Drawing the venom from the poison pen of rancorous reviews

Herminio Martins offers a threefold plan to bring order to the 'structural irresponsibility' of academic book reviewing - so dangerous in the present climate

May 13, 2010

Karin Calvo-Goller, an academic based in Israel, recently sued Joseph Weiler, editor-in-chief of the European Journal of International Law, for criminal libel in a Paris court on the basis of an unfavourable book review, which she believed was injurious to her career. Perhaps because the review was not nearly as negative as many that have been published over the years in many academic journals, sympathy so far has flowed towards the defendant rather than the plaintiff. Nevertheless, the fear that a well-placed book review could seriously damage one's career in a time of intense academic competition is real. The case provides an ideal opportunity to reflect on the state of academic book reviewing.

The most characteristic feature of academic book reviewing today is its asymmetry: there is no generally recognised right of reply. It is simply left to the discretion of the editor. This is an anomaly at a time when evaluative procedures for enabling feedback, responses, complaints and appeals are in play in all walks of life. They may often be purely cosmetic, ineffective or not inspired by genuine concerns for equity, but that is not the point.

There is general agreement that strictly one-sided evaluations are in need of correction, or at least mitigation. Yet academic book reviewing has somehow remained anomalous in its asymmetry. Why is it like that and, more to the point, what can be done about it?

The persistence seems to be more the result of inertia than anything else. Has anyone ever asked a journal's readers whether they find its book reviews are up to standard? Yet reviews that may be characterised as glib, vacuous, prejudiced, obtuse, frivolous, ignorant, petty-minded, rancorous or ill-mannered are not that rare. Are they even more frequent than reviews that are informative, balanced, well-argued, judicious, fair-minded or courteous?

What we have here is a state of "structural irresponsibility", where reviewers write largely as they please, assuming that they will not be called to account for their reviews' flaws, however gross: no corrections, no rejoinders, no retractions.

I propose three solutions to this problem. The first proposal is a recognised code of book-reviewing practice. Reviewers now are often instructed in little more than word limits, due dates and referencing styles. They are then allowed to bruise at will, indulging in whatever culture war the book under review provides an opportunity to fight. Much of the proposed code consists of reminding reviewers of their intellectual-moral obligations: report the book's content and avoid a disparaging tone. There may also be a need for the ideological equivalent of a "declaration of interests" by a reviewer who finds systematic fault with a book.

In addition, reviewers should provide their contact addresses to enable correspondence with reviewed authors. This may stimulate replies by the latter and occasionally lead the former to correct or retract parts of the original reviews. All of these post-review responses should be normal features of journal policy, subject to the usual word limits.

The second proposal will be familiar from many spheres of public life: an ombudsman to whom reviewed authors can turn to seek redress for bad reviewing practice. Journals would commit to publishing the ombudsman's judgements in a timely manner, which would keep all reviewers on their toes, especially once some had been named and shamed. An ombudsman may be seen as the court of last resort in an academic world governed by a code of reviewing practice.

My third - and most drastic - proposal would be to dispense with book reviews in academic journals altogether. This would not affect the review articles and responses that are proxy battles in the culture wars fought on the pages of the mainstream literary press.

Obviously, we would still need to know about the publication of academic books. But this could be met by the provision of Book Notes, which would provide bibliographical information along with a summary of a book's contents, topics and aims. One result may be a wider coverage of books, including those published in languages other than English.

Of course, a mixed reviewing regime may be possible even here, if Book Notes were leavened by review symposia, in which several scholars contributed substantial essays on themes arising from an especially significant text, to which its author would then respond at length.

At stake here is more than simply the fate of individual authors such as Calvo-Goller. Book reviewing is currently tolerated, if not indulged, as a home-grown blood sport. But equally worrisome is the irresponsible spread of misinformation and misunderstanding of academic work, which, especially in a time of increased accountability, threatens to render our efforts worthless.

Herminio Martins is emeritus Fellow in sociology, St Antony's College, Oxford.

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