Scholarship, Ethics and Book Reviews: Some Preliminary and Provisional Thoughts

Over the years, I have become increasingly interested in and concerned by ethics in the field of practitioner EAP and, especially, practitioner scholarship. The broader ethical considerations I have examined (often with others) are multiple and include but are not limited to: precarity, the micro-politics of EAP centres, neoliberalism and EAP, field struggles which enable some practitioners to have greater influence/opportunities/rewards/recognition and symbolic capital, the roles of associations, and the ethics of EAP as a profession. This last concern was explored with Ian Bruce in The English for Academic Purposes Practitioner Operating on the Edge of Academia.

The key features of professions are association, self-governance, control over training, ethics and trust (Sarfatti Larson, 1977/2013,p. xxii). Archer (2000) articulates the significance of ethics for professions as follows: ‘the typical defining feature of the professions, their possession of an ethical standard, is not just a guide to professional conduct but also a moral raison d’être for the profession itself’ (p. 291).

There are no explicit, clear, or distinct ethics or ethical codes specific to the field of EAP. Of course, EAP and its practitioners (especially if they are able to pursue intellectual and academic capital in their contexts) are governed by more general university-wide and discipline-specific ethics. But, as a profession, it is difficult to discern, explicitly, the moral raison d’être of and for EAP. This is not to say that there are not tacit practices and beliefs that cannot be discerned in EAP which could enable an ethics to emerge more explicitly from practice (although we might not like what we find). But, to my knowledge, that hasn’t been attempted. It’s not unusual for practitioners to express doubts, concerns, alienation, and critiques of the ethics of EAP – especially where profit and marketisation of EAP and higher education are particularly acute, where employment remains precarious, and where opportunities and recognition remain very limited. The lack of a visible, explicit code of practice or ethical framework also exposes EAP to accusations of a lack of integrity and makes it more vulnerable to nefarious exploitation from within and beyond EAP. Its absence or tacitness helps sustain a cynical version of EAP and it also inhibits the development of practitioner habitus.

However, when it comes to practitioner scholarship there are two very general precepts that have guided my thinking around the ethics of practitioner scholarship that may have wider implications than scholarship per se:

‘We develop a scholarship of teaching when our work as teachers becomes public, peer-reviewed and critiqued. And exchanged with members of our professional communities so they, in turn, can build on our work.’

‘[T]he core values of professional communities revolve around the expectation that we do not keep secrets, whether of discovery or of grounded doubt.’

Schulman, 2000: 49-50.

The first quote has been very useful to me in thinking about ways practitioners can contribute to public scholarship and especially in ways that are neglected or undervalued. Even within the field of EAP practitioners there is still a bias towards the single authored article in a prestigious journal as the only or most valuable way of contributing to knowledge (this bias can be seen in Mary Davis’ article, for example). In my work with the Language Scholar I have suggested the genres of ‘works in progress’ and ‘narratives of scholarship’ with the latter encouraging reflections on the processes of coming to scholarship and the challenges that scholarship poses to practitioners. It should be noted that practitioners can be quite reluctant to explore less familiar or new genres. I also want to rethink or expand notions of what a book review could be and what contribution it can make to scholarship and knowledge.

In thinking about book reviews and investigating it a bit further the second quote by Shulman has come to the forefront of my mind for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I want to undertake what James (2006) terms a review essay. I want to review Julia Molinari’s open access book ‘What Makes Writing Academic Rethinking Theory for Practice’, Amanda French’s ‘A Philosophical Approach to Perceptions of Academic Writing Practices in Higher Education’ and Jackie Tuck’s ‘Academics Engaging with Student Writing Working at the Higher Education Textface’. This immediately creates a number of ethical challenges. Julia is a very good friend of mine and I have worked with Jackie on the Social Theory for English for Academic Purposes edited volume and have a great deal of respect for her. The question of loyalty, truth, friendship, distance, strangers, and respect and how to write about their works came to mind. I wouldn’t want any of my thoughts about all three books to remain secret yet neither do I want to misread, misrepresent or mislead the authors and their potential readers.

