BMCR editors Richard Hamilton and James J. O’Donnell reflect on the paucity of reviews of electronic publications, in BMCR and elsewhere:
… we have not sustained a community of practice around serious reviews of web-based publications.
This is a concern for the scholarly world as a whole in two regards. First, there are more and more very high quality and quite serious scholarly works that appear in digital form; second, many observers and participants in the scholarly communication world argue strongly for Open Access publication — that is to say, publication whose costs are defrayed in some way other than by user charges. A freely accessible web publication done to appropriate technical standards is the ideal in that regard…
But if it is true that reviewers are so strongly enticed by the prospect of a free book or a free CD that absent such an enticement they are unwilling to come forward, then we will soon be at an impasse, as more and more important material becomes available in a form unsusceptible to the enticement of reviewers. Now the future of reviewing itself is a subject of interest to us … we are for now convinced that the first and most obvious way forward is to insure that serious scholarly work, however published, gets serious scholarly reviews.
To that end, this message is designed to elicit our traditional BMCR volunteers on the usual terms.
It’s hard for me to believe that the absence of a tangible quid pro quo (e.g. a book or a CD) has much to do with the lack of people willing to review electronic publications in venues such as BMCR. I suggest that this has more to do with fairly widespread ignorance with regard to best practices, mainly because there are still very few practitioners who have walked the walk and know whereof they speak.
Personal anecdote: when BMCR published a review of Penelope M. Allison, Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture, the reviewer had essentially nothing to say regarding the enormous online dimension to the publication (involving lookups to a hefty relational database, parameterized web pages built on the fly from xml source files, etc.). I was troubled by this, so I wrote to the reviewer privately in an effort to elicit a more substantive evaluation of what we had done well or badly in that respect. My query met with no response. So here was a case in which BMCR had an opportunity to do a thorough review of scholarly work with a major electronic component, but instead the editors chose to publish an incomplete and quite frankly incompetent review that simply ignored the electronic scholarship, as if it didn’t even exist. A missed opportunity, to say the least.
By the way, on the subject of the BMCR: an RSS 2.0 feed for the site would be a very welcome enhancement!