LINGUIST List 11.2101

Mon Oct 2 2000

Disc: New: Book Reviews and Their Purpose

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Ronald Sheen, Book reviews and their purpose.

Message 1: Book reviews and their purpose.

Date: Sun, 1 Oct 2000 06:51:01 -0400
From: Ronald Sheen <Ronald_SheenUQTR.UQuebec.CA>
Subject: Book reviews and their purpose.

As a preface to all book reviews, the following appears:

"What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion
Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and
the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in."

In actual fact, in my experience over the last year or two, the numerous
reviews that have appeared have often provoked little to no discussion.
This is understandable if the review is limited to a purely descriptive end
though even then, they can result in queries which one might be justified
in expecting some response from the authors of the book reviewed,
particularly if the reviews entail fundamental criticisms. It is
particularly crucial in the case of book reviews for the contents thereof
have not been subjected to the blind review process thus allowing the
publication of statements which, at best, require qualification, and, at
worst, lack legitimacy.

Therefore, in the interests both of accountabilty and of the putative
received wisdom upon which any field is founded, it is desirable that
reviewers of books formulate criticisms where justified and that authors
respond thereto. Otherwise, the "findings" published in such books become
the stuff of myths which blight particularly those fields concerned with
practical applications as is the case of my own field, applied linguistics.
There is a marked tendency therein, as Gass (1998:83) has pointed out, for
participants to talk past each other. Thus, for example, the authors of
chapters in Doughty and Williams (1998) though ostensibly carrying out
studies in the same area of "focus on form", hold positions manifesting
disagreement with the well-known positions of other contributing authors,
yet nary a word concerning these fundamental differences appeared. There
are notable exceptions to this as in the case, for example, of the Firth
and Wagner paper in the Modern Language Journal in 1997.

This list recently published my critical review of the Doughty and Williams
volume. Therein, I made a number of fundamental criticisms of several of
the contributions including those of the editors. Yet, none of those whose
work was criticized offered any response thereto. It is, of course,
possible, though unlikely, (given the extensive membership of this list)
that none of those involved are aware of the contents the review. However,
as I informed the editors of my interest in doing a critical review and,
actually let one of them (Jessica Williams) know when it appeared, it is
plausible that they were aware of its existence

So we have the following situation. This volume appeared in 1998 and
aroused substantial interest in the field. In spite of this, it was
subjected to no in depth critical review. Thus, one finds its continually
being cited in support of some position or other as if the reliability of
the contents thereof was largely unquestioned. In actual fact, as my
review demonstrated, there is much in the volume that needs to be held up
to critical scrutiny for in a number of cases the reasoning underlying the
positions adopted and the conclusions drawn are far from compelling. I
would have thought it, therefore, incumbent on the editors, at least, to
respond to the critical comments made of the book as a whole and of their
contributions in particular. This, at least, would have signalled a
willingness to enter into open debate on the issues.

Do we as members of a particular field of inquiry, have the right to expect
responses from the authors of work subjected to critical review? I would
have thought the answer to this would be a resounding affirmative.
Clearly, the editors of this volume, and possibly some of the contributors,
do not agree.

It is, perhaps, this reluctance on the part of some applied linguists to
respond in open forum to fundamental criticisms of their work which
explains why one is reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel to find
any contribution from applied linguistic research which has resulted in any
indentifiable large scale improvement in the effectiveness of foreign and
second language learning - a sad reflection on a field in which such
improvement has been one of its fundamental aims for the last four decades
or so.

Ron Sheen U of Quebec in Trois Rivieres, Canada.

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