bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to Research in the Online-Only World, part IV: the value of reviews

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 28 May, 2020

No grand plan (or even not-so-grand) that one conjures up in the mind’s eye ever unfolds in this benighted world quite as you expected. I have been holding back on publishing this latest instalment in the short series of ten tips for academic searching online. That is because I was anticipating quickening the pace and publishing a few tips together but that will have to wait. As I drafted the advice for each, the text has grown. So, we are going to continue as we started, with one tip per post for the next few days. As a result, today we have Tip IV which can be stated simply as:

Trawl Reviews

In the previous post, we noted that both the use and the limitations of bibliographies. One necessary method for supplementing them is by trawling through reviews of recent publications. Checking bibliographies and reviews have complementary strengths, but also share one main drawback. While bibliographies are most helpful in alerting you to articles in journals or collections of essays, reviews focus on whole volumes, whether they be essay collections, monographs or editions of texts. The advantage of reviews is that they engage with the works they are discussing — the best give an overview of its contents, place it within wider scholarship, and give an assessment of its quality. Sometimes, they can be openly hostile or simply bitchy, but in most areas that style has thankfully gone out of fashion. The result, though, is that there is an art not only to writing reviews but also to reading them (certainly, if you encounter one of mine, you are encouraged to read between the lines).

There are nowadays some online publications which are dedicated to providing reviews. I will give you two examples, to which I have signed up for updates and which are likely to be useful to medievalists or early modernists:

  • The Medieval Review – once known as the Bryn Mawr Medieval Review (and so the sister of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, which sometimes has discussions of post-classical works discussing later traditions informed by the ancient world), it has moved allegiances and is now under the aegis of Indiana University
  • Reviews in History – run by London’s Institute of Historical Research; its main focus is on later history (compare the 452 reviews falling within the millennium and more designated as ‘medieval’ in comparison to the 1172 for the twentieth century) and so earlier coverage is patchy but still useful

Screenshot of Medieval Reivew and Reviews in History

You may well have other suggestions, and do add them in the comments. For now, here are a few pointers for using them:

  1. A review tells you about more than just the book it names — as it will place the volume under discussion in context, it will allude to other relevant scholarship. Sometimes this will be provided only as a set of surnames (reviews rarely come with footnotes) but they are valuable leads for you.
  2. Think about the author of the review — ask yourself what they may have written which is relevant to the topic. The immodest will cite their own works; those who are yet more arrogant will expect you to know. For either of these types of reviews, you will want to investigate their profile further, and on that we will give advice in Tip VI. Others may be too early in their career to have published on the subject (most scholars first publications are reviews), but it is still worth trying to learn something about them as you develop a sense of the community who work in areas allied to your own.
  3. Check relevant journals — as well as the online only platforms, most (but not all) academic periodicals have a review section. We will talk more about journals in Tip V. At this point, it is worth noting that some journals, as a taster, put online and free of charge some of its reviews before they are published in hard copy.
  4. Reviews are of recent works, but not that recent — if you want to cause one of your lecturers maximum discomfort, ask them how many books they have on their shelves for which they still have not submitted their review. Even when a review has been submitted, it can take several months before it appears in a journal (the turn-around is quicker in the online-only world). As with the bibliographies we have discussed, there is a time-lag between publication of the work and it being noticed in academic publications. Some periodicals appear more frequently and try to be quicker — I am thinking of the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Booksbut even then they tend to run their reviews more than half a year after publication, they sit behind a paywall. Do not worry too much about such ‘literary reviews’: as they cater for such a broad audience of literati, the number of articles that they publish which will be relevant to your research will be small.

The upshot of these observations is that, while reading reviews are essential addition to searching bibliographies, it is not going to give you access to the very latest published research. That is the topic of the next tip.

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  1. […] use of periodicals was central to the previous tip. Many engage with recent scholarship through reviews or review articles (the difference being that […]

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