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H-Net Community: Building Bridges

Print and Electronic Book Reviewing Can Peacefully Co-Exist

The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: August 9, 1996
Section: Opinion
Page: A40


By Christopher L. Tomlins

Editors of scholarly journals long have grumbled about the limited ability of contributors to express themselves. Nowadays, though, we're as likely to worry about their unlimited capacity for expression outside our pages, in the ever-expanding realm of the on-line octopus.

Electronic scholarship has broken through print's monopoly on professional discourse. In the sciences, the fully electronic journal is well on the way from sprightly ascendancy to actual domination of the publishing media. In the social sciences and humanities, fully electronic journals, though rarer, are becoming more common than they were a year or two ago. As a result, some editors fear that on-line publication threatens the circulation of print journals by providing alternative, supposedly "costless" access to professional information.

In disciplines such as history, where knowledge traditionally has been communicated primarily through books, book reviews are essential tools in summarizing the state of the art. A journal such as The American Historical Review reports on close to 1,000 books a year. Increasingly, print reviews in history journals have electronic counterparts -- notably, the book reviews now carried on many of the 50-plus electronic discussion lists sponsored by H-Net.

For several years, I was book-review editor for a scholarly print journal, the Law and History Review. Recently, I became the editor of the Review. Both roles have required me to work out an appropriate response to the challenges -- and opportunities -- of on-line reviewing. After three years of wrestling with the issue, I have decided that electronic reviewing -- and, by extension, on-line publishing in general -- is neither the godsend that some observers have claimed, nor the disaster that others have feared. Print and electronic book reviewing can co-exist, if both media evolve.

Initially, I recommended that the Law and History Review remove its reviews from print and publish them as an on-line supplement. My proposal was based on considerations of scholarly quality and authority. I thought that our reviews were far superior to those then appearing independently on H-Net discussion lists, and I wanted our standard and voice to prevail.

The short book review is a distinctive genre of scholarly communication. Peculiar pressures of time and stringent word limits require writers to achieve a form of expressive terseness. They must deliver a summary of a book's substance, discuss its strengths and weaknesses, evaluate its arguments, and furnish an authoritative judgment of its worth -- in 700 to 1,000 words. What I read on H-Net showed none of those characteristics. Overwhelmingly, reviews were long-winded, turgid, rambling, bereft of wit or flair. And where were the editorial structures that have been developed for print media to reassure readers and authors concerning the objectivity and accuracy of commissioned reviews, as well as to provide for copy editing of text?

Scholarly journals like to think of themselves as filters that screen out the dross. This is not just self-serving conceit. The academy does delegate to professional societies and their journals much of the responsibility for assessing the value of research. hat I encountered in news groups and discussion lists replaced the fragile authority and professional cohesion that scholarly journals help to sustain with a cacophony of hastily constructed opinion.

I had hoped that creating an on-line supplement to our journal would expand our influence to the electronic domain, while maintaining our control and our turf. Further reflection, however, led me to withdraw my recommendation.

My chief concern was that we might hurt the journal itself and, by extension, its "parent" -- the American Society for Legal History. I am an avid subscriber to scholarly journals. Yet while I do read some of the articles, I primarily scan the journals' printed book reviews. Often the journal subscription that I get as a member of a society is the best proof that membership is useful. If The American Historical Review stopped carrying its 1,000 reviews per year and put them on line, where anybody could get them, I might begin to wonder what my membership in the American Historical Association was buying. Notices about group insurance?

Informal contacts with subscribers to the Law and History Review suggested that dropping our book reviews would have a negative impact on circulation -- and we could ill afford to lose subscription revenue.

Since I abandoned my proposal for an electronic supplement of reviews, several developments have altered my thinking again. For example, the quality of on-line reviews is improving. H-Net's review project has recognized that it must incorporate many of the editorial standards and practices used in print journals. Although H-Net reviews still tend to run longer than printed reviews, those on line increasingly seem to match the quality of printed ones.

