it seems to me, is that, unlike a conference paper, a blog post, however informal, is in fact a publication. Conference papers are wonderful in part because they stop short of publication and even allow the paper-deliverer to engage in a kind of controlled semi-publication, distributing the paper to particular people with (or without) the sort of rider that Goodacre mentions. It’s precisely because of their non-published status that conference papers can be withheld from publications. The rules that apply to conference papers seem to me to apply to certain other digital genres, such as private e-mails. But they can’t apply to a blog post.
So what traditional genre might provide a better analogy for a blog post? The one that leaps to my mind is the extended letter-to-the-editor of a scholarly (or semi-scholarly) journal. For example, both the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books often feature scholarly exchanges in their letters sections. Like blog posts, these letters tend to be more colloquial and informal than journal articles or books. They tend, like blog posts, to be written in the first-person. And, perhaps most importantly, like blog posts they are not exactly peer-reviewed (though, unlike most blog posts, a third-party—the editor of the journal—needs to approve their publication).
Nobody, so far as I know, feels that they need the permission of the author to cite such a letter-to-the-editor. And nobody does for a very simple reason: the letter was intended for publication….and it was published. On the other hand, I think that most of us take the contents of such letters somewhat differently from the way we take the contents of peer-reviewed articles and books precisely because, like blog posts, they have not been peer-reviewed.
But, in fact, the tale of Goodacre and Foster features peer review…of the Foster response.
So I guess I’m more comfortable with the way this turned out than Goodacre is. Assuming that the reviewers of the Foster piece considered the significance of Goodacre’s blog post when evaluating whether or not Foster’s essay deserved publication, we shouldn’t be overly concerned about the fact that an un-peer-reviewed publication received a peer-reviewed response.
Of course, one could imagine a more difficult case. While Goodacre stands by his post (and is, in fact, in the process of converting it to more traditional, formal academic genres), one can well imagine a situation in which one writes a (typically) provisional blog post and then decides that one was wrong. Should scholarly etiquette prohibit such mistakes from becoming the object of formal scholarly critique?
Again, my answer is “no.” When one makes a choice to publish something, one no longer has control of the text one publishes or how others interpret it. In fact, blogging allows substantially easier post-publication editing than more traditional, analogue genres. Most of us have published books and articles that contain arguments that we might no longer make. But unless we have the rare opportunity to produce a revised edition, those old arguments are still around. But anyone can update a blog post and note that one no longer believes the argument one had provisionally made. Anyone responding to such a semi-withdrawn blog post would need to grapple with the author’s stated opinion that what s/he originally wrote was wrong. But I don’t think authors have—or need to have—the ability to do any more than that.
Ultimately, however, blog posts and other new, digital academic genres are not precisely like any older academic genres. While analogies—to, say, conference papers or letters-to-the-editor—can be helpful in teasing out our attitudes and practices toward these new genres, new forms of digital scholarship will thrive most fruitfully if we’re willing to see them as new kinds of objects that might need to be dealt with in new ways.