Book reviews, let alone academic book reviews, have received many premature notices of their demise. However, as Christina Lembrecht and Vassiliki Gortsas, discuss alongside a crisis in authorship, reviews also run the risk of being excluded from funding for open access publication.
The academic book review has been declared dead many times. There are many reasons for the decline in book reviews being written. Writing them can be time consuming and scholars receive little in return. None of this is big news. Laments about the sorry state of the book review are as old as the form itself. But still, the medium persists. Academics still value book reviews – why?
(79%) of our authors said that book reviews – especially in journals – are the main way they keep up to speed with emerging scholarship in their field.
To learn more about how scholars from different disciplines view book reviews the insights team at De Gruyter conducted a survey. The interviews, conducted mainly among humanities and social science authors, showed that academic book reviews are still highly regarded and perform an important function in scholarly communications.
In fact, four in every five (79%) of our authors said that book reviews – especially in journals – are the main way they keep up to speed with emerging scholarship in their field. Not only do book reviews serve as an important source of information, receiving them is still highly prized. The survey also found that 74% of our humanities authors judge the success of their book on the basis of how widely it gets reviewed.
A shrinking pool
There’s no doubt that academic book reviews play a vital role in scholarly communications – but problems are rife. Several of our own journal editors have told us that it’s becoming increasingly hard to find academics willing to spend their time writing reviews. As time-poor, mid-career academics struggle under a mountain of teaching, admin duties and publication targets – who can blame them?
it’s becoming increasingly hard to find academics willing to spend their time writing reviews.
This means that the burden of responsibility for writing reviews increasingly falls on those either in the early or late stages of their careers. While we’re grateful to those scholars who write reviews for us – the pool willing to do so is shrinking. We must be realistic about where writing a book review stands in a busy scholar’s priority list.
Sadly, that is not where the problems end. The precarious position of the book review in the scholarly communications ecosystem could be exacerbated further with the inevitable march towards Open Access (OA) – or at least, the most widely adopted version of it.
The author pays
To explain this point, let’s return to the original purpose of OA. The goal of OA is that research is freely available to read. All well and good, but publication costs must be covered by someone. Under the most widely adopted OA model, the author pays for publication through an article processing charge (APC). This is sometimes called a ‘pay to publish’ model.
While APC appears sound in theory, it only works if the researcher is able to secure funding for their research in advance. As science subjects receive the bulk of grant funding, this traditional approach works well for them. However, as humanities scholars receive far less funding – or none at all for some types of content – the APC model could pose a major threat for the sustainability of book reviews as well as many other types of academic material.
Non-research content such as book reviews, commentary, interviews and letters are often excluded from funding in transformative deals.
Unlike many STEM journals, humanities and social science journals of the type we publish contain a variety of content. Some of this will be original research – and so, more likely to be funded – but much is not. Non-research content such as book reviews, commentary, interviews and letters are often excluded from funding in transformative deals. Book reviews are most significant within this category of non-research articles – indeed, they account for around 40% of our entire article output in the humanities portfolio.
As a publisher primarily of humanities and social science, we believe that an OA funding model designed to publish well-funded original research does not work for humanities authors or translate to humanities publishing. The lack of attention on the financing of formats such as book reviews, which can be as important to advance the scholarly debate in the humanities and social sciences as original research articles, makes this point clear.
Sustaining the journal
But if not APC then what? We have been thinking long and hard about what alternative model could be used in the humanities and social sciences to sustain unfunded formats of scholarly content such as the book review – and one solution is apparent. It’s a model we have been piloting since 2021 and which we have used successfully to transform journals into OA: Subscribe to Open (S2O).
Under S2O, a journal is transformed to OA on an annual basis when enough institutional and library subscribers continue to support the journal as they did in the past. In this way, a journal’s transformation into OA is in effect ‘crowdfunded’ by existing subscribers without the author having to cover the costs.
Importantly, this means that the whole journal is funded, supported and made sustainable – book reviews and all. This May, our pilot S2O project was successfully expanded to include 16 journals. This allows more than 600 articles to appear directly in OA and corresponds around ten per cent of De Gruyter’s total annual OA output. For several of these journals, book reviews are an important part of their editorial content. One journal that we have recently flipped to OA via S2O is comprised exclusively of book reviews.
Kill or cure?
We believe that the S2O model is more suited to humanities and social science publishing because it doesn’t involve a publication fee for the author and its focus is on making whole journals financially sustainable – and this last point is particularly important in this context, because it allows formats like the book review to survive.
As a publisher, we know the value that book reviews have for academics in the humanities and social sciences particularly and we will continue to do everything we can to keep them alive. One way for us to do that is to continue experimenting with alternative, inclusive and equitable routes towards an OA future – one of which is S2O.
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