Reviews and the society of scholarship

Photo "anger" (some rights reserved) by Jeff Hester

Photo "anger" (some rights reserved) by Jeff Hester

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:

SBL Review of Biblical Literature is allowing authors their right to reply in its blog.

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 :)

  1. RBL’s URL bookreviews.org is a clear indication of how early it was in adopting the electronic medium. []
  2. Thinking of the effort and time that goes into writing a scholarly work there are understandably powerful emotions driving these feelings ;) []

4 comments on “Reviews and the society of scholarship

  1. tim

    Bob Buller clarified in an email (which he gave permission to quote here:

    Let me begin by thanking you for noting the two author responses announced in today’s RBL newsletter. I am of course grateful for any publicity that bloggers offer RBL, but I also am curious to see how you, your readers, and other bloggers respond to the notion of authors responding online to reviews published online. That being said, I must note that this “innovation” is not exactly new. The RBL blog has invited comments almost from the beginning (2008), and we published the first authorial response in September 2009 (http://rblnewsletter.blogspot.com/2009/09/20090930-ramelli-and-konstan-terms-for.html). At that time we also established the policy that, although we will not announce all comments in an RBL newsletter, we will announce author responses in a newsletter, so as to promote greater dialogue between reviewer and author. For additional author responses (unfortunately, a small number of authors use the blog to respond), see:

    http://rblnewsletter.blogspot.com/2009/11/20091140-mason-josephus-judea-and.html (December 2009)
    http://rblnewsletter.blogspot.com/2010/12/20101238-williamson-ephesians.html (January 2011)
    http://rblnewsletter.blogspot.com/2011/02/20110206-pervo-making-of-paul.html (February 2011)
    http://rblnewsletter.blogspot.com/2011/02/20110209-terrell-pauls-parallels.html (February 2011)

    All of these were, I believe, announced in an RBL newsletter; if any were omitted, it was a mistake, not a matter of policy.

    I should also note that RBL blog comments are carefully moderated: commenters must identify themselves either in the comment heading or within the comment (no truly anonymous comments), and we will not publish ad hominem attacks. In short, we hold commenters to the same standards as we expect of our reviewers (see http://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/ReviewerInstructions.pdf), in order to promote meaningful and productive dialogue.

    Thanks again for your blog posts today. I do hope that more authors and readers will avail themselves of the opportunity to comment on the many reviews that we publish.

  2. tim

    I replied:

    Bob,

    Thanks, I was not aware that the practice wasn’t new (I was not aware of it at all till I read Mark’s post). It does not surprise me that it has been available for a while, as I said in the post I am impressed by just how innovative RBL has been.

    Like you I’d hope more authors took up the possibility. Especially within the relatively restrained boundaries you mention. I wonder if SBL could consider bringing this innovation closer to the heart of RBL by attaching the comment thread to the reviews themselves. That could really begin an interesting and often fruitful dialogue between authors, reviewers and other readers…

  3. jim

    it should also be remembered that book reviews appearing in print journals have been the subject of rejoinders. thumb through old issues of any biblical studies journal and you’ll find authors responding to reviews in ‘short notes’ and sometimes long essays.

    this is not new.

  4. tim

    You are right, and to quote Jim West (as well as Qohelet) “there is [indeed] nothing new under the sun” but in the print age such rejoinders were rare, and at the discretion of the editor. Now they are beginning to become more common, and at no one’s discretion except the author’s. This seems to me to be another case of digital taking something that was potential or a small feature and making it more developed and (I expect before long) a major feature of the process. If that change occurs it changes the nature of “reviewing”.

    So, not new, but a small revolution in the making.