Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is there a book review crisis in New World archaeology?

Greetings from lovely Hermosillo, Sonora.

One of my students just brought the latest issue of Latin American Antiquity (LAA) down to Mexico, and I was surprised to see NO BOOK REVIEWS. I have been dismayed at the steady decline in the number of book reviews in this journal since I stepped down as book review editor in 2002. I see this as a real crisis for New World (NW) archaeology. A number of general anthropology journals do publish reviews of books in NW archaeology, but the number they allow (or rather, the number they solicit) is very limited. In American Anthropologist, one has to wade through many more non-archaeological book reviews to find the archaeology ones (I think this is a ploy by editors to shore up the sinking notion of “4-field anthropology,” with the assumption that archaeologists will be edified by having to browse through reviews of books in linguistics or physical anthropology. But I digress). Journals like Jr. Royal Anthropological Society and Journal of Anthropological Research also publish limited numbers of reviews in NW archaeology.

But the professional archaeology journals are not publishing anywhere close to the needed numbers of book reviews. New books should be reviewed in several peer-review journals. I don’t know the situation in North American archaeology, but I hope it is far better than in Latin America. But in Latin America, there really is a crisis in book reviews. LAA is the main journal and it should be publishing fifteen to twenty reviews per issue to keep up with the new books. But it seems that recently there are two or three (and now zero !!!) reviews per issue, and often these are not the most important books. Has LAA made a decision to limit book reviews? What is going on here?

For Mesoamerican archaeology, Ancient Mesoamerica is the top journal but they do not publish book reviews. Some specialized journals (Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl or Anales de Antropología) do publish book reviews, but they are few in number. Some unrefereed newsletters (e.g., Nahua Newsletter) also have reviews, but they tend to be few in number and of uneven quality.

Perhaps my earlier complaint about the small number of good critical book reviews in NW archaeology was misplaced – it’s hard to have a lot of good reviews when books are simply not getting reviewed. Book reviews are an important part of the quality control mechanism in a field like archaeology, and NW archaeology is now suffering in this respect. I think it is a real crisis.

It was probably my worry about the sorry state of archaeology book reviews that led me to accept an offer to become a book review editor for H-Urban, a list-serve and (OPEN ACCESS) book review venue dedicated to urban history (part of the H-Net organization). As one of several book review editors, my charge is to beef up the coverage of ancient and nonwestern urbanism within H-Urban (and within urban history generally). One attraction is their insistence on rigorous peer review and the highest professional standards. If you are not familiar with H-Net book reviews (which not infrequently cover archaeological topics), you should take a look. Did I mention that their reviews are OPEN ACCESS? You can read them online from anywhere, Reykjavík to Ouagadougou, irrespective of whether you or your library subscribes to a particular journal. I’ll blog more about the H-Urban reviews in the fall, once I get up and running. But this theme covers only a small part of the production of books in New World archaeology, and it is not really a solution to the book review crisis.

NEVERTHELESS, in writing that last sentence, it occurred to me that H-Net COULD become a major venue for archaeological book reviews. It would require establishment of a new sub-list (something like “H-Archaeology”), with a moderated listserv and some dedicated book review editors. There is a level of bureaucratic organization required, with a board and moderators, by-laws, etc. The N-Net office handles all of the logistics of obtaining books and sending them to reviewers, so review editors just have to locate books, find reviewers, and do an initial edit of the reviews (alas, one the the joys of my tenure as book review editor for LAA was that I got to put my grubby paws on all the new books as soon as they were released!). The book reviews are fully equivalent to those published in journals in terms of quality, and professionalism; in fact the regulations and training for H-Urban reviews were FAR more rigorous than anything I went through for LAA. Anyway, this might provide a convenient forum, easier to establish than something like the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, an outstanding venue for book reviews and book review essays in Classics. This would also obviate the kind of battling I went through with editorial boards and the SAA for more space for book reviews.

Oh, did I mention that the book reviews on H-Net are OPEN ACCESS ? Maybe its time to free the peer-reviewed book reviews from the many limitations of the SAA (publisher of LAA) by setting up an Open Access venue, whether on H-Net or elsewhere.

If you are not familiar with OA (and even if you ARE familiar with it), please look at Peter Suber's Open Access Overview.


Michael E. Smith said...

I just had an experience that may support the notion of a book review crisis in New World archaeology. I could not find a single review of this book, an important study by a major scholar:

Nan A. Rothschild (2003) Colonial Encounters in a Native American Landscape: The Spanish and Dutch in North America (Smithsonian Press).

Now part of the explanation may lie with Smithsonian Press, which imploded, stopped publishing, then picked up again in collaboration with Harper-Collins. Maybe they did not send out review copies of books in the interim. But still, this book should be reviewed in journals such as American Anthropologist, American Antiquity, American Historical Review, Ethnohistory, etc.

angel said...

Is it funny, I just wrote a book on taino mythology emtitled: "Mitologia Taina o Eyeri: Ramon Pane y la relacion de las antiguedades de los indios". AT LEAST, THE EDITORIAL BOARD OR THE EDITOR, WHOEVER THEY ARE, CAN NOT COMPLAIN OF THE LACK OF MATERIAL FOR REVIEWING, OR I NEED A PADRINO, OR A COMPADRE INSIDE THIS MAGAZINE OR BETTER: A POLITICAL COMISSAR

angel said...

IT is funnny, I already sent to this magazine a book that I wrote entitled: "Mitologia taina o Eyeri: Ramon Pane y la Relacion Sobre las Antiguedades de los indios" for reviewing. The Editor or Editorial Board can not claim the lack of reviewing material nor the poor quality of the material submitted. Maybe I SHOULD SEEK A PADRINO, COMPADRE INSIDE THIS MAGAZINE FOR REVIEWING MY MATERIAL, OR A BETTER IDEA IS TO GET A POLITICAL COMISSAR.

Maybe for then, I am just a mestizo(like all hispa-igs)for them, south of the border.

PD: Seems that some nacirema tend to confuse in their subconscious "n" for "p".and endind "nic" for "igs"