Sunday, March 11, 2007

What is going on with the reviews?

Those consulting the Museum Anthropology blog lately may have noticed the appearance of additional full blown reviews (and an obituary)--the kind of material typical of the journal itself. On the editorial side, the work of Museum Anthropology is going very, very well. Thanks to many generous, talented colleagues, we have outstanding contributions, both accepted articles and solicited reviews, arriving each week. I am eager to share this great work as quickly as I am able. On the structural side, Museum Anthropology and its sponsor, the Council for Museum Anthropology (CMA), are facing many of the same challenges and changing circumstances that are affecting many other scholarly journals, and academic publishers more broadly. The stresses being confronted by the sections of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and their journals in the AAA publishing program are a subject of considerable discussion in American anthropology. I will not explore this topic here except to note that, in the present environment, we are not in a position in which additional pages can be added to the journal's print issues. Adding an additional issue or issues to each volume, while imaginable now on the editorial side, is even more beyond our present means.

Some of the review authors in the recent cue have proven willing to join an experiment in which we begin offering their fine scholarly work online. Reviews by three colleagues--John H. McDowell, Joshua Piker and Carol Hendrickson--have been posted to this weblog. The results so far are instructive. If one does a Google web search for the three titles that they have reviewed--The Cord Keepers by Frank Salomon, Practicing Ethnohistory by Patricia Galloway, and Fashioning Tradition by J. Clarie Odland--one finds that the reviews that appeared here are already showing up at the top of Google's ranking. Galloway's book is a relatively recent work that has not yet been widely reviewed. In its case, Piker's review appears (as of last night) at the top of the rank, second only to the book's page on its publisher's website. Odland's book has a title that appears in other unrelated pages, but of the pages related to this book it is also in second position, after an earlier online review by the Textile Museum of Canada. After just a few days, Hendrickson's review already appears above the book's page on its distributor's website. McDowell's review of The Cord Keepers is particularly informative. This review was solicited by the editorial office long after the book was out and attracting substantial attention in the field. By the time McDowell's review appeared here, the book had already won the American Society for Ethnohistory's Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Book Prize for 2005 and had been reviewed in a large number of journals in, and beyond, anthropology. Despite arriving late in the process, McDowell's review already ranks very high, with only a few reviews (ca. 2005) ahead of it. The review posted here ranks above older reviews in distinguished venues such as the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Anthropological Quarterly, and Ethnohistory. I recognize that a Google ranking is not a definitive measure and that many will read these other reviews in print format or via search tools other than Google, yet I still find these results remarkable. A related measure comes in the form of visitor and search statistics available for this blog. A sizable number of people are now visiting this site and a significant number of these visitors are clearly reading the reviews. This is enlightening evidence that speaks to the position of those who advocate for open access models in scholarly publishing. I will not take up this larger topic here, but I did want to contextualize what is unfolding vis-a-vis Museum Anthropology's review program.

On a case by case basis, I am asking authors of reviews-in-hand if they would be willing to publish their review online. Publishing reviews in this way takes advantage of the following benefits of the online medium (among others): immediate rather than delayed publication, free access to anyone in the world with internet access, the ability to incorporate internet hyperlinks, the ability to publish color images along with the review, the ability (if desired by the author) to turn on the blog's comment function for the review (thus allowing others to comment on the review or its subject matter), and the ability for an author to simply send an email link for the review to whomever they wish to share the review with. Because reviews published thus are easily found by anyone doing internet searches, they may become a subject of discussion elsewhere on the web. They can also benefit from the power of the social networking dynamic of the web today, such as with folksonomy tagging. This strategy also provides more space for publication of peer-reviewed articles in the journal itself.

For most new reviews, we are now soliciting them, from the start, with the intention of publishing them online. All the reviews published online will be noted in the table of contents of the print journal. This was the approach taken in recent years by the American Ethnologist as it published its book reviews in online-only format.

This blog, which was itself an experiment launched last summer, was intended as a venue through which to share news of the journal, the CMA, and the wider field of museum anthropology, particularly offering such items as exhibition notices and calls for papers. Technologically, it is a good tool for distributing such information and it is gratifying how much visitation this site is now getting. As a means of publishing substantive contributions such as reviews, it is less good, both technologically and editorially. To address these problems, we have set up a different site on which just the substantive contributions (essays, reviews, obituaries, etc.) will be published. This site is called Museum Anthropology Review and it can be found here (the URL is As described there:
Museum Anthropology Review (MAR) is a companion project of Museum Anthropology (MUA), a journal of museum and material culture studies published by the University of California Press for the Council for Museum Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological Association. MAR is an open access journal supplement. Its purpose is the dissemination of reviews, essays, obituaries and other editorially-reviewed content complementing the work of Museum Anthropology. It reflects the research and outreach interests of the Council for Museum Anthropology and is offered as a resource enhancing all fields concerned with the study of material culture and with the place of museums and related institutions in social life.
Like this blog, Museum Anthropology Review is an experiment unfolding during a period of rapid change, not only in terms of technology, but also in the social organization of scholarly life and academic publication. It is reasonable to assume that these systems are only stopping points in a longer journey. The transitory nature of new media is of particular concern to me and I am now working actively to develop preservation plans for the substantive content that we publish in this way. We have not worked out the details yet, but I am committed to the goal of seeing these contributions preserved both digitally (in a more robust system, cataloged with solid metadata) and in good old fashioned paper copies placed in one or more responsible archives central to the field.

I will share more details of the process as the experiment unfolds and as more pieces fall into place. For the near future, I anticipate continuing to actively publish reviews and other editorial content online. Now that it is up and running, I expect to place the full content on Museum Anthropology Review and to make note of it, with links, here. This approach will enable this site to transition back to its news-from-the-field function.

Please contact the editorial office [museanth (at) indiana (dot) edu] with comments, questions, and concerns. Thanks to all who are contributing so richly to all of these efforts to enhance the field of museum anthropology, both in print and online.