Sjang ten Hagen writes (in the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog) about “the apparent role of book reviewing in the exclusion from academic communities of members from marginalised groups”. Although that lack of equality no doubt exists, I don’t think it detracts from the benefit of public book reviews.
While journal articles have a mature system of peer review that is well-established, the practice of reviewing journal articles post-publication is not widespread. In contrast, book reviews in scholarly journals are a fundamental component of the academic process: books have achieved for many years something only now being discussed for articles, the “post-publication peer review”. Most academic books will be reviewed publicly in one or more journals – I noticed some journals will include hundreds of book reviews each year. But surely the “marginalised group” in this activity is the reader, if she or he doesn’t have access to the review? Subscription journals keep their book reviews behind the paywall, which makes it all but impossible for a wider readership to engage with the debate. I argued in a post last year that one fundamental component of being an academic should be to carry out a public debate about knowledge in their field, which includes a discussion of recent work in the area. While David Beer argues that academics should talk to each other via book reviews, and ten Hagens argue that book reviews might exclude some marginalised groups, I would argue that a yet more fundamental exclusion is if we cannot read the reviews at all. There is a current debate around Wikipedia contributors that citations should be to sources that are openly viewable, not hidden behind a firewall; surely the same applies with academic books?
There is a danger that the practice of reviewing books in scholarly journals may be under threat. A quick check of the paid OA publishers suggests they do not review books as frequently as subscription journals. A search on the Hindawi platform for “book review” retrieves 201 hits, from a total of around 750,000 articles; the same search on the MDPI platform has just eight hits. That compares with some humanities journals publishing over 200 reviews per year (French Studies), or the American Historical Review, with over 1,000 reviews annually. Perhaps what is being lost with the new generation of OA publishers is the book review.