I’m currently collating my research outputs for a grant application, and I got to thinking about academic book reviews. I’m on the transition end of early career researchhood (where number of publications are counted and judged by funding bodies), and five of my ‘scholarly journal publications’ are book reviews – they appear in all the database publication lists, but you can’t technically count them as legitimate publications, because they aren’t peer reviewed.
If you’re not familiar with academic book reviews: publishers send academic journals copies of newly published books; the journal asks academic readers to volunteer, or invites them personally, to read and review said book in their field of expertise; the journal publishes the review, without formal peer review (unless you count the editor’s comments).
The academic reviewer gets a free book, the book author gets a (hopefully positive) review of their book, the publisher potentially increases sales, and the journal gets…actually I’m not really sure what the journal gets out of it, other than potential exposure (book reviews are free to publish, so the journal isn’t making money directly from publishing it).
I love writing book reviews, mostly because I love reading and collecting books. I’ve been invited to review most of the books I’ve reviewed, and I accepted immediately because I just LOVE BOOKS! But I also felt that I was contributing something to my discipline by reviewing a book that colleagues might be interested in – until I began hearing some snobby academic comments about book reviews, mostly implying writing book reviews are a waste of time and effort because they’re not ‘real’ publications.
Should academic book reviews deserve more credit, both as a publication for the author, and as a contribution to the discipline?
Here are a few thoughts on why I think they do:
- An academic book is a speciality title. It has a specialised audience of particular expertise, so it is more valuable for potential buyers to read the perspective of someone with the expertise to critique it.
- On that note, why don’t we give credit to academic reviewers? By inviting an academic to review a book, we are recognising their expertise in the research field and their ability to critically analyse the book’s narrative. Book reviews are very similar to expert opinion/perspective articles published in academic journals, most of which get far more credence simply because they go through formal peer review. But book reviews are shunned. If you’ve published a book review in an academic journal, why isn’t this acknowledged as evidence of your expertise?
- Popular science books are also a common review target for academic journals. I’ve reviewed a few of these, like The Last Butterflies (recommended read!) and Protecting Pollinators (lacking some science). Even though pop sci books are targeted at a broader non-academic audience, expert review is valuable to identify the evidence-based use value of the book. If the author has exaggerated or misrepresented evidence, is the book going to be a useful guide for non-academic practitioners? If the book is written in highly specialist language, will it be a useful resource for non-specialist audiences? So why don’t we acknowledge these reviews? If you’ve published a critical book review of a popular science book, this could be evidence of your expertise in communicating science to broader audiences.
- Early career researchers are often encouraged by senior researchers to write book reviews. There could be many valid reasons for this, including that senior academics may not have the time to read and review a large book, or because early career researchers may be a less biased reviewer (especially in smaller specialist disciplines where a handful of senior academics may dominate the knowledge base). It’s also a great opportunity for ECRs to get some disciplinary exposure and get their hands on an important reference book they may not be able to afford to purchase. BUT… book reviews do take time and there is very little support and advice available to ECRs on how to write a book review. If we, as an academic community, won’t recognise these reviews as legitimate publications, can we justify asking early career researchers to put time aside for them?
© Manu Saunders 2021