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An H-NET Project Aims for Timelier Reviews of Scholarly Books
The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Lisa Guernsey
When a book is panned in academic print journals, the author rarely responds. To editors and readers, doing so looks peevish.
But when The Secret World of American Communism (Yale University Press) came out in 1995, it faced a new forum for academic reviewing: the H-NET Review Project.
Reviewing the book for H-NET, Michael J. Carley, a scholar of European history who works for the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada, did not hold back: He blistered its editors -- Harvey Klehr, John E. Haynes, and Fridrikh I. Firsov -- for, in his opinion, superficially covering issues related to the history of the Communist Party of the United States. He described their views as unsupported, right-wing rhetoric.
His review went out to subscribers of the mailing list H-RUSSIA, where the book's editors lividly responded. (Dr. Klehr teaches at Emory University, Dr. Haynes works at the Library of Congress, and Dr. Firsov is the former director of a Russian center for the preservation of documents.)
That give-and-take is part of what H-NET is trying to promote.
Its other main aim is speedy reviewing. In the case of the book about the U.S. Communist Party, H-NET's review -- and the replies -- were out in July, shortly after the book appeared. The print journal Reviews in American History didn't publish its review until more than a year later, in September 1996.
The H-NET Review Project started in 1994, under the direction of H-NET's executive-committee chairman, Mark L. Kornbluh. Now, he says, it is "really taking off."
More than 650 reviews were written for the project in 1996. Jim Sleight, a Michigan State University graduate student and H-NET's administrator, says almost 3,000 books have been catalogued, many of which still await reviewers. The reviews are posted on H-NET's Web site.
The project, which is supported by Michigan State and the National Endowment for the Humanities, relies on the same principles as print journals. Specialized editors of H-NET's lists commission and edit the reviews, then send them electronically to anyone who has subscribed to the appropriate H-NET lists. That way, the reviews bypass the laborious printing cycles of print journals.
"We're changing the dynamic of reviewing," says Sara Tucker, an active member of H-NET and editor of the mailing list H-TEACH.
The Review Project's advocates say that electronic reviewing also allows for longer essays. "Some print reviews are so limited," Dr. Kornbluh says. "They have just enough room to say, 'This is an important book.'"
Electronic reviewing does have its detractors, several of whom wrote about the practice in a 1995 newsletter of the Organization of American Historians. With H-NET's reviews, there is potential for "a considerable amount of 'spam,'" wrote Ellen Meserow Sauer and Michael Jensen, who work on Project Muse, an on-line program of the Johns Hopkins University Press. When reviews prompt rebuttals, they argued, the amount of material to be filtered only increases.
And, even with e-mail's publishing advantages, writing reviews still takes time. As Robin Higham, editor of the Journal of the West, wrote: "These are human factors that the machine will not improve."