Thursday, October 13, 2016

2016.10.24

Letter from the editors.

Version at BMCR home site

Dear readers, colleagues and friends,
Bryn Mawr Classical Review aspires to provide all our readers with timely reviews of current scholarship in the many domains of classical scholarship and culture. We prefer to do that work rather than talk about it. Happily, the enthusiastic engagement of our many colleagues who review and edit with us makes it easy to maintain that reticence. This message will be a modest exception.
We had occasion this summer to distribute to all subscribers the text of BMCR's Statement on Publication Ethics. We offer here an account of how BMCR seeks to act on the principles set forth in that text. The editors of the Review have also initiated a conversation amongst themselves about increasing the variety of kinds of articles that we publish. We take this occasion to engage our community about all such matters.
In what follows, we treat a number of matters: (i) the placing of books; (ii) the editorial process; (iii) policies of BMCR with regard to the form and content of reviews; (iv) the ethics of book reviewing; (v) possible changes in BMCR's forms of publication; and (vi) the financing of BMCR.

(i) The placing of books

BMCR receives notices of new publications in three forms. Some publishers mail copies of new publications to BMCR; some publishers submit lists of new publications but mail the book directly to the reviewer, once a suitable one has been located; and occasionally individuals bring new publications to our attention.
Lists of books received are mailed twice a month to the editorial board, which has the opportunity to suggest reviewers prior to the publication of the monthly list to all subscribers. Successful placements in consequence of these suggestions will result in a notice in the monthly, public list to the effect that the book has been received but is not available via the volunteer process.
Subscribers to BMCR receive a list monthly and may volunteer via a web form to review any book available. This form asks for a statement of one's qualifications as well as a disclosure of any conflict of interest. Voluntary disclosure is crucial because BMCR's editors are scattered throughout the globe, while the physical books are received in Bryn Mawr. (Books mailed directly by the publisher are obviously not available for inspection in Bryn Mawr, either.) To name only one difficulty, we cannot check the acknowledgments in each book for the name of a given volunteer. Finally, the senior editors seek to place books with volunteers only after an item has been publicized long enough for its availability to have become general knowledge among readers.
In the abstract, one might imagine that there is a tension between BMCR's status as a journal of record for a field—a status it has acquired rather than sought in the first quarter century of its existence—and our desire to find an ideal reviewer. That is to say, we would like to find a reviewer for all books, and we would like that reviewer to be ideally suited to the task. In this imperfect world, we attempt to assess the qualifications of reviewers and we require advisors to vouch for graduate students before we place books with them, and so achieve the best outcome within our grasp. On average, we place 70% of books received with prospective reviewers and 90% of those reviewers eventually submit publishable reviews. We think constantly about how to increase both percentages, while being grateful to those who keep those numbers as high as they are. We are firm in never disclosing the identity of a prospective reviewer until and unless a review appears and in never discussing the selection process for any given book.

(ii) The editorial process

When a review arrives, it is checked for conformance with BMCR's guidelines with respect to length and format. Once accepted, reviews are usually read by three editors prior to publication: a member of the editorial board, an associate editor, and a senior editor. To address significant problems, reviews are occasionally returned to their authors. In rare cases, reviews are simply not published. On average, 6.5 months elapse between the assigning of a book to a reviewer and publication.
Awareness of these practicalities is essential to appreciate the word limit that BMCR has long imposed. The editors of BMCR work as volunteers. Regular editors read as many as a dozen reviews a year; associate editors might read 60; and the senior editors read several hundred reviews per year. This involves very considerable sacrifice on the part of the editors toward an important public good. We can ask of them only so much.
The same is true of our readers. An appropriately concise review does a better service to the authors of books and to our readers than one that goes on too long. More could always be said. Reviewers occasionally push back, and occasionally we yield, but to a very large extent, goodwill and common sense prevail. For that, we are grateful.

(iii) The form and content of reviews

BMCR offers guidelines to reviewers regarding the content of reviews, and the editors keep these in mind when reading. We exhort reviewers always to provide a sympathetic account of a book's ambitions, alongside an evaluation of whether it has met those ambitions and, indeed, whether it was appropriately designed to begin with. In other words, a reviewer should give the strongest possible account of a book's argument before offering a critique.
Books come in many forms. For example, BMCR publishes many reviews of collections. Reviewers of collections are encouraged to select particular essays or chapters for sustained evaluation, as well as offer an overall assessment. This is often more useful than a sequence of terse summaries. For such books we seek always to include the table of contents, to ensure that all authors and titles are accessible to search engines.
Although reviewers rarely avail themselves of the opportunity to write less rather than more, BMCR also publishes short notices rather than long reviews: a second edition or a reprint of a book already reviewed in BMCR may not require a full-length review.
BMCR reviews books in many languages, and it publishes reviews in many languages, too. We do so out of respect for the many intellectual cultures and linguistic traditions that inform our shared endeavor. Many reviewers for whom English is a second language nonetheless write in English because it is, de facto, the vernacular of modern academic life. Nonetheless, BMCR is sustained by a global community of readers and reviewers, and we are very pleased to contribute to nurturing its diversity of languages.

