A Europe-wide, multi-language platform for scholarly reviews of historical literature, with a web 2.0 twist
What is it?
recensio.net launched in January 2011 as an open access, fully searchable platform to bring together reviews of historical publications published in European scholarly journals and to introduce a new kind of scholarly reviewing environment.
How is it a success?
Book reviews are an important tool for scholarly communication but, in the last few years, a number of problems have come to the fore. With ever increasing numbers of publications, it can be difficult to keep track of what is being reviewed and where; there can be long delays – even of years – between a book being published and it being reviewed; there is a generational shift towards reading reviews online, which may mean that younger scholars miss out on older, print-only reviews; and, most crucially, reviewing culture is still strongly embedded in national culture with publications in the field of interest rarely reviewed if they do not fall within geographical and linguistic boundaries.
“The entire reviewing process is simply not very dynamic, unlike the current development of communication forms on the internet – one might consider social networks or the commercial book market, such as Amazon,” explains Dr Lilian Landes, project manager of recensio.net at the Bavarian State Library’s Centre for Electronic Publishing.
recensio’s solution is to create a platform that combines some of the most effective aspects of both social networks and commercial book review sites, for a scholarly audience. recensio.net gathers together reviews, old and new, from journals from across Europe so that reviews that were previously only available in print can now be read online. On a regular basis (from once a week to annually), co-operating journals send their review sections to the Bavarian State Library to be uploaded, free of charge and on a non-exclusive basis, onto the platform along with metadata and subject indexing data.
The site currently (August 2011) contains 3193 reviews from 25 journals (from countries including France, Britain, Russia and Lithuania), plus 50 presentations of books, articles and historically relevant internet resources. The numbers have so far been constrained by the natural limit imposed by the time it takes the recensio.net team to tag and upload all the content. In future, journals will be able to do that work themselves, opening up the capacity of recensio.net to cooperate with many more journals.
User traffic to the site has been high and feedback from both the journals and the scholarly community has been positive. recensio.net is a product with benefits for all involved, explains Dr Landes.
“The great thing about reviews – compared to articles, not to mention entire monographs or edited volumes – is that basically, everyone involved benefits from an improved findability and visibility of the review texts: First, the author being reviewed, due to the attention drawn to his publication. The same goes for the reviewer, the more so as the author of a review hardly ever receives a payment for his work. And finally the journal, with respect to the decisive role that reviews play with regard to its public image. At the end of the day, quality reviews are a very good calling card for scholarly journals,” she says.
In addition to the online publication of print reviews, recensio.net is testing out a new form of reviewing culture, one which is faster, more integrated and much better suited to the internet age. Based on social networking and web 2.0 ideas, recensio.net has introduced the possibility of authors themselves presenting the key arguments of their books, and users commenting on these overviews and the older, “classical” reviews to create what recensio.net calls a “vivid”, or collaborative, reviewing environment.
So far, take up of these functions has been slow – according to Dr Landes “fast, fragmented communication, which already defines the everyday life of especially the younger scholars and students outside the academic field, has to gradually find its way into everyday scholarly work” – but encouraging European history scholars to dip their toes into these web 2.0 waters is a key aim of the recensio.net team as the platform moves into its second year of operation.
In the meantime, the success of moving the traditional reviewing system into the online age is clear.
“If in the past if a researcher wanted to take a look at the newest reviews from various journals, he or she was forced to walk up to various shelves in the university library, if not several individual libraries – this took up a lot of time, and there was always the risk that the most recent issues had been taken to a bookbinder. Not only can the user at home now comfortably browse through those review sections which are relevant for his individual research in open access, but can also filter them via a content browsing which goes beyond the limits of individual journals – he thus might discover journals which he had so far not been actively making use of, possibly even publishing organs from abroad,” says Dr Landes.