Anthropology and open access book reviews: new and old projects

The AAA recently unveiled its new open access book review forum  the ‘Anthropology Book Forum’ (ABF) today. It’s an interesting project that has lots of positive things going for it: It’s open access, and the goal is to get book reviews out quickly. These are both good things. So I wish them luck.

It’s interesting to compare this new project to the Anthropology Review Database, an old (by web standards) initiative of Hugh Jarvis and Jack David Eller. The ‘ARD’ has been around for a long time, as you can tell from it’s ‘pre-css’ look. In some sense, the ARD is more of a success than the ABF may be. It’s been running with a quick-turnaround model for fifteen years. It also explicitly uses a creative commons license, which the ABF does not.

But in some senses, the ARD demonstrates the potential pitfalls of the ABF. For instance: how many readers had heard of the ARD before reading this post? The ARD’s current low profile suggests that the ABF will need to work hard to draw eyeballs. In fact, since Eller seems to be the only person still writing reviews for the site, it seems one possible future for the ABF is that it be read and written by extremely low amounts of people.

In addition to struggles to attract readers, the ABF also wants to be the home for a conversation about the books it reviews. This seems even more unlikely to me. Actually, that’s not true. There seem to be definite possibilities for flame wars. But a more likely outcome is just that no one has the time or energy to engage.

The standard advice for getting one’s message out there is: Go where the conversation is. With the ABF, the AAA has done the exact opposite. People only have so much attention. They spend it on the things that matter to them. Online discussion is tied to offline biographical projects: Getting a job, the future of Benin, finishing a Ph.D., an indelicate passion for cat videos. Our choice to discuss a book one place rather than another isn’t tied to the quality of the book review we read there, it’s tied to the relationship between our personal projects and the locations of the conversation. I’m more likely to read JRAI book reviews than ABF (or ARD) book reviews because JRAI as a whole is more tied up in my life’s course than ABF is. In fact, scholarly societies and websites are just objectified versions of biographical projects.

I suppose a cynic would look at the ABF as an example of the AAA trying to capture the conversation about anthropology and move it on to AAA-branded spaces. This would actually be fine with me — the AAA is supposed to be our organization, after all. But this will requires someone to invest a considerable amount of their biography into making it so: Tweeting new reviews, getting the URL for the site correct in the press release (which didn’t actually happen when the site launched), and cultivate a body of reviewers who expend their life’s energy on the site, and thus become committed to reading and writing it.

Will this happen? It would be great if it did. But, sadly, I’m not optimistic — not because I don’t respect the people who put the site together (I do respect them), but because it is a very, very big ask. So, do them a favor: When you are done reading this, head on over to their site, read a review, comment on it, and prove me wrong.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

2 thoughts on “Anthropology and open access book reviews: new and old projects

  1. I’ve never really understood why anthropology can’t adopt something similar to what classics has with the Bryn Mawr Classical Review – http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/. These reviews are considered among the best in the field (although some journals have their own reviews, so there do end up being multiple voices), are open-access, and are read and even cited (as most provide critical commentary, not just a summary and some bland critiques like anthro reviews tend to have). I for one am hoping that ABF ends up being like BMCR, and that other journals keep their reviews sections (but maybe have them online-only, as I think pubs like Historical Archaeology now do).

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