Jenkins Response 5: Peer Review

What is peer review?  It is a process by which recognized scholars in a field evaluate books or articles to determine if they meet academic standards for publication.  When a journal or a university press receives a manuscript, the editor will generally make an initial evaluation, and then pass it on to two or three other scholars for their judgment.  If everyone agrees that a paper should or should not be published, that evaluation is generally accepted by the editor.  If, however, a paper receives mixed reviews, an additional reviewer is sometimes requested.  In the end, the board of editors make the final decision about publication.  In a sense publication in a peer-reviewed journal means that a paper has achieved a minimum standard of academic rigor.  

Peer reviewers will sometimes accept a paper even when they disagree with its conclusions, if the paper is well researched, reasoned, and written.  That a paper is rejected by peer reviewers does not necessarily mean its thesis is incorrect.  Likewise, that a paper is accepted by peer reviewers it doesn’t necessarily mean its thesis is correct.  This can be demonstrated by studying the phenomena of paradigm shifts that occasionally occur as once accepted academic dogmas are overthrown by new ideas.

Professor Jenkins, along with many other critics of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, claim that the absence of Book of Mormon related publications in the leading academic journals on Mesoamerican history and archaeology demonstrates that the Book of Mormon should not be taken seriously because the editors of those journals do not take it seriously.  This argument is fallacious.  First of all, it is a form of the fallacy of the argument from authority.  More importantly, however, the truth is that most Mesoamericanists are not qualified to pass a scholarly judgement on the Book of Mormon.

I readily agree with Jenkins that non-Mormon Mesoamericanists do not accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  However, this fact needs to be unpacked to correctly understand its implications.  I maintain that he vast majority of Mesoamericanists have never read the Book of Mormon.  (I’ve talked to several colleagues who say they know of three non-Mormon Mesoamericanists who have read the Book of Mormon.)  Furthermore, the vast majority that have read it have not read it with any degree of open-minded scholarly seriousness.  Finally, even those few who have read it seriously are generally unfamiliar with the scholarly literature in the field.  The reality is that until secular Mesoamericanists are willing to seriously study (not just superficially read) the Book of Mormon, and respectfully engage LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon, their opinions are uninformed.  It is a prejudice rather than a critical judgment.  I don’t think its too much to ask for them to not make dogmatic uninformed assertions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon if they haven’t even read the book or engaged LDS scholarship on the matter.  

Which brings us to peer review.  The peer review of manuscripts in ancient Book of Mormon studies cannot be undertaken by scholars who: 1- have not read the Book of Mormon at all, 2- are not familiar with the scholarly literature on the topic, and 3- do not have a publication track record in the field.  These are the standard minimal academic requirements when selecting a scholar to do a peer review.  No one would ever dream of asking a scholar who doesn’t know Italian and has never read Dante and to peer review an article on Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Imagine if someone claimed that only people who have never read Dante should be the gatekeepers of what is authentic Dante scholarship.  The academy would view such a position as utterly preposterous.  Yet this is exactly what Jenkins (and his supporters) are asking us to do in ancient Book of Mormon studies.  The vast majority of Mesoamericanists are not qualified to peer review papers field of ancient Book of Mormon studies.  (This is not in any way meant to deny their manifest qualifications to do Mesoamerican studies.)

Paradoxically, the only journals in the field of ancient Book of Mormon studies which actually do authentic and rigorous peer review were published by classic FARMS: The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon.  To them can now be added Interpreter.  I know this because I have occasionally served as editor and peer reviewer for those publications.  They use precisely the same process used by any other academic journal.  

Rhetorically speaking, the “peer review” argument used by critics of the Book of Mormon is, in fact, designed to stifle discussion rather than expand and enhance it.  When an LDS scholar makes an argument about Book of Mormon historicity, and the non-Mormon critic responds “that wasn’t published in a non-Mormon peer reviewed journal” that claim is intended to end the debate.  The critic thereafter believes he does not have to actually examine the evidence and analysis on the issue.  For that critic this claim ends the debate by fiat, and in his mind he has won.  In reality it is merely a rhetorical ploy. 

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