Sunday, February 8, 2009

Event B: Book Reviewing in the Digital Age

Book Reviewing in the Digital Age:

Welcome to Event B at the Appositions 2009 conference, a forum for conversation about the topic of book reviewing in the digital age: practice/politics/pedagogy.

If you would like to participate, simply add your contribution here via the “post a comment” link at the bottom of this page.

A lively recent discussion in the public domain on the Milton-L listserv suggests that the subject of book reviewing in the field of Renaissance and early modern literary and cultural studies could benefit from renewed examination with regard to administrative and editorial best-practices, readerly and writerly concerns, professional development matters, and scholarly standards. To view the Milton-L December, 2008 Archives by thread, look for consecutive postings with “soliciting of reviews” and other related tags.

Administrative and editorial policies vary considerably from journal to journal (in print media) when it comes to how book reviews are managed from inquiry to process to production. Some journals (including RES) routinely send their book reviews out for peer-review; others (such as RQ) commission reviews; while other journals (like RELARTS) openly invite proposals for books to be reviewed.

A small number of those postings to Milton-L defended a conservative model: that, in most cases, bad books should be ignored; that reviews ought to be written by an inner-circle of established scholars; and that solicited book reviews should not be subject to peer-review.

How and why might electronic journals in the field solicit, evaluate, and produce book reviews of value? How and why might e-journals promote book reviews as vehicles for building new communities that either sustain or subvert the status quo?

We invite your comments, questions and statements toward a collaborative document on editorial and scholarly best practices for book reviewing in the digital age.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Two (2009): Dialogues & Exchanges


Ian MacInnes said...

I don't think that electronic journals should operate differently than major print journals with regard to book reviews. With the advent of Amazon, a public space exists where anyone can write a review and/or rate a book. Making book reviews at academic journals more open does not add anything to this already existing democratic system. The goal of reviews in journals is to give other scholars an idea about what experts in the field think of new publications. If I'm thinking of looking at a new book on Sidney, I'm much more interested in hearing what Margaret Hannay has to say about it than in what a first-year graduate student has to say. That's not because I don't think the grad student is smart or thoughtful, but I presume that he or she hasn't spent the last umpteen years researching and thinking about Philip Sidney. I also don't think that book reviews in journals are as much about whether a book is good or bad (that's Amazon's purview). They are about what a given book is useful for, what it offers the field. Reviewers for journals have an obligation to say things like "if you're looking for X, you'll find it in this book. If you're looking for Y, you won't find it here." Inexpert reviewers won't know that scholars in the field might be looking for X or Y. I just read some of the postings on the Milton-L list (how archaic distribution lists feel these days!), and I'm not sure that agree on the whole idea of peer reviewing reviews. Frankly, I'd want to hear what Hannay had to say about a book on Sidney no matter what any blind peer reviewers thought of her putative review. As a consequence. I don't think reviewers should be solicited through general calls. The whole point of having good editors is that they should know who the logical scholars are to review a given book. They have the responsibility to choose well.

Jim Doelman said...

I'm the reviews editor of the electronic journal _Early Modern Literary Studies_; we've been publishing reviews online since the 1990s. I've just now read some of the discussion on Milton-L, much of which I could respond to, but I'll simply pick up on a few points that Ian MacInnes raises. Overall, I agree with his perspective, and my ideal is always to find well-established logical scholars for reviews. At the same time, there are always more books than I have time to find reviewers for, and we post a list of books received for review, based on which I'll have people approach me. I will sometimes accept upper-year graduate students, if they've established some credibility in the field through publication. While they don't have the experience of more established scholars, they often have recently been over the scholarship in that part of the field. I have at times suggested to graduate students that it's not necessarily in their best interests to do reviews, for some of the reasons that were discussed in the Milton-L. (I have wondered sometimes whether doing so is a creative method of thesis avoidance).

Before I became the reviews editor we sent reviews out for peer assessment; I think there are some merits to this, but it's also cumbersome and rather awkward when a review has been commissioned.