Scholarly book reviewing: time for a plot twist

We need to wake up and defend this vital practice, not sleepwalk to an unhappy ending, says Lars Fischer

January 7, 2016
Book review speech bubble illustration

As a historian, I know my way around journals covering academia’s poor relations, the arts and humanities. Far from generating meaningful income, most have always depended on massive self-exploitation by those who run them. But, at least as far as their reviews sections are concerned, we are fast approaching a point at which concerted action is required to avoid the whole enterprise becoming untenable.

The problems start with the fact that reviewing is no longer beneficial to academics’ careers – especially, in the UK, since the “esteem” section was axed from the research excellence framework. Departments fixated on REF scores and grant income are becoming less willing to subsidise those academics still prepared to be review editors. The subsidies were never large: while many US universities provide journal editors with teaching release and administrative support, UK universities were rarely so generous. But review editors’ home departments did at least offer, as a rule, to cover the postage for the circulation of review copies. While some journals may be wealthy enough to take on these costs themselves, for most this would present a major financial challenge and most likely necessitate a substantial decrease in review activity.

The decline in the status of reviewing also means that fewer people are prepared to do it. Consequently, as with so many other aspects of service to the profession, the burden on those who remain committed constantly grows. In practice, reviewing – like first‑year teaching – is increasingly becoming the preserve of research students and very early career scholars who urgently need to beef up their publication record at any price. Often they deliver superb reviews – but you really do need to know your stuff to review effectively, and consistently palming it off on to junior colleagues can lower the overall quality, making it easier to dismiss the worth of reviewing altogether.

Historically, reviewers and review editors at least got to keep the books they assessed. But some publishers are becoming increasingly stingy in their provision of review copies. Worse, more than one has recently informed me that they will no longer provide hard copies at all. To expect reviewers to make do with electronic versions only strikes me as being utterly unacceptable.

For the time being, the solution is obvious enough. Publishers who refuse to provide proper review copies simply do not get reviewed – and I expressly call on my review editor colleagues to join me in boycotting publishers who take this stance. However, it is depressingly obvious that this will not help us for long. As soon as a critical mass of publishers go down this route, we will be faced with the choice of either accepting their dictates or ceasing to produce reviews altogether.

I appreciate, of course, that the rise of the e-book and of open access book publishing will bring changes. How we can best deal with these is something that should be discussed in a spirit of solidarity between all parties involved. However, as long as books are still being produced, publishers have to accept the need to provide proper review copies to non‑commercial scholarly periodicals.

Ironically, those colleagues who would rather invest their time in churning out another monograph for the REF would have to admit that having a decent bunch of favourable reviews of that work is still an asset. More importantly, (good) reviews and review articles play an indispensable role in keeping academics abreast of the literature and debates in their field. They can also provide students with a convenient introduction to complex issues and debates.

I realise that not everyone will agree with these sentiments. However, if the time-honoured practice of scholarly book reviewing really is to go the way of all flesh, it should surely do so as the result of a conscious decision. Its demise should not merely be the accidental result of various unrelated trends, many of which are not desirable even on their own terms.

Lars Fischer is a teaching fellow at University College London. He is reviews editor for The German Quarterly, Jewish Historical Studies and the new H‑Music: H-Net Network Music in History, which will go live in the spring.

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