Reading Time: 4 minutes
Review of The Theory of the Leisure Class, from The American Journal of Sociology, Vol 5, No 6 (May 1900)

Books and journal articles are not the same – you hear this all the time, but I for one continue to be intrigued at the many differences between the two. Sandy Thatcher pointed out in a library listserv (25 October 2022) that peer review of articles is unpaid, but that a fee is paid by publishers for peer review of books. By books is meant all subjects outside of science, technology and medicine.

It is intriguing that the process for publication of books in academic publishing is so different to that for publishing articles. This was pointed out by Sandy Thatcher in a listserv post on 25 October. But in addition, books are frequently reviewed after publication, often multiple times: the post-publication review. What is the impact of this review? Why is it done?

I mentioned post-publication reviews of academic books in an earlier post. There are a lot of post-publication reviews done each year. A few journals carry no reviews, but, picking examples almost at random, the Journal of French Studies carries 200 reviews per year; The Economic History Review, a quarterly journal, has 28 reviews per year. The American Historical Review carries 1,000 reviews each year.

How many non-science journals are there? Using the Scopus list of subject areas to select all subjects outside of science, technology and medicine), I got a figure of 13,561 non-science journals.

How many humanities books published each year? One recent estimate is 43,000. In other words, for each academic humanities monograph to be reviewed once, each journal would need to carry fewer than four reviews per year. I think it’s reasonable to infer that the majority of academic monographs  receives a post-publication review.

Why not adopt post-publication reviews for journal articles?

  • The benefit of writing the review would be shared by any reader, not just by the author.
  • The review is of the completed content, not a draft.
  • Some reviewing sites, notably Reviews in History, from the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, offer the author of the work reviewed the right to reply. This site dates back to 1995, and was a pioneer in providing online post-publication reviews.
  • Reviews are by named academics, so readers can see at a glance if the reviewer is known as an advocate or opponent of the views of the work reviewed.

The biggest drawback of post-publication reviews is that they are frequently placed behind the paywall for subscription journals. Readers are requested to pay a hefty fee for the privilege of reading a one-page review.

A potential drawback of reviews in academic journals is that they can be quite dry: unlike reviews in trade newspapers and magazines, these reviews were not written to entertain. They provide a good indication that the work reviewed is academically sound, but not necessarily any idea that the work reviewed is readable or accessible.

Along with academic reviews, and the literary periodicals, there is now a third source of reviews: the Internet, which provides scope for other kinds of publication, and these are starting to change the landscape for book reviews.

Here is an example: Geoffrey Parker’s The Dutch Revolt is a famous historical study that was first published in 1977. It was issued in paperback by Penguin in 1979, and remained in print for many years subsequently. It is still widely available. There were several reviews shortly after publication, for example, E H Kossmann in The English Historical Review stated (1979):

Dr Parker does not succeed in presenting a narrative clear enough to be convincing or an analysis sufficiently coherent and profound to see why the Revolt happened and how it developed as it did.

P. David Lagomarsino in The Hispanic American Historical Review liked the book:

The Dutch Revolt represents an important addition to the literature on early modern revolution, and a superb introduction to Habsburg Spain’s longest and costliest problem.

I haven’t gone into details of these reviews, but they are long enough to present an idea of the context of the work reviewed: its strengths and weaknesses. A negative review can be as helpful as a positive one (as you can see from the Kossmann review above).

In addition to the standard academic reviews, there are other Internet sites. For example, a reviewing website, Five Books, stated this book was still the standard text on this subject. The review (October 2022) was by Maarten Prak, professor of Social and Economic History at Utrecht University, and author of a book on the same subject.

As a further innovation on post-publication review, there is the longer-term review. The American Journal of Biological Anthropology provides what they call “Legacy reviews”, which are reviews of a highly cited publication many years after it was published. An example is Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, published 1981, and reviewed for a legacy review in August 2022, forty years later.

Post-publication review does not solve all the challenges of peer review. But it appears to provide a valuable tool for assessing academic content. Academics already devote sufficient attention to it to review the bulk of published humanities monographs. Yet as far as I can see post-publication reviews are not taken into account when identifying impact factor. Books and journals are not the same – and with post-publication review, perhaps books demonstrate something that journal articles lack.