Monday, January 23, 2017

Have we gotten out of the crisis in Latin American book reviews?

I have always been a big fan of book reviews. When I get a new journal, I may scan the article titles first, but I almost always read the book reviews before the articles. Book reviews are an important part of quality control in scholarly disciplines where books are prominent (as in archaeology). In the past I have blogged about the book review crisis in Latin American archaeology: See my posts in:

2008,  2009,  2011

For a decade, very few books were being reviewed in the main journal, Latin American Antiquity. The major Mesoamerican journal, Ancient Mesoamerica, doesn't published book reviews at all! But now, book reviews are trending up in quantity. I thought there were more reviews in LAA over the past year, so I counted them up. Here are the data, starting in 1997.


These figures paint a bleak picture of the decline of quality control in Latin American archaeology starting around 2004. But after six years of almost no reviews (average of one--count, 'em--1 per issue!), things are trending up in 2016.

Book reviews are important for many reasons. First, they get out the news about new publications. Second, a good book review is a gem of a short essay on the topic of the book. Because I try to keep up with urban research at some level in many different disciplines, I use book reviews to help guide my reading. And third, book reviews give an indication of the quality of the book. Bad books are called out, and good books are praised. I recently had to give a quick judgment on the quality and influence of a book in a field far from my own (NOT Latin American archaeology!). I was able to find four book reviews easily, and they gave me the information I needed.

Let's hope this trend at Latin American Antiquity continues! Perhaps Ancient Mesoamerican might be persuaded to begin reviewing books. When I have suggested this at the board meetings, the response has been, "Fine, if you want to organize it, go ahead," hardly an enthusiastic promise of support.

If you are asked to review a book, please do it. If you would like to see more book reviews, contact the relevant journal editors and let them know. Our field has need of all the quality control we can get, and book reviews should be a major part of our collective strategy of disciplinary improvement.

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