It made me to start to think about appropriate metaphors for receiving new scholarship in a field. The metaphor(s) I am currently toying with draws on Derrida’s writings on hospitality and friendship and thinking about how we greet/welcome and respond to new ideas to our field. I am going to pursue this idea further when writing the review. Also, I don’t want to write something that is judgemental (there will be judgements throughout, although again the ethics of evaluation need clarifying) and I don’t want to offer the usual ‘rejoinder’ where the author can respond to comments and criticism. I want to find a way to write with the authors, to tease out meanings and threads together, to make the most of an intersubjective space where all four of us can contribute to better understanding the three books (their own understandings of their books included). Perhaps in such a space it will be easier to articulate concerns and doubts for both authors and reviewers.  

As part of trying to think about ethics and scholarship I was drawn to book reviews because, as David Beer writes on the LSE blog, book reviews are marginal and underappreciated activity, described as being perceived as a luxury, indulgence, waste of time, a distraction … and it made me think about how to make it less mundane and how to make it more central to scholarship. Reading in academia has no or very little capital – the performativity of writing for publication is almost everything in terms of cultural and intellectual capital in academia and I am convinced that many academics and practitioners do not read carefully enough nor widely enough (despite impressive office bookcases) or make their reading visible enough – and these are fundamentally ethical issues. Metrics don’t measure reading. But, as practitioners, unencumbered from REF, we should value reading and make our public engagement with reading more visible and valued: Beer talks about book reviews as ‘community building’ and ‘a space that we use to put a notion of collective knowledge ahead of the pressure for individual contributions’. Ironically, at least in some disciplines, book reviews are the least read section of journals (Hartley, 2006: 1196).

They can also be brutal. These reviews are on Bourdieu:

What is really being communicated is the great man’s distinction. It’s a bit like an intellectual penis-sheath: it makes a point, but only concealing the true dimension of its contents.

Jenkins, 1989: 642.

The language of the book contains some of the worst excesses of academy-speak which continually prompt the desire … to put the book down and turn to something more profitable.

Luntley, 1992: 448.

it is written in language so obscurantist, so dense and so ugly that the effort of reading the damn thing will probably, for most readers … heavily outweigh any benefit.

Jenkins, 1989: 643.

Turning to JEAP for examples of interesting or unusual book reviews was, as I expected, somewhat disappointing. The rhetorical moves one would expect in book reviews are typically present (see James’ tables of moves for book reviews on page 1196) yet the overarching impression on reading many of the book reviews there is that, yes, they are informative, provide context for the book, describe chapters, and evaluate the contribution to the field, but they tend to be written in a highly predictable, formulaic manner; useful but deadly boring.

Searching more widely, one can see the potential impact of a book review by looking at Chomsky’s 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour, a hugely influential book review that fatally damaged the credibility of behaviourism. Jay Lemke’s review of Ruqaiya Hasan’s Semantic Variation: Meaning in society and in sociolinguistics is fascinating as the review delves deeply into the ideas of Hasan’s book without really mentioning the book itself very much – a complete engagement with her writing and ideas rather than a concern with meeting a formulaic expectation around the moves and structure of a book review. Su-ming Khoo provides a thorough, generous and extensive engagement with Colonialism and Modern Social Theory by Gurminder Bhambra and John Holmwood (2021). You learn a lot more about social theory and decolonisation than just the outlines of the chapters in this review. Again, this provides another example of what a book review could be.

More troublesome as a review is Pennycook’s review of David Block’s ‘Class is Out: Erasing Social Class in Applied Linguistics’. This is a case of someone with very significant symbolic capital reviewing a colleague with similar symbolic capital in the field of applied linguistics. Pennycook does describe the contents of the book and evaluate it, often with faint praise. More than that he unpicks the whole book starting with this comment:

‘One of the problems with pointing to what is not in applied linguistics is that the book is centrally about absence, a rather remorseless critique of deficiency’.

Pennycook explicitly and reflexively does to Block what Block has done to applied linguistics in his book – he remorselessly critiques the absences and deficiencies in Block’s book. An example of immanent critique as book review. Pennycook gives Block a lesson in rhetoric and erudition, pointing out partial understandings (Block appears to be unaware, for example, of Bourdieu’s notion of practice) as well as signalling a narcissism in Block:

So after a nod to the work of Ramanathan (2005) and Norton (2000), he reviews some of his own work as the best that can be found. This was both unconvincing and uncomfortable …

It is undoubtedly a very clever, erudite, and highly critical review. And one worth reading but one can’t help but think what is at stake here is capital – of cultural and symbolic capital. Would Pennycook have bothered with such a review if the author(s) were unknown? Or aligned more with Pennycook’s post-modernism/humanism?

