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Front page of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History from 1859
Autumn 2017, | Review

Review: what should reviews do in an online journal? Towards a New Format

Geoffrey Belknap


journal, new formats, open access, review


Shortly after I began my career as a PhD student, I became fascinated by the technologies and media formats we have used to create and communicate research. I started this career by looking at photography, but it also brought me into discussions about the nature of scientific publishing formats in the nineteenth century.

Typewritten page from Bibliographical Notices from 1859
Figure 1 : Bibliographical Notices © National Science and Media Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

Since joining the Science Museum Group this summer (2017), I have been able to come back to these two areas, but on slightly different tacks: my focus on photographs is much more object based than it has been previously, and my interest in publication formats is much more practice based. This latter interest has been spurred by the opportunity to work with the Science Museum Group Journal, for which I have recently been appointed as Reviews Editor. I am particularly interested in how we might be able to address the issues of ‘generous scholarship’ that Justin Dillion has pointed to in his Editorial for this issue, not just in the content of the Journal but as a central question in framing the open-access nature of the Journal itself.

In the context of this online journal, with a remit for ‘generous scholarship’, what, then, is the function of a review section for academic discourse? For the traditional humanities research journal, especially those that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century, a review section has been the space for subject specialists to critically comment on new works in their fields of expertise. Typically, reviews have meant book reviews, and have increasingly become more rigid in their content and structure. Reviewers, hedged in by their word length, tend to be limited in what can be said about the content and contribution of a book to a field of knowledge. While there are certainly different variations which allow for greater depth of discussion, such as the long book review offered in journals such as Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, the format tends to remain the same – single authored text which situates a book within a field of knowledge, placed at the end of a series of original research articles that make up the main content of a printed journal issue.

This format, however, is only the most recent iteration of the review. If you look at nineteenth-century journals such as the Quarterly Review or the meta-review format defined by the Review of Reviews, the entire content and purpose of some journals has been to create article-length reviews of cultural events or fictional and scientific literature. Early scientific publications, such as The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, also incorporated review sections within their pages, but opened the content of their reviews quite broadly to include book, scientific societies, public meetings and foreign news.

Typewritten page from Science Gossip entitled Notices to Correspondents from 1866
Figure 2 : Notices to Correspondents © National Science and Media Museum / Science and Society Picture Library

The emerging scientific journal Nature inherited this format from journals like the Annals and Mag., offering a reviews section and a place for printing the correspondence of readers at the end of each issue. The legacy of this has informed the structure of the academic humanities journal: while we have done away with a correspondence section, reviews have been codified as the content to follow the primary work of the journal – to publish new, and original research.

However, now that the online journal is freed from the constraints of the printing industry, we are also free to redefine the parameters of the journal itself. The Science Museum Group Journal has already been working to redefine its remit: original research articles are no longer the singular content of the Journal, and we have opened this digital space to include original contributions by practitioners who can share their knowledge on the processes of museum curation, conservation and exhibition making. While the content of our journal has been driven by research which has come out of the Science Museum Group, we are not just interested in our own work and authorship. Academic discourse can only succeed when there are multiple voices and stake holders. The goal of the Journal is therefore to be a space for museum professionals, international scholars and practitioners to develop open, but rigorously grounded, conversations.

The question thus remains: what do we want the content of a review section to be when the horizons and sources of historical content are broadening, and the constraints of the format are open? The remainder of this article will suggest a number of opportunities for the future of the review section for this journal. We want to hear your opinions on what the shape and content of this section should be.

Opening the constraints of the format – who should create content?

Before we can consider what we want to include in the new review section, we need to think about how the content is created, curated and accessed. Do reviews need strict editorial control? Can we have new dynamics of content creation?

Public space to suggest what should be reviewed

Do we want to have an open section where any member of the public can suggest something to be reviewed? What should the mechanism for getting a review supported by the Journal be – number of votes, relevance of topic, editorial selection, etc.?

Multi-authored reviews

Should reviews which are inter or multi-disciplinary have more than one expert reviewer? Should this be encouraged as a working practice for reviews in general, or only on a case-by-case basis? Would multi-authors be optimal where there are several opinions surrounding the content that is being reviewed?

