The implausible pundits

May 10, 1996

Why do magazines and newspapers highlight the wrong academic arguments? Patrick O' Brien deplores the limited space newspapers and journals allot to book reviews

For a long time I have been dissatisfied with reviews published in the book pages of the quality press. They are extremely short and they are also conducted by a "tenured" coterie of "articulate literati" whose credentials to appraise the scholarship they comment on seem questionable to academics who insist on proven expertise as the only basis for writing serious reviews. But, I have asked myself, are reviews in academic journals superior?

For the most part, yes. They are written by scholars for scholars, they are longer and they are commissioned from panels of reviewers with the expertise required to comment on books in their domains of scholarship.

Unfortunately the litany of complaints about reviews published by academic journals is, if anything, more longer than the familiar dismissal of egotistical journalism masquerading as scholarship. The space allocated to reviews even in academic journals is also regarded as inadequate because the capacity of journals has hardly kept pace with the flow of new texts in the humanities. Too many books are never reviewed; others receive inadequate coverage. Why are journal editors not providing more opportunities for scholars to discourse in print about texts in their fields?

Academics appreciate that the post of review editor is not an appealing one. They recognise that the failure of reviewers to deliver to order is behind those long lead times between the publication of books and the appearance of reviews. But they would like to be assured that harassment goes on and that authors might be told the names of tardy reviewers who could reject the call to review or occasionally return a book. Review editors might also be more open about how they select books and reviewers. Such policies could be reconsidered in the light of feedback from an academic journal's evolving and often dimly perceived readership. How many journal editors solicit their readers' views?

At present, reviews in academic journals also contribute too little to the making of academic reputations. Some academics mention reviews on their CVs but these are normally disregarded by selection committees made up of their peers. Presumably this is because the genre is regarded as "contaminated" in varying degrees by friendship, patronage and malice.

Review editors could do more to raise the kudos attached to book reviews. Many are unwilling to offer a right to reply. Editors might solicit authors' comments on reviews of books that may take years of research to write, compared with at best the couple of days devoted to composing a review.

Reviewers for scholarly journals should possess the expertise required to appreciate books in the round, approach research with deference and attempt to mediate in a cooperative dialogue between authors and their readers. Alas, review editors cannot avoid academics with adversarial urges devoted to their own interests and their style of producing knowledge. They might, however, seek to harness reviewers' competitive qualities by asking them to specify their own ideological preconceptions.

Publishers could also help by inviting authors to state clearly in their prefaces what in their view would constitute valid grounds for scholarly criticism. Reviewers could then be invited to cite and then heed or ignore the parameters set by authors for proper scholarly discourse.

Fortunately help is on the way in the form of information technology that will allow for longer and more rapid publication of reviews and provide authors with the right of instantaneous reply.

Patrick O'Brien is director, Institute of Historical Research and editor elect of Reviews inHistory, a new electronic review journal.

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