Last month, the marketing coordinator of a publishing company got in touch with me, gave me information about a book on the recovery of illicitly-traded antiquities, and asked me if I could upload the details (of the book and for its purchase) onto Conflict Antiquities. In return, they would send me a free copy and offer my readers a 20% discount. (I will neither give the details nor get the free book, but I have provided sufficient information that readers can find the discount elsewhere.) This raises several issues.
Since the thought-prompting book is innocent and the publisher is respected, it seems silly to worry about the implications of advertising the book. But worrying about this uncontroversial book now saves me from having to worry about a problematic publication later; precisely because this book is uncontroversial, it allows me to set out my position without being perceived as partisan (in some nationalist or otherwise political dispute).
Aside from the fact that WordPress.com doesn’t allow ‘[s]ponsored or paid posts‘ (and providing the book in return for the post would be payment-in-kind), there are several academic/ethical concerns:
- skewed prominence of information and opinions; and
- how anyone could consider me an influential figure.
There was no requirement or encouragement to disclose, nor even a reference to disclosure of, the relationship.
There was no suggestion of getting a sample copy in return for giving a review. There was no explicit rejection of the idea; but I would only have received the free copy after publishing the advert for the book, and obviously I couldn’t have made significant comments on the book before reading it.
I couldn’t have offered to read a sample copy and review the book anytime soon anyway, because I would’ve been too busy. Furthermore, if I had prioritised this book over others, I would have realised my third concern.
3. Skewed prominence of information and opinions
There will always be some disproportionality in the visibility of publications, statements, and other data (whether it’s due to the power of the publisher/speaker, the size of the immediate audience for amplification of the message, or the search engine’s algorithms). That disproportionality passes through even critical filters, so big books by big names with big publishers are reviewed by big journals/magazines/newspapers with big audiences.
Recently, I’ve been talking with archaeologists and other cultural heritage workers in Germany and the Netherlands about the lack of detailed information on the illicit antiquities trade in Africa; and “natural” problems in producing and publishing data (lack of records, lack of data-sharing, the suppression of information through corruption, abuse of power to punish investigators, etc.) are exacerbated by “historic” problems in academic and public involvement and interest.
Issues of involvement and interest mean that the trades in European, South American and Middle Eastern (and, since the Arab Spring, North African) cultural heritage have been greatly discussed; and the trades in Central, South Asian and South-East Asian material have been seriously considered too; but the trade in (particularly Sub-Saharan) African cultural property remains under-studied.
Systemic difficulties mean that, between government control, language inaccessibility and general disinterest, there is little information about the Chinese and Russian trades (outside of China and Russia); Anglophone academic research and subsequent public interest has made the trade in Peru particularly visible, but a lot of local information elsewhere in Latin America has been unable to traverse the language barrier; there is more academic and public discussion of Greece than Bulgaria, Egypt than Libya, Mali than Somalia…
Obviously, even if there are more (and more connected) people concerned about one thing than another, the sharing of information is still worthwhile. We can and should try to learn and teach about little-known or unknown stories; but we shouldn’t ignore better-known, still-significant cases.
Nonetheless, I’m not writing a book blog or creating a bibliography on the illicit antiquities trade, so I’m never going to be able to discuss or even merely acknowledge all of the relevant literature. Sometimes, highlighting issues neither supports scholarly discussion nor promotes a worthwhile cause; sometimes, it reinforces dominant narratives and consequently demotes other worthwhile causes.
Therefore, I’m not going to advertise any books (other than my own, of course). And when/if I ever succeed in writing any books and getting them published, I will try to curate (and address) critiques alongside the advert.
4. How could anyone consider me an influential figure?
Linky love – everyone’s influential on Google.