In 1996, the Institute of Historical Research launched an online reviews journal, Reviews in History. The impetus for the journal came from a dissatisfaction with scholarly publishing in general, and with the publication of reviews in particular (is any of that sounding familiar?). The then director of the IHR, Patrick O’Brien, wrote that:
Despite the proliferation of new titles, historical journals have hardly changed in format, content and function for several decades … Critics of the way printed journals and their editors serve the profession welcome the challenge and the threat posed by electronic media to what they perceive as established structures of power …
The reason for focusing on reviews rather than on research articles was the
perception, widespread among historians, that too many reviews of scholarly publications … provide an unsatisfactory service for readers, are unhelpful to authors, disappoint publishers and are an unreliable guide to the contents, quality and significance of many history books now published …
The journal would offer what were then unique features: it would review scholarly works more rapidly and at far greater length than was possible in traditional print journals; and, crucially, it would offer authors a right of reply.
While the term ‘open access journal’ would not, of course, have been familiar to its editors, that is precisely what Reviews in History was and remains to this day. Nearly seventeen years on, almost 1,400 lengthy (3,000-word) reviews have been published, around a third with responses, and the journal has evolved to include social media elements (reader comments) and to adopt Creative Commons licensing for all essays (CC-BY-NC-SA).
The usage that a journal like Reviews in History enjoys is evidence of the general public interest in history, and of what happens when academic history is made freely accessible to that general public, as well as to researchers in higher education. In 2012 alone, 555,913 people visited the website, viewing a total of 1,018,906 pages. The most ‘popular’ essay, Steven Pierce’s review of A History of Nigeria, by Toyin Falola and Matthew Heaton (Cambridge, 2008), was viewed an impressive 7,201 times. The top ten most accessed reviews (all with page views in the thousands) include subjects as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr, mental disability in Victorian England, gender, work and education in 1950s Britain, and the early modern Dutch slave trade.
Inevitably, with the vast bulk of the usage resulting from search engine referrals, some of the people accessing Reviews in History will not have been expecting what they found (web statistics are a pretty blunt tool for qualitative analysis) – but the reach of a free online academic journal is undeniable.
There has been much discussion of reviews in the context of the move to open access. Given RCUK’s focus on peer-reviewed research articles and the gold route to open access, will there be a place for post-publication review in our scholarly journals at all? What will be the new economics of book reviewing? Conversely, there have been some fascinating experiments concerned with opening up pre-publication review (see, for example, the Shakespeare Quarterly special issue on ‘Shakespeare and the new media‘ and the History Working Papers Project), and debates about an increased role for post-publication review in qualitative assessment of research. What is clear from the example of Reviews in History, however, is that there is a large audience for reviews of historical publications, which extends beyond universities and is very well served by open access.