I was thinking about the passage from Trần Ngọc Thêm’s book that I discussed below and trying to understand how information like that can get written and published. While there are undoubtedly many reasons, one which is very important is the absence of the peer review process in Vietnam.
If Trần Ngọc Thêm wanted to get this book published in say the U.S., he would first have to submit it to an academic press. There an editor who focuses on Southeast Asia would look at it to try to get a sense of whether it is offering something new, and if the scholarship is solid enough to deserve consideration.
If the editor agreed that it was worth considering, s/he would then find three scholars who have expertise in the topic the book covers to read it and judge whether or not it is worthy of being published. This is the “peer review process.” This process is usually anonymous, in that the people reading the work are not told who wrote it, though obviously sometimes they can figure this out simply by reading the work.
In any case, what reviewers check for is whether the text is 1) up to date (that is, does it make use of the most recent scholarship on the topic?), 2) correct (are there factual mistakes?), 3) new (i.e., does it make a new contribution to our understanding of a topic?), and 4) of interest to (ideally a wide range of) readers.
Reviewers can respond in various ways. They can suggest that it be published “as is” with no changes, or they can suggest that it not be published. What usually happens is something between these two extremes. Usually reviewers suggest/demand that certain changes be made, or more research on some aspect be undertaken, before the book will be acceptable for publication.
Once the reviewers report their opinions and comments to the editor, the editor then makes the final decision about what to do. In most cases, the editor will pass on the comments of the reviewers, and demand that the author address their comments before the book can be published.
If Trần Ngọc Thêm’s book had been submitted for peer review, the information which I discussed below would not have been acceptable for publication. First, it isn’t based on the most recent scholarship, and it is not correct. I guess you could say that it is “new” in the sense that other people don’t say what he says there, but that is only because 1) his ideas are not based on the latest scholarship and 2) his information is not correct. . .
What is good about the peer review process is that it helps create and maintain a professional standard of knowledge about a given topic. Ideas can change, but only if an author is able to persuade the reviewers (i.e., peers in his/her field) that his/her new interpretation is correct.
As far as I know, the peer review process has never been practiced in Vietnam (someone please correct me if I’m wrong). So what this means is that there is no professional standard of knowledge which people can rely on. If someone came up with a crazy idea 30 years ago, even though there might be plenty of scholars today who know that it is wrong, it can still easily be adopted by a scholar today and published, because there is no peer review process to prevent this from happening.
As long as this situation continues, there will be no hope for historical scholarship in Vietnam. Vietnamese scholars often talk about how their scholarship is “scientific” (khoa học). While the idea that historical scholarship can be “scientific” has long been dead in the West, it can be created and published in a “professional” manner. The peer review process is essential for creating professional scholarship. It would be wonderful to see Vietnamese employ it.