I found many other examples of troubling book reviews from an ethical point of view. Richard Smith’s review of Simon Borg’s ‘Teacher Research in Language Teaching: A Critical Analysis’ is highly charged, for example:

If TR [Teacher Research] is not to be a rather dry. dull and disempowering simulacrum of academic research, the image of it presented by this book needs to be complemented, and counteracted, by a more exciting, empowering and alternative vision.

I happen to agree with Richard Smith about Borg’s work, but it troubles me nonetheless. If you read Borg’s response it is as if Smith hadn’t understood the purpose of the book nor read it properly.

‘Book reviews will always be subjective and sound debate is of course healthy. Smith’s account, though, is more a reimagining of what he thinks the book should have been than what it actually is: a rigorous academic study of language teacher research engagement.’

Finally, I want to turn to three reviews of the same book to illustrate the issue of ethics that has implications for scholarship and practitioners. The book under review is ‘Pedagogies in English for Academic Purposes: Teaching and Learning in International Contexts’. This book is part of the series I created: New Perspectives for English for Academic Purposes (Bloomsbury). I invited the editors to take on this volume and also provided a draft book proposal. This is a caveat for what follows, as I was committed to and engaged with this book.

One review, by Kathrin Kaufhold in ESP Today, is highly conventional with a contextualisation of the book within the field, detailed description of each chapter, followed by a quite long and extremely enthusiastic evaluation (with one point of minor criticism). It is a very generous review and gives the reader a clear sense of the terrain and issues covered in the book. The second review, by Rob Playfair in the Language Scholar, is a highly reflective, thoughtful and detailed account of the book where you have a greater sense of the reviewer’s engagement with the book. The structure of the review is thematic rather than by chapters and the reviewer manages to write in ways that reflect his engagement with the book; highly personal and likely to resonate with practitioners. He has two main and important criticisms of the book which are dealt with at the end of the review.

Michelle Le Roux’s review begins with a critique of an absence or lack in the volume. It is this perspective that shapes the whole of the review. Le Roux continues with outlining more absences in the volume and the reader will struggle to understand what is actually in the book.

She bemoans the lack of excitement, risk, and challenge. What constitutes excitement, risk or challenge is made from a position of security and from the UK. From her self-promotional biodata she aligns herself to engagements in social justice, and is ‘a practitioner of circles of trust, spiritual accompaniment, and non-violent communication’. Yet not a word of encouragement or empathy that this book was written by practitioners for practitioners, a global community of practitioners. One would have thought that an empathetic practitioner keen on non-violent communication would have chosen to write more empathetically and sympathetically about the materiality of scholarship underpinning this book as well as some concern for the writers and editors. Ethically, scholarship shouldn’t and doesn’t have to play the same dismissive games that are a caricature of academic book reviews.

All the reviews I have discussed here offer ethical challenges, but I feel that if we, as practitioners, engage with modifying and playing with the book review genre (among many others) in order to contribute to collective knowledge then the ethics of what we write, how we write, what we bring into consideration who we engage with (including the authors of books), and the value of reading will come to forefront of our considerations and we will find a way to engage critically with each other’s work that is not (to misquote Richard Smith) a rather dry, dull, and disempowered simulacrum of academic book reviewing.

Keeping ethical considerations and concerns central can help all practitioners see scholarship, writing, reading, contributing to the community and evaluating others in new ways and ways that could transcend some of the many imperfections and limitations we all witness on a daily basis.

I would like to thank Laetitia Monbec, Millie Walkova and Julia Molinari for pointing me to some excellent books reviews.


Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Hartley, J. (2006). Reading and writing book reviews across the disciplines. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology57(9), 1194-1207.

Jenkins, R. (1989). ‘Language, Symbolic Power and Communication: Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus’, Sociology, 23 (4): 639–45.

Jenkins, R. (1992), Pierre Bourdieu, London: Routledge.

Luntley, M. (1992). ‘Practice Makes Knowledge?’ Inquiry, 35: 447–61.

Sarfatti Larson (1977/2013) ‘The Rise of Professionalism: Monopolies of Competence and Sheltered Markets’ Schulman, L. S. (2000). From Minsk to Pinsk: Why a scholarship of teaching & learning? The Journal of Scholarship of Teaching & Learning. 1. pp 48–52.