To Review or Not Review…

I got recommended to write a book review for something thru …… . Does it make sense to do it or do publications like that not matter?

-a former mentee on Twitter, now PhD Candidate

I hate writing book reviews.  I still do them occasionally.   Some professionals love them, some see them as necessary public service.

Today I write them for a very limited number of reasons:

  • I want to develop my relationship with the individual who asks and that journal.
  • I want to mark out territory in which I am an expert, or rising expert.
  • I can’t afford the book otherwise.
  • I want to tell the world how awesome some research is that might otherwise get ignored.

None of these are reasons I wrote my first book reviews.  Those reviews were gifts.  They came from my own mentors as feasible first publication tasks.  I got to see my name in print and know that I could see it there over and over.  Psychologically, that was really important to me.  I learned a great deal and gained confidence, and my CV looked just a little fuller, at least to my own eyes.   I like to think it suggests someone who can meet deadlines, follow through, and write in an articulate fashion.  Stuff that shows the potential for future peer-review publications.

My worst experiences with book reviews have been when I did not like the book and could not afford to say so in print.  Early in my tenure track appointment a major journal asked me to review a new book by a major scholar, whom I liked and respected.  I didn’t respect the book.  I never submitted anything and feel terrible about it.   I decided being delinquent was better than lying or saying publicly truths that would harm my career.

I also once had a fight about a review in which the editor said I was not critical enough.  The book was fine, not great.  Again, I wasn’t going to lie or do harm.   A bit more experienced, I fought with the editor and they published it as is.

The other worst was a journal that doesn’t believe in giving deadlines.  I learned I need a deadline.  They still haven’t gotten their review either.

Long story short.  To start, review only if it will feel good to you personally, you can be positive in the review (check out the book thoroughly before you agree!), and it will not be a dreadful time suck that reduces the quality of your other work.

A twitter conversation on what makes a good review 5/14/2018:


5-24-18 Update

Trotsky on book reviewing (1924), shared by Brigid O’Keeffe on twitter.

Update 6.17.19:

Another interesting twitter thread on reviewing (click image to redirect):


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