RBL (the SBL’s Review of Biblical Literature) is an innovative and interesting journal. It fulfills the important, but unglamorous, scholarly task of organising and publishing reviews of new book-length work in the field. So far so useful but ordinary. RBL has also pioneered the electronic publication of these reviews while retaining a print edition.1 It has used the flexibility of this mode of publication to open reviewing and the selection of works to review wider than traditional journals.
- Any SBL member or other scholar can request a book (from the list of titles offered by the publishers), and if their CV looks suitable, review it. Traditionally the book re views editor searches round their circle of friends and acquaintances for someone who “might be interested”.
- More than one review can be published for the same work. Traditionally each book will get at most one review in any particular journal.
- Because e-publishing is speedy RBL is also “timely” it usually gets reviews out much closer to the publication date of the work than any print journal can achieve.
You get the picture, RBL is an early adopter and enthusiastic scholarly institution. Mark Goodacre has a post (RBL Innovation: Scholarly Rejoinders to Reviews) which draws attention to a new departure from standard journal practice that could have far reaching impacts on this unglamorous aspect of scholarship. Mark summarises the development thus:
The blog format enables authors to add their thoughts on their reviewers in the “comments” and the regular RBL newsletter has begun to draw attention to these.
He and his commenters speculate on the impact this right of reply may have on reviewing and scholarship in general. After pointing out how often authors feel aggrieved by a reviewer’s obtuse missing of the point, or unfair presentation of their work,2 Mark goes on to say:
I must admit to mixed feelings about this. On one level, it could help to hold reviewers to account. But on the other hand, it is part of the academic experience to learn to cope with reviews of your work with which you may disagree. I wonder if the ease of a blog-comment response will encourage too many authors to respond too quickly and too negatively to critiques of their work that may — on reflection — help them.
Moreover, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. If you have an unfair review, it’s sometimes better not to respond. Knee-jerk responses all too often end up looking petty, pompous or self-indulgent.
To me this is where the potential impact of this seemingly innocuous move in a quiet backwater of scholarship is really interesting. The location, on a “blog” that seems hardly visited and serves merely as a convenient RSS feed for lists of new titles reviewed, is obscure. Yet the phenomenon it recognises and enshrines in the practice of the scholarly “guild” is revolutionary.
For the practice of an author having the capacity to reply to a review already exists, if not on the journal’s site then at least on their personal blog authors now clearly have the “right of reply”, and are increasingly beginning to take it up.
This makes this aspect of scholarship, up to now one of the most impersonal in a culture (Western Academic) that has erred on the side of aiming to remove humanity from the humanities (“objectivity” anyone?) more social. So, in this brave new electronic world of scholarship we will need to learn are a new set of social skills. Too intemperate a response or any response at all that seems “wrong” (nitpicking, ad hominem etc…) will presumably lower the writer’s standing as a person. And this “personality” will no longer be hidden away in “real life” where fellow scholars do not follow one home.
Up to now this social aspect of scholarship has been by an large confined to conferences, now it is slowly entering everyday life. Interesting times :)