From the Letters to the Editor column in the March 2001 Perspectives

On the Art of Reviewing

Elliott R. Barkan, March 2001

To the Editor:

I appreciated Bruce Mazlish's article on the art of book reviewing (Perspectives, February 2001), for I have been the book review editor for the Journal of American Ethnic History for 16 years. I think all the points made were quite valid but I would like to add one more of great importance that Mazlish does not address:

Individuals who agree to review a book undertake an unspoken or implicit commitment to the author[s] of the book, its publisher, and the readers of the journal in which the review is to appear—namely, that they will fulfill that commitment and actually write and submit the review. I have been appalled over and over again by the number of our peers who undertake to write book reviews—and sometimes on multiple books—and then fail to do so and then refuse even to return the books so that other reviewers might be secured. And this includes well-known scholars.

Had it been up to me, I would have periodically published lists of the books sent out for review and for which no reviews were received and accompanying lists of those individuals so lacking in regard for their peers that they could not be bothered to fulfill their obligation and submit the reviews they agreed to do by accepting the books in question. They should be revealed so that others do not turn to them only to face a similar disappointment.

Obviously, circumstances arise when completing a review is not feasible, but refusing to return the copy so that another might complete the task is less defensible. Leaving aside for the moment the investment that the publishers make in disseminating review copies, we all know that those who write the books look for such reviews as a vital way of disseminating information about their very important achievement. Accolades are welcomed and constructive feedback can be invaluable for subsequent projects. Without the reviews it is much harder for peers to learn about the publication and much harder for authors to get such feedback.

In this profession we have a moral obligation to our colleagues to complete reviews undertaken. Without that, all the other points made by Mazlish could prove of little value.

—Elliott R. Barkan
California State University at San Bernardino