Expertise of the reviewer

In the context of a multi-disciplinary review section that incorporates practitioners and academics from different disciplines, what kind of reviewer expertise is desired by the readers? How important is the qualification/experience/scholarship of the author to readers of the review? Double-blind peer review is used for Journal articles to ensure a high standard of research, but do we want the review section to be more open? Or do we want reviews to be placed under the same scrutiny?


Types of review content

The potential for creating new forms of review content means that we have an opportunity to make reviews and the processing of reviewing more relevant to academic discourse. It also has the potential to change the forms of knowledge that are considered relevant to humanities research. What new content, then, do we want?

Book reviews

Are book reviews still useful for humanities researchers, and if so do we need to change anything in the structure of the review to make it more relevant?

Reviews of article special issues

Traditional book reviews tend to cover single and multiple authored monographs and edited volumes. However, the special issue, which presents a group of articles produced under a single theme, is becoming more common. Do we want reviews of these special issues and should they look similar to a review of an edited volume?

Museum reviews

Museums are an essential site for the conservation, curation and engagement of objects of cultural heritage, and are increasingly becoming essential collections and partners for humanities research. Would reviews of museums be useful in this context? How should they differ from exhibition reviews? Should they focus on how effectively a museum upholds its aims and objectives, or should they reflect a visitor’s experience? Or, should the focus be on new movements in museums, such as engagement or participation metrics, or experiments in innovative display?

Exhibition reviews

Museum exhibitions tend to be temporary and typically do not include a permanent record of the content and vision of the exhibition once it is no longer on display. Can exhibition reviews record and evaluate the value of an exhibition to both research and public cultures? Should non-traditional forms of review be possible – such as audio, video or image based reviews? Considering that online publications have the unique advantage over traditional publishing in their ability to show high resolution images, video and audio, should this be a focus of the Journal’s review section?

Digital resource reviews

New digital resources and tools for research are being established on a regular basis. Would informed reviews of these websites and tools be useful? What kind of information would be useful as part of the review – ease of interface, applicability of the resource to a range of disciplines, or critiques of digital resources more broadly? What kind of experience is necessary to be an expert reviewer of this content?

Workshop or conference reviews

Academic conferences and workshops are important sites for the communication and discussion of humanities based research – and act as important markers for subject specific communities. The content of these conferences, however, is rarely recorded. Would reviews of conferences and workshops be useful? Should they focus on the specific presentations which have the potential to be ground-breaking? Or should the review reflect more generally on the value of the event to the discipline?

Public event reviews

In a similar fashion to workshops and conferences, public events (such as science festivals or large public lectures) are becoming regular aspects of research engagement, the outcomes of which are rarely recorded. Would reviews of these events be useful? How should they differ from workshop or conference reviews? Should the review focus on the content a particular event communicated, or the relevance of the impact of the event to public audiences?

Television and radio programmes

Public programming based on historical research and performed by research experts is becoming an essential tool for public communication. Would it be useful to have reviews of some television and radio programmes which reflect humanities topics? Should these reviews reflect only new programming, or should they be open to past programming? What should the content of the review reflect?

Co-creating our new format

In the spirit of our nineteenth-century periodical predecessors, we would like to offer a useful space for the reproduction and communication of content relevant to our readers. And we would like to do this in a way that fosters open-ended debate. This editorial is intended as a starting point, but we need the input of our reading communities to decide what the forms and functions of this section will be in the new contexts of the digital age. We are offering the forum; it is now up to you to help us define the format.

How to carry on the conversation

There are two options to express your thoughts about the content and shape of this review section:

  1. Write to [email protected]
  2. Discuss via the twitter handle @ResearchSMG
Front page of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History from 1859
Figure 3 : Title page, The Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Volume 4, published by Taylor and Francis, 1859 © National Science and Media Museum / Science and Society Picture Library



Geoffrey Belknap

Geoffrey Belknap

Keeper for the Department of Science and Technology

Geoffrey Belknap is Keeper for the Department of Science and Technology at National Museums Scotland. Geoff is a curator and historian of photography, science and visual culture in the nineteenth–twenty-first centuries, with particular interests in the material practices of photography; citizen science and digital humanities; and participatory practice in museums

Media in article

Typewritten page from Bibliographical Notices from 1859
Typewritten page from Science Gossip entitled Notices to Correspondents from 1866
Front page of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History from 1859


Geoffrey Belknap
Published date:
15 November 2018
Cite as:
Review: what should reviews do in an online journal? Towards a New Format
Published in:
Autumn 2017,
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