Academic reviews crisis

Despite some gloomy predictions, the academic book remains in good health.

Most academics in the humanities and social sciences are committed to it as essential to the health of their disciplines: a means of expressing complex arguments and communicating the best scholarship.

But there are external constraints, even if these do not derive from the nature of the book itself. Many titles depend on core sales to libraries and while prices may seem high, pressure on library budgets derives from the inordinate cost of journal subscriptions and not from books.

This, in turn, has led to reductions in specialist library staff and the “outsourcing” of book ordering to the recommendations of academics, and the vagaries of their practices (of noticing and acting). The high and rising cost of journal subscriptions, alongside the possibility of Open Access by way of the internet, has also led to UK government mandates of free Open Access for publicly funded research in journals and this has served to make the printed book appear anomalous.

A further problem is a crisis in the dissemination of information about books published and available for purchase.

Online access has led to increased speed of publication of articles, which are usually available significantly in advance of the print edition of the journal. At the same time, Open Access publication in the humanities and social sciences has not displaced the subscription journal, meaning it remains restricted by its underlying print form. This limits the number of articles that can be published and is squeezing out book reviews.

Book reviewing which is at the core of dissemination is under two pressures. It frequently takes two or three years for a book review to appear in a journal, just when dissemination by article is speeding up, and there is less space in journals for reviews, thereby reducing the significance of reviewing as an activity.

Is there a solution? All publishers have an interest in the existence of Open Access online book review platforms. In principle, these could be organised by professional associations and learned societies. They could aggregate the existing (and reducing) pages of current journals in the field, freeing up more of their space for articles. Ideally, the platform would publish reviews on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, and do so under sub-fields within overall disciplinary categories. The idea of maintaining a journal/magazine format would be to create a more readily searchable and archived stable presence (rather than have reviews move off page after two or three days as is characteristic of the blog format).

Journals already organise databases of reviewers for articles and these could also be aggregated to provide book reviewers. At the same time, editorial content could be organised in terms of special review essays, revisiting classics of the field, etc to increase the general attractiveness of the site.

But an obstacle remains the cost of setting up such platforms. Professional associations and learned societies are already concerned about loss of revenue as a consequence of Open Access and this would appear to be a cost for no return. Or at least, the return in terms of the health of their disciplines cannot be directly monetised. Publishers, for their part, are increasingly exhorting their authors to market their books themselves via blogs and social media, not least because publishers have reduced means of marketing books themselves and the standard measure of securing book reviews is in decline.

Perhaps it is time for publishers—especially large- scale publishers—to commit funds to help set up book review platforms across different disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. While the independence of these sites—and, therefore their freedom from advertising—is important, there remains the possibility of some monetising. The books that are reviewed could also be linked to one-click purchase and library recommendation, with a percentage assigned to the platform to meet its running costs.


John Holmwood is professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham. He spoke on "The Future of the Academic Book", including monograph reviewing, at the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers international conference in London earlier this month.