Monday, September 19, 2011

The book review crisis

A book not worthy of review?
Why is there no review of my 2008 book, Aztec City-State Capitals, in an archaeology or anthropology journal? Although I am biased, of course, I happen to think it's a good book; thus its absence is probably not due to a judgment by book review editors that it is not worthy of reviewing. I would think it relevant to anthropology journals that include archaeology, to journals in anthropological archaeology, and to journals in Mesoamerican and New World archaeology. Yet to date, none of these journals have reviewed the book.

Why not? This is a real question, not a rhetorical question that I will now proceed to answer. The book has been reviewed by two urban journals. Caroline Dodds Pennock wrote a review in the Urban History, and Elizabeth Graham recently reviewed it for the online forum, H-Urban  (*** disclaimer: I am one of several review editors for H-Urban, but I did not solicit or edit this review, which was handled by another editor). But why won't journals in my own home fields review the book?

I have spoken several times in the blog about what I call the "book review crisis" in New World archaeology/anthropological archaeology. Some of the main journals (e.g., Ancient Mesoamerica) don't publish book reviews, and others (e.g., Latin American Antiquity) have dropped to embarrasingly low levels of reviews (about one per issue lately). These are my previous posts on the subject:

Latin American Antiquity book review update  (14-October, 2010)

Has Latin American Antiquity abandoned book reviews  (12-April, 2010)

The book review crisis in Latin American archaeology  (21-August, 2009)

Is there a book review crisis in New World archaeology?  (27-July, 2008)

It is interesting that in the three years I have been complaining about this, not one journal editor, or book review editor, or journal editorial board member has even mentioned the issue to me. The obvious explanation here is that they aren't following this blog. Ok, c'est la vie. But why are journals not publishing book reviews? It is not just me - at one point I made a list of some important books in my field that had not been reviewed by the journals (and now I can't find the list...). No, I'm not angling for a job as a book review editor. Been there, done that. Maybe again someday, but certainly not with a sabbatical coming up soon.

I apologize here for using my own case to make a general point, but it is a case I know well. But I do feel strongly about the general point, and I wish I had an explanation (and, better still, a solution).


Jason Baird Jackson said...

Folklore studies reached a point like that that you describe for anthropological/Americanist archaeology. Borrowing a simple model from Bryn Mawr Classical Review and The Medieval Review (both now ancient projects by internet time measurement), my colleagues started Journal for Folklore Research Reviews (JFRR) as a spin off from the Journal of Folklore Research. I know that you are not up for another DIY project for yourself, but it is my belief that this is a viable way forward if there was community interest. The number of subscribers (its free) are huge and the levels of appreciation that the community in folklore has for this effort is great. If it can be done with library-based publishing infrastructure support for preservation, even better. We once faced a situation in which only a handful of books were reviewed and the reviews appeared many years after their subjects. Now, a JFRR review is very likely and will probably very soon after the book.

There are other issues to be debated, like graduate students as reviewers and service to the profession burdens, and institutional support, etc. I just mention this BMCR/CR/JFRR model because for at least three fields, it has proven to be a successful strategy for dealing with your problem.

Mitch Allen said...

How about these reasons, Michael:
-journals have fixed page counts for economic reasons; the more pages devoted to reviews mean fewer devoted to articles that actually help scholars toward tenure
-books have to be reviewed before they can appear in the review section. Any book review editor can tell you that there are a large percentage of books sent to reviewers that never result in reviews.
-book review editors in most journals change every 2 or 3 years. We have a database of about 2000 journals that we use. There is no way we can keep track of the book review editors on all of them. And it is a very rare day that we actually hear from a journal that the book review editor has changed. Sometimes, it's on the website, but that's often inaccurate. So it's not always easy to get the book there.
-the worst possible case for you, Michael, is that no one liked the book and rather than send it out to be trashed, they just didn't. I doubt that is the case here, but it happens.

Michael E. Smith said...


While I acknowledge the relevance of your three points, the fact is that many journals manage to maintain a large and healthy program of book reviews. So I am more interested in the specific factors that generate low numbers of book reviews in New World archaeology, rather than the general factors that affect all book review operations.