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11/17/2015

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elisa freschi

Interesting topic, Marcus, although I would say that in many cases also the opposite is the case: reviewers who are too cautious (because they want to please the author) with the result that reviews no longer work as a way to distinguish good scholarly work and one needs to rely (back) to the author's pedigree and the like.

At the "Indian Philosophy Blog" we host book reviews with comments and always invite the authors to chime in. The reviewers know that the authors will be invited to respond, but the authors are also alerted to the fact that we host only "honest reviews", that is, not just flattering remarks about how the book is "a landmark" and "will be welcome by scholars of [all disciplines]". The discussion which follows is usully really engaging. In case of particularly interesting books, we even hosted more than one review, so that the same book could be examined from different perspectives (see this case: http://indianphilosophyblog.org/?s=%22Hinduism+and+Environmental%22&submit=Search).

Michel X.

I recently contributed a fairly negative review of a book that, in my estimation, suffers from some serious problems (i.e., it's not just that I disagreed with the thesis/arguments--I don't, actually--but that the argumentation was piecemeal or absent, the surveys flawed, etc.). Here's what I did, though:

*I had a few friends read it over before submitting it, and asked them to keep an eye out for passages that seemed overly negative, petty, or vindictive.

*I submitted my review several weeks before the deadline, and let the editor know that it wasn't particularly favourable and that I'd be happy to work on it a little more if he thought it was in any way unfair.

*I tried to depersonalize the review, and stick to the book's claims. When flawed, I'd point out the flaw; when the argumentation was entirely absent, I'd say as much, but only after sketching the direction in which it did go, and in which it seemed to want to go.

*Before writing my own review, I read several other reviews in the same journal to get a sense of their tone, style, and methodology. I paid particular attention to negative reviews (I didn't find many), and modeled my own after them.

I think those are all important steps to take when writing a negative review, especially if one hasn't written many reviews before. The first two points in particular strike me as just plain due diligence.

As far as your questions go, I can say that I think I can recall reading occasional responses to reviews in the pages of a journal, although I can't quite bring the case(s) to mind right now (and they were pretty rare). I'm not convinced that editors should be setting aside space for responses, but I do think that there should be an element of "peer review" insofar as one should get a colleague to have a look at one's review, especially if it's unfavourable. One thing that I do appreciate, however, are book symposia at conferences. I don't think those are regularly published, but it would be nice if they were because I find them really informative, and that's a pretty good venue for airing methodological and other grievances (since there's time for a response, and for discussion).

Michael Cholbi

A small point but something that's long bugged me: 'Important' books are often the target of review essays or symposia in journals in which the book authors get to respond to critics. But standard book reviews are the end of the discussion of that book -- the author has no voice with which to respond to the review. This seems to me an unjust way of augmenting the intellectual capital of those who typically already have plenty of it in our field.

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