(iv) The ethics of book reviewing

The language we have used to outline the obligations of a reviewer is aspirational. Not every review published by BMCR meets our highest aspirations. Here we might refer again to a tension between our desire to publish reviews of all books brought to our attention and our desire to publish good reviews of every book. At this juncture another ethical obligation intervenes, which flows from the position that BMCR now occupies in the field: if we owe it to authors to publish good reviews, we also feel an obligation to authors to get their books reviewed.
Ethical obligations arise from networks of reciprocity. That this fact is obvious does not mean that it is not worth spelling out. It impinges on the operations of BMCR in at least two forms that merit statement here.
First, we are all writers, as well as readers and reviewers. Reviewers should treat products of the care and toil of others as they would like their own work to be treated. By the same token, one should probably have the experience of seeing a piece of writing through peer review and publication before reviewing the work of others. This is one reason, but not the only one, that we seek the endorsement of advisors before allowing graduate students to review books.
Second, if you are asked to review a book, please say yes as often as you can. We sometimes receive responses of the form, "Normally I would accept but I can't just now, as I am busy writing a book." It is tempting to reply, "When your book is finished, will you want it to be reviewed?"
Finally, if you have been reviewed and were not entirely happy with what you read, we encourage you to write for us yourself at next opportunity, to improve our quality by embodying the principles of accuracy and fairness that we all seek.
Reviews serve many functions in our profession. They keep us all informed about a world too large for any of us to master. They play a role in deciding the fate of careers and therefore of persons. They deserve our best efforts and our best wisdom.

(v) Forms of publication

In its first years, BMCR published in a wide variety of genres, including short notices regarding books to which we could not give a full review. (Some remarks on the genre, along with examples, may be found here). The editors also published the occasional Commentary, including Jim O'Donnell's reflections on the 1990 job market. One notable early review, by Donald Lateiner of J.A.S. Evans's Herodotus, Explorer of the Past, included illustrations, which we were able to include online only later. A valuable and scholarly text is the project plan by Joachim Latacz for the "The New Ameis-Hentze," translated by James Holoka.
Today, the bulk of BMCR's publications consists of reviews of c. 2000 words. The editors of BMCR have recently initiated a conversation about possible changes in our forms of publication. Among the ideas canvassed include reviews encompassing more than one volume and essays assessing the state of a given field, which might take one or more volumes as their point of departure. Some have proposed the publication of colloquia, consisting of multiple texts, examining the achievement and influence of volumes published long ago. No final decision has been reached, and perhaps none should be made in the abstract. Suggestions in this regard, especially concrete proposals, may be submitted to the editors at bmcr@bmcreview.org.

(vi) BMCR going forward

These efforts to sustain the quality and vitality of the Review exist alongside practical concerns that might be separated into two domains.
First, labor: BMCR draws on the voluntary labor of your colleagues. Respect their contribution, and consider making a contribution yourself. We exhorted readers to accept requests to review. Please volunteer, too. We would also be delighted to expand the editorial board, whether now or down the road.
Second, infrastructure: BMCR's space, computer hardware and software platform exist because of acts of generosity on the part of both individuals and institutions. Far the most important of these is a fund created through the sales of Bryn Mawr Commentaries, founded a decade before BMCR, which provides for the great bulk of our day-to-day expenses, the largest of which are postage and infrastructural assistance in Bryn Mawr. BMCR also receives mainly in-kind support from Bryn Mawr College. As a result, BMCR has always been free of charge to all digital readers, or as we say nowadays, Open Access. Indeed, it is the oldest OA online journal in the humanities and one of a tiny handful of the oldest in any field. Over 10,100 subscribers receive our almost daily emails. As for the BMCR website, in the last 12 months, there were 1,200,000 page views by over 400,000 users.
These funds suffice to keep us going—for now. But one does not go forward into the future by using the same hardware and software that one employed in the past. BMCR very much needs a thorough overhaul of its platform, which went live in 1998. The expense involved is going to be too great for our standing resources. We are seeking aid for this endeavor from every corner, but we will also be asking you, the BMCR community, for your aid. Please look out for an appeal later this fall. We encourage ourselves to think that for the value of this journal to the classical community, such an appeal is appropriate.
With best wishes to all,
Happy reading.
The Senior Editors
Cliff Ando, University of Chicago
Rick Hamilton, Bryn Mawr College
Camilla MacKay, Bryn Mawr College
Jim O'Donnell, Arizona State University


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