Sunday, January 22, 2012

Has Latin American Antiquity abandoned book reviews?

Just got the Dec 2011 issue of Latin American Antiquity. This allowed me to complete the book review graph through 2011. This graph shows the number of book reviews published per year in the journal:

This really steams me up, and I've complained about it before; see some of the posts listed under "book reviews" in the list of terms on the right side of the blog (scroll down).

We can't trust publishers, even academic presses, to not publish bad books. Yes, most book manuscripts are reviewed by outside reviewers, but a good number of real stinkers (and lots of pedestrian yawners) get through that process and are published each year. So how does the discipline exercise quality control with respect to books? This is a prime role for book reviews in peer reviewed journals.  But if the major journals refuse to publish book reviews, the discipline suffers. My field, Mesoamerican archaeology, is particularly badly served by its major journals. Ancient Mesoamerica refuses to publish any book reviews at all. And Latin American Antiquity does allow book reviews, but now they only publish a few reviews each year (see graph).

If you want to see a really bad book criticized in a zinger of a review, check out Richard Blanton's review of a new book by Charles Maisels in the online journal, Cliodynamics.


Anonymous said...

I suspect that some committee review panel at some fancy university or club of universities decided that book reviews are no longer considered as positively in tenure reviews and department reviews - this may be a reflection of that. Alternatively, perhaps there is no more difficult and unrewarded task than being a book review editor who has to police the inevitable antagonisms that arise, correspond with often obscure publishers and remind and cajole people into submitted the often really past their due date reviews.... I argree that it does seem remarkable that book reviews have declined so much even compared to ten years ago.

I suspect that American Antiquity would show a similar trend line. Thanks for compiling these data.

Jason Baird Jackson said...

A group of archaeologists needs to start a service such as Journal of Folklore Research Reviews (JFRR), The Medieval Review (TMR), or Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR). These efforts are universally loved, cost next to nothing, and really make a difference. The situation in folklore studies was like what you describe for Latin American archaeology.

JFRR was a response and has been a great success, with 700 reviews published in 7 years. The project has 1000 no-cost subscribers and countless more web-readers.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Jason- Yeah, I think something like this would be great, and I have vague plans to try to do something about it in a couple of years. I tried getting H-Urban to take on a bunch of book reviews on ancient cities (by becoming one of their book review editors), but that was only partially successful, and only covered one corner of archaeology. Thanks for the suggestion and the model.

Right now I am on sabbatical and probably shouldn't be blogging, etc., but hay, what the heck.

Anonymous said...

Well, what do you expect? That journal is such a mess. It is taking them 12-15 months just to get first reviews back to authors. They can barely manage publishing articles let alone book reviews. LAA needs serious change and investment. At this point, I think the journal should be put to rest. Every new editor blames the old editor for passing on a mess. That excuse works for about a year until it is obvious that the new editors can't recover or are just as bad. Perhaps if there were permanent (or longer lasting) managing editors that transcended the editorial shifts things would be better, like at AA, JRAI, or CA. Anyway, I guess my main point is that the lack of reviews is symptomatic of bigger problems in keeping a poorly run ship afloat...

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymous - Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but now you have opened up the broader question. I know that many colleagues feel the way you do, and have felt that way about LAA for a number of years now. For more than five years now I have avoided submitting papers to the journal because of the long time delay from submission to publication.

Anonymous said...

LAA seemed to me to be a Bad Idea from the very start. It removed a readily and broadly accessible venue in which archaeologists working in the hemispheres could easily share their work and learn from one another. It made Americanist archaeology more parochial. Of course, it is possible to subscribe to both, but I suspect the proportion of the SAA membership that does that is small. What are the chances that SAA will fold LAA back back into American Antiquity?

Michael E. Smith said...

I am ambivalent about the founding and position of LAA. It was founded because the North Americanists were sick of the number of Maya articles in American Antiquity. LAA has certainly served to ghettoize Latin American archaeology, since AA is considered the main journal overall, and the only SAA journal for North America, and the place for articles on method and theory, regardless of region. So the message for Latin Americanists is to publish your boring data reports in LAA and your exciting theory papers in AA. I find this approach objectionable and prejudicial against Latin American research.

I argued previously that the SAA should make AA a purely regional journal, keep LAA (as a regional journal), and start a new method/theory journal that is open access - see:

I went further and suggested that the commercial Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory be converted into the SAA theory journal, a recommendation that did not sit well with the editors of that journal!

For more discussion of LAA, see the nice paper by Rob Rosenswig:

Rosenswig, Robert M.
2005 A Tale of Two Antiquities: Evolving Editorial Policies of the SAA Journals. The SAA Archaeological Record 5(1):15-21.

Anonymous said...

Last year AA ran about 800 pages, while LAA weighed in at 600. The total could comfortably fit in a reconstituted and more inclusive American Antiquity (AQ).

The American Historical Review may be a useful comparison. It has world-wide historical coverage and runs 1600-1700 pages a year, although in five not four volumes. And it features a huge book review section!! Historians seem to have no problem getting their acts together on this front -- what’s wrong with archaeologists?

Producing a 1400 page/year AQ would be more expensive, if SAA sticks with print. The solution of course is to reconstitute AQ as an all digital journal (without a print counterpart), perhaps even as an OA journal.

Would an OA AQ ruin the SAA financially? It’s an interesting question that deserves serious empirical investigation. The primary reason I belong to SAA is to be able to participate in annual meetings – so I’d continue to send in my dues (and donate) even if AQ were free. What proportion of SAA members would do likewise? Would the number be large enough to sustain SAA?

Anonymous said...

My loathing of LAA is caught up in my own experiences dealing with a journal that fails to fulfill its obligations to authors. If you have to wait 12 or more months for reviews, get a revise and resubmit, and then are forced to wait another 6 or 7 months something is really wrong. Editors may say that the journal has an obligation to reviewers on revise and resubmits, but they lose any sense of obligation to authors who have made a huge investment in time waiting. Plus, if your pubs are held up because of such nonsense, you lose sight of the fact that poor research quality should be what prevents publication. Moreover, the longer you wait the more instances of other works coming out that complicate your own work. If you find yourself in such a situation where editorial incompetence is the core problem, to whom does one turn for salvation? The SAA president? To who do ineffective editors answer? Unless I am wrong Mark Aldendefer was the last effective editor, and he inherited a mess. what to do what to do???


Michael E. Smith said...

In some disciplines, or for some journals, issues of journal performance are open to discussion, and many procedures and decisions are transparent and considered valid topics for discussion among the relevant constituency. For other journals, editors work behind a wall of secrecy, and even members of the editorial board are not told how things work or what is happening. Discussions of problems (delays, quality issues, procedural problems) are met with hostility and excuses.

As a society-sponsored journal, one might think that LAA would lie closer to the first position above. The trouble is that it is hard to figure out just how the journal works. The SAA has a Publications Committee that presumably oversees the journals, but that committee seems to operate in secret (or perhaps I should say that it is difficult to know what that committee does; maybe it is a question of resources and publicity, and not deliberate secrecy). The chair and membership of that committee are posted on the SAA website, though.

So I have no idea who one would complain to about problems with the journal. One is obviously hesitant to complain to the journal editor, and I have never seen any suggestions that authors contact the Publications Committee (although that would seem a reasonable possibility).

I find the situation very frustrating. On basic principles, I would much rather publish in a society-sponsored journal than in a commercially owned journal whose basic purpose is to generate profits off my free labor. But LAA takes forever to get something published, and I refuse to give in to the notion that method/theory papers are appropriate for AA but not LAA.