Academic book reviewing is becoming more dangerous. Pan your peers at your peril. If you express sincerely-held negative views about a book, you may find yourself defending your criticisms in court. This kind activity is poorly paid, and many academics even do it for nothing. Perhaps they should question whether benefits outweigh possible losses. Many are unaware of the risks they are taking given current libel laws.
A recent case in France, described here in the Times Higher Education, though, went the way of the critic. Law academic and libel tourist Karine Calvo-Goller lost her attempt to prosecute a journal editor for publishing a scathing review of one of her books about the International Court. Calvo-Goller’s complaint was that the review contained factual errors and could harm her professionally. The journal editor, law professor Joseph Weiler, stood his ground and refused to remove the online version of the review on the grounds that that would have compromised academic freedom and intellectual integrity. Thankfully the review was deemed within the limits appropriate to academic criticism freedom of expression.
Factual errors or presumed factual errors occur frequently in reviews and are usually unintentional or a question of interpretation. Most journals can publish corrections and come-backs in subsequent issues, though it is difficult for a slighted author not to appear tetchy in the subsequent exchanges. The idea that academic book reviewers should be prosecuted for sincere mistakes or strong opinions is a bit like threatening boxers with charges for throwing punches in the ring. If we are going to have a lively academic environment we need to accept that from time to time blows will land below the belt. Anyone who persistently aims low, though, does themselves as much or more damage than their opponent.