Kicking off Peer Reviewed Mondays

I am apparently not the only theory geek out there.  But I realized that I haven’t been doing a great job of putting my money where my mouth is where it comes to the value of peer-reviewed articles.  So my Monday evenings this term look like they are, for a variety of reasons, going to lend themselves to this experiment – Peer Reviewed Mondays.

Which means – Mondays I’ll try to at least point to a peer-reviewed article that I think is worth talking about.  I’ll also try to explain why.  That seems do-able.

So I’ve had the idea for this for a while, which of course means that I haven’t come across anything peer reviewed that really inspired me to write.  But today, I was inspired by a presentation I heard on campus to go poking around into journals I haven’t looked at before and I came across this article (PDF) from 2004, which takes a different kind of look at issues of evaluation when it comes to science and research and peer reviewed papers.  The meta of that delights me, and I think this paper is a useful addition to the stuff in my brain.

The article is called The Rhetorical Situation of the Scientific Paper and the “Appearance” of Objectivity.

(Useless aside – when the presenter today was being introduced I was unreasonably amused because to fully express the meaning of each journal article, the professor doing the introducing had to read out all of the punctuation – like the quotation marks above.  That doesn’t happen in library papers enough. )

Allen’s method is simple.  He articulates ideas and theories from the rhetoric/composition discourse, and then analyzes a single scholarly article –

in this essay, I analyze Renske Wassenberg, Jeffrey E. Max, Scott D. Lindgren, and Amy Schatz’s article, “Sustained Attention in Children and Adolescents after Traumatic Brain Injury: Relation to Severity of Injury, Adaptive Functioning, ADHD and Social Background” (herein referred to as “Sustained Attention in Children and Adolescents”), recently published in Brain Injury, to illustrate that the writer of an  experimental report in effect creates an exigence and then addresses it through rhetorical strategies that contribute to the appearance of objectivity.

Allen’s initial discussions, that scientific rhetoric is rhetoric, that scholarly objectivity has limits, and that specific rhetorical decisions (like the use, or what might be considered overuse in any other context, of the passive voice) are employed to enhance the impression of objectivity.  are interesting but not earth-shattering.  Where I found the nuggets of real interest were in the concluding sections.  Allen draws upon John Swales, who examined closely how scientists establish the idea that their research question is important.

Swales called the strategy Create a Research Space (CARS)  and identified three main rhetorical moves that most scholars make.  As Allen describes them:

  • Establish centrality within the research.
  • Establish a niche within the research.
  • Occupy the niche.

So what’s interesting about this to me, is Allen’s conclusion that – scientific authors seek to establish their study’s relevance through the implication that they share the same central assumptions and information base.

The reason this is interesting is that it dovetails neatly with Thomas Kuhn’s idea of normal science – the idea that a shared set of first principles is central to the idea of scholarly discourse, particularly a discourse that advances knowledge.   Where that intersects with the idea of peer review is in the idea of what makes it through peer review – the idea that an article or a piece of research needs to be more than just good or interesting research, it also needs to be a good example of what research is in a particular discipline, or discourse community.

Allen compares the relatively ordinary piece of research that he is anaylzing with a far more influential piece and finds that some of the rhetorical strategies that are used to establish the science-ness and the objectivity of the former are present, but far less present in the latter.  This – especially the idea that authors proposing truly ground-breaking research might be less likely to use the passive, “objective” voice – might be more likely to refer to themselves as active agents – is simply fascinating.

Allen points out that the very language we use to talk about scholarly research – creating meaning, knowledge, verifying truth claims – implies that the situation in which scientists communicate their findings is rhetorical.  He also points out that it is not just scientists – but the rest of us who rely in many ways on the meaning and knowledge scientists create – who need to understand these rhetorical practices.  His last sentence, in fact, is as good a justification for information literacy in higher ed as I’ve seen:

Certainly, scientists and researchers should be aware of embedded rhetorical strategies. But given the profound and pervasive influence of science in Western culture, we should all––scientist or not––be attentive to how our knowledge is shaped.

And now on to that delicious meta I love so much.

I love the idea of using this article to talk about what scholarship really is with undergraduates, particularly undergrads working on understanding academic writing.  But here’s the thing – the author of this article is himself an undergraduate writer.


The article appears in Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric – a peer-reviewed journal, with an editorial board made up of faculty in rhetoric and composition.  The content of the journal is all by undergraduate researchers, and the peer reviewers themselves are undergraduates who have also published in the journal.

The journal reflects some of the practices of open peer review that fascinate me – especially as information literacy resources for students as they learn the practice of scholarly knowledge creation.  The review process itself is not made public, but each issue of the journal has a Comments and Responses section where student writers write 2-5 page responses to papers that have been published in the journal.

Which gets to the last piece of meta.  The one overwhelming benefit of the peer-review process, that is rarely discussed by us librarians in information literacy classes when we have to talk to students about finding peer reviewed articles – and that is rarely discussed by the faculty who require their students to find peer reviewed articles — the one thing that is pretty much unanimously agreed is that the process of peer review makes the paper better.  Maybe not all better, maybe not better in the same way as it would be better if it were reviewed by other people.  But better than it would have been had it not gone through that process.  This paper is beautifully written – clear and accessible and smart.

I love the idea of digging into the idea of peer review, using student engagement with the peer review process as an entry point — but to be able to do that with a paper that itself should spark new ideas about the value of scholarship, and how to evaluate scholarship – that looks kind of like a gift.

Matthew Allen (2004). The Rhetorical Situation of the Scientific Paper and the “Appearance” of Objectivity Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric, 2

One thought on “Kicking off Peer Reviewed Mondays

  1. Wow, Thanks for this awesome discussion, Anne-Marie! This sounds like a great article, and I wasn’t aware of this journal. :) — And it’s even run through our Burks campus at PSU. Wow!

    I don’t have much to add, other than my thanks and praise!

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