Interfering with Peer Review

Earlier today the National Catholic Reporter ran this story about an article in the journal Theological Studies by Jesuit Fr. Peter F. Ryan and theologian Germain Grisez. The NCR story is disturbing due to its account of how the Vatican applied pressure on the editor of Theological Studies, demanding that Ryan and Grisez’s article be published “unedited and without undergoing normal peer review.”

I suspect, based on the comments I’ve seen on Facebook today, that many of us working in Catholic theology are upset first and foremost by this most recent example of (what clearly seems to be) Vatican opposition to theological inquiry that questions, challenges, or disagrees with statements and teachings from the Vatican. That there seems to be no sense, as Prof. John Thiel notes, of the difference between theology and doctrine is deeply problematic. Catholic theology is most certainly rooted in the doctrines of the Church, but it is not encompassed by them. One of the most central roles of theology is to re-interpret – to translate – the truths of the Catholic faith in whatever context the faithful find themselves. Such translation must maintain the central tenets of that faith, but it must also account for new challenges unforeseen in previous eras. Put another way, if the Creed were recited only in Latin (or, if we really want to be original about it, Greek) within a culture that no longer knows Latin, what meaning would it really have?

I think what I find more frightening is the interference with the well-established custom of peer-review. In April I at long last submitted my first article for publication, and a few months later I heard back with the decision “revise and re-submit.” Yes, I was disappointed that the editors did not drop everything and praise my work to the rooftops, but I was also excited. I received comments from two readers that were helpful and pointed out lacunae in my argument. As a result, I suspect my article will be stronger and thus more likely to contribute to the broader theological conversation.

By forcing an article not subject to peer review into a journal with the prestige of Theological Studies, it undermines this conversation. The implication is that power determines speech and the validity of ideas, not the genuine authority that comes from expertise or a well-crafted argument. I have not read Ryan and Grisez’s article, but it seems at least possible that it contains a well-written, substantive argument that provides a thorough response to Coriden and Himes’ original article. Perhaps it would have merited publication with peer review.

But now we don’t know if it would have made that cut, or if the comments of reviewers might have made it a better, stronger article. Instead, it is tainted by that exercise of power, and the prestige of Theological Studies risks being dimmed just a little.

* Update 9/1/11 *
Since publishing this post earlier this week, I have been notified of a response by Ryan and Grisez with respect to the publication process for their article. It is worth reading in full, but I will make a couple further comments here.

(1) If it is the case that their article underwent peer review, then my claim that their text is tainted in that regard is incorrect. I still maintain that interference with the process of peer review is problematic, but it is perhaps not the issue here.

(2) If the editors of TS wanted Ryan and Grisez to shorten their article in order to publish it, this seems a legitimate aim. If their suggested revisions included editing out R/G’s basic argument for why Himes/Coriden were wrong, that would be problematic. So yes, it is right of them to suggest shortening, but no it is wrong for them to try to do so by excising the central argument (this seems to be the claim of R/G).

(3) Whichever set of circumstances proves to be correct, both seem to include pressure by superiors in the Catholic Church to force TS to publish an article. How problematic this is depends on the now contested circumstances thereof, but it seems problematic either way.

(4) Peer review, incidentally, is not devoid of relationships of power. The editorial board decides who makes the cut, giving them power over those who seek publication (who might be applying for jobs or tenure, thus rendering them vulnerable to such editorial decisions). Ideally, the editors use that power for good, for the benefit of the ongoing conversation, but let us not ignore that power is still an element of peer review.

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