On The Responsibility Of Reviewers

What is the responsibility of a reviewer? Those who look through this blog and indeed throughout my larger body of writing as a whole will find that a substantial amount of my writing is related to the review of book, music, movies, and occasionally other products and services that cross my path. As a reader (if not always a reviewer) of a great deal of papers that relate to linguistics of Indo-European and related languages (including the larger Nostratic family as well as the specific relationship of various languages), I often ponder the question of how it is that the historical development of languages reveals that which is enduring as well as that which is ephemeral and passing in the way that we communicate with each other. I am fascinated by the way that it is possible to know something about the culture of a people by knowing its language and what it has words for and what it does not have words for.

It so happens that much of the material that I read about when it comes to historical linguistics is written by people who originally wrote in such languages as Russian, Polish, Hungarian, and the like. None of these are languages I happen to know at all. Even those scholars who write in those languages as native scholars concede that such languages are not viewed as widespread academic languages and bemoan the fact that such research is often outside of the mainstream of academic readers who simply do not have the linguistic capacity to read primary sources and original research in unfamiliar languages. Accordingly, readers such as myself are often somewhat dependent on those who review works as a way of indicating what worthwhile research exists that can and should be translated and achieve a wider readership. Those who can read and thoughtfully critique a work in another language can have a lot of importance in shaping how a work is viewed which may not be possible for many people to understand on its own. This is a high degree of power for a review to possess, and it indicates that there are some responsibilities that we have as reviewers to engage in this task fairly.

I tend to think of myself as a fair reviewer, although my reviews spring from my worldview and so what I view as a fair review may not always be a positive review for those works which spring from worldviews that are antithetical to my own. It must be admitted that while I have a great deal in interests of paleolinguistics, that I do not have any inflexible and doctrinaire positions about such matters as the precise connection of various languages and cultures, the supposed homeland of the Indo-European cultures as a whole, and various other related matters. Were the steppes of what is now Ukraine the ur-homeland of all Indo-European languages and cultures or merely one or two branches of them? It is not known for sure. How does one parse the influence of Egypt, the Middle East, and European non-Indo European languages on the languages of Greece, Crete, and Anatolia? It is not exactly clear. There are people who are fiercely dogmatic about such matters but for me it is something to study and reflect upon and to research, while remaining aware that the same evidence can be seen a variety of ways depending on our own perspectives.

If someone wishes to promote a particular idea or theory, though, or to present the existing evidence of a great many writers from their own perspective or through their own filter, what is the obligation of a reviewer to examine such a work fairly? What would a fair review mean in such a case? To the extent that we evaluate a work, we will do so based on that evidence or those texts we consider to be authoritative, and there may be a wide difference between our own views and those of the work that we are reviewing. Similarly, works may be provocative to us in a way that does not elicit our sympathies or benefits of the doubt. When we are serving as gatekeepers to areas of research, we should be open in admitting our own perspectives and biases both when they lead us to appreciate a given work as well as when they prevent us from thinking or feeling fondly for something. Others may not share our opinions, but if they are fair-minded people themselves, they will appreciate our honesty and will be led to judge the work based on their own perspective, and may even see our opposition as a reason why they may like something that we cannot.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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