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The art of reviewing academic work

September 19, 2008

I have used this inspired essay a number of times when reviewing books, articles, PhD theses, etc, so I thought it was time to share it with others.


The Art of Reviewing
By Bruce Mazlish

My title could as well be “The Job of Reviewing.” For a large part of the professional duty of academics and other scholars is to review their colleagues’ books, articles, and other written productions, such as proposals and projects. The job has to be done time and time again, whether in regard to hiring decisions, promotion and tenure cases, refereeing journal articles, judging manuscripts for book publishers, or formal reviews in either disciplinary journals or general interest publications, not to mention grant proposals. It may occupy more space in a given scholar’s c.v. than the list of his or her own publications.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2008 2:53 pm

    Thanks, John. Very useful indeed. Though I don’t keep track of reviews and likely wouldn’t be able to list them all in a CV!

  2. September 19, 2008 4:16 pm

    Yes, as with the comment above, the only way one would really know how many reviews one has done. and of what, would be for a full review for tenure and promotion (I mean in the system in which I work).

    This was a good article, and collectively we ought to devote far more time and attention to reviewing. I agree with the author and have had reasons to say so often enough myself, that reviewing is one of the cornerstones of our daily practice, and we never benefit from as much as a single seminar.

    Some reviewers seem to think that anything goes: they can beat their chests; proclaim their greatness and your bottomless stupidity; and talk about all the things that your book does not talk about, while ignoring what your book does talk about. The other line is that the reviewer clearly expected certain contents in the book — in which case it need not have been written if we are to be treated to a restatement of all that is known and regularly said — and clearly at a loss when faced with different angles and ideas, and a different focus, proceeds to judge the book a total failure by virtue of its departure from the previous literature.

    It is absolutely certain that some reviewers do not read the complete introduction, part of the conclusion, and peruse the table of contents. Some will add checking the References to see if they were cited enough times, or cited at all. That journal editors allow very nasty reviews to pass, without seeking a response from the author (especially if that author is “just” a young scholar), tells us once again about the state of elitism and corruption in our everyday work practices.

    The book reviews the reviewer, and the reviewer will be judged as much as he/she is judging, is a very valuable comment that the author made, and I think very true. When I read nasty, hasty reviews, and realize they are written by persons whose works I had assigned as required readings in one or more of my courses, I do not hesitate to pull his/her works permanently and replace them with other work. It also puts an immediate end to any prospects for collaboration with that person, for any chances of inviting that person to be a dissertation reviewer, for recommending that persons work in any way. Intemperate book reviewers who do a sloppy and unprofessional job need to know they are being watched, and that they themselves provoke certain consequences. What fascinates me is that some will walk away from their rushed dismissal with pride, as if in slamming a book they somehow made themselves bigger and better. Some real King Kong characters out there.

  3. September 19, 2008 9:42 pm

    Many thanks for those comments. I wonder how one could make the system fairer and give more public recognition to this largely hidden economy of reviewing. In Britain we have had until this year something called the RAE, or Research Assessment Exercise, conducted by the country’s higher education councils at irregular intervals of several years in which research-active university dept or groups are assessed. This is done primarily in terms of research output (i.e. the perceived quality of individual researchers’ top four publications) but other factors are taken into account as well, such as ‘markers of esteem’. I’m not too sure about these, but I understand being asked to review PhD theses, research proposals, books, and so on, is taken into account (how much they count, I know not). As the author points out, there is a huge amount at stake in getting these reviews right or wrong, but there is little guidance for young scholars, at least in my UK experience.

  4. September 20, 2008 5:41 am

    Given that the review system for confidential reports is / should be kept anonymous, probably a large proportion of one’s work in this area would have to be “discounted”. But more credit can be given for published reviews, which might in turn encourage reviewers to improve their styles. I’ve written book reviews for a newspaper and now journals and I’ve to say it’s mainly learnt on the job, and from imitation. Given the lack of coursework training in review-writing (and, I would say, paper presentation) probably it might be useful for some energetic person to compile a reader of exemplary reviews (as judged by the authors of the reviewed books).

  5. September 20, 2008 5:53 am

    Lots of interesting ideas here John. At one point I was to edit a series of little essays for the AAA’s Anthropology News on the art of reviewing, and just let it pass because of competing obligations. I hope others will do something along those lines, it can be really fascinating on a number of levels in fact.

    Incidentally, I think you had a post on peer reviewed blogging a while back. I saw it, have been thinking about it, and never quite reached any firm ideas I could share. I will look for it again and recommend it to Owen since he might want to consider that issue as well. We would need some really interesting “ground rules” for peer reviewing blogs, because some of the writing is pretty out of the ordinary in academic terms.


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