Nor do electronic threats to the Law and History Review's influence seem as important as they did to a neophyte book-review editor three years ago. Print journals may hanker for their lost monopoly on communication, but the proliferation of outlets for authoritative information can, in fact, help them. Expressions of opinion in one outlet may send one looking for more expressions elsewhere. Even the much-ballyhooed advantage of speed in electronic dissemination may be less of a threat to print journals than we originally thought. Rather than precluding print reviews, early electronic reviews of books may excite and sustain interest in what later, printed reviews say. After all, we often see a book reviewed multiple times in different print journals -- even after a review has appeared earlier in mass-circulation outlets such as The New York Times Book Review -- without apparent loss of interest in what the journals have to say.

Nor is it clear that on-line publication has an inherent cost advantage over print. Stevan Harnad, a professor of cognitive science at Britain's Southampton University, has argued that electronic journals share only two costs with paper journals: those for peer review and those for editing. "All other costs simply vanish," he has written. But, in fact, estimates of savings vary enormously. H-Net itself is hardly costless, for it exists only by dint of direct or indirect federal and state largesse -- grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and subsidies from Michigan State University (H-Net's home base). In today's financial environment, with cuts in N.E.H. and university budgets, it is not beyond imagining that such subsidies will end, and that H-Net will have to consider becoming a direct-subscription service.

So it seems to me that both the extravagant claims and the fears generated by the collision of on-line and print media should be adjusted. Print journals should continue to run their reviews, and should accept the proliferation of additional on-line opinion as a welcome shared interest. Each medium will do best by building on its own strengths while recognizing those of the other. Just as H-Net's book reviewers have learned to adopt editorial practices that look like those of a print journal, so print journals are learning how to use World-Wide Web sites to post some of their material -- tables of contents, article abstracts, lists of book reviews -- electronically. Discussion lists are forging links with scholarly societies and extending debates begun in print; print journals often now refer to electronic discussions of topics of interest to them.

These emerging possibilities for a complementary relationship between print and on-line media may even quell my one remaining concern about the on-line medium's long-term effects: its implications for how professional academics go about acquiring knowledge. Journals are broadcasters: Their editors actively construct packages of knowledge -- out of articles and book reviews -- and deliver them into the unknown. Subscribers buy the packages blind, for the information they might contain. They don't choose what information to receive, except in the broad category indicated by a journal's title -- "American History," "Legal History," and so forth. Dissemination of information through the Internet, particularly via home pages, reverses this relationship: The supplier becomes a "narrowcaster," who passively "posts" information. The consumer of information becomes the active party, who seeks it.

That may seem more efficient -- one picks and chooses for oneself -- but what are the professional and social consequences? Broadcasters supply me with all sorts of information that I don't want, but a lot of it may, nevertheless, be information of which I should be aware. Would I choose to read about war and genocide in Rwanda and Burundi if The New York Times didn't force me to acknowledge their existence? Electronic broadcasting could turn the democracy of choice that the Internet's fans extol into a socially myopic nightmare. We should be required to confront certain information for society's sake and for our own intellectual well-being. Informed choice cannot take place without inforation.

In the scholarly milieu, journals provide pieces of information (for example, the Law and History Review's 40-odd book reviews per issue) that, seen as a whole, also offer subscribers an aggregate overview of the intellectual state of their discipline. Narrowcast information cannot do this; "hitting" a review posted on a Web site will give the consumer only a segment of information specific to the chosen category. Just as the Internet displays a tendency toward isolating individuals at their computer terminals, so it seems to me to presage a degree of intellectual fragmentation.

I hope that such concerns will remain remote, rather than immediate, anxieties. The signs are good, given the emerging cooperation that I've described among journals, disciplinary societies, discussion groups, and the like.

As a book-review editor, I used to be amused when an author mailed me the text of a review on a disk, as well as faxing it and e-mailing it. But sometimes duplication creates not redundancy but additional possibilities. In the future, scholars may wonder how they ever got along without the existence of both print and electronic publishing.

Christopher L. Tomlins is a research fellow at the American Bar Foundation and editor of the Law and History Review.

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