Book reviews, not to mention academic book reviews, have received many premature notices of their demise. However, as Christina Remnecht And Vasiliki Gortsas, discussed along with the crisis in authorship, reviews also risk being excluded from funding for publication in the public domain.
Academic book review has been declared dead many times. There are many causes due to the decline in book review writing. They can take a long time to write, and scientists get little in return. None of this is big news. Complains about the deplorable state of the book reviews are as old as the form itself. However, the environment persists. Academics still value book reviews—why?
(79%) of our authors said that book reviews, especially in journals, are their main way to keep up to date with new research in their field.
To learn more about how scholars from different disciplines view book reviews, De Gruyter’s team of analysts conducted a survey. Interviews, conducted mainly among authors in the humanities and social sciences, showed that academic book reviews are still highly valued and play an important role in scientific communications.
In fact, four out of every five (79%) of our authors say that book reviews, especially in journals, are their main way to keep up to date with new research in their field. Not only are book reviews an important source of information, they are still highly valued. The survey also showed that 74% of our humanities authors judge the success of their book based on how widely it received reviews.
There is no doubt that academic book reviews play a vital role in scientific communication, but there are plenty of problems. Several editors of our own journals have told us that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find scientists willing to spend their time writing reviews. As middle-aged academics’ time constraints contend with a mountain of teaching, administrative duties and publishing goals – who can blame them?
it is becoming increasingly difficult to find scientists willing to spend their time writing reviews.
This means that the burden of writing reviews is increasingly falling on those who are either in the early or late stages of their careers. Although we are grateful to those scientists who write reviews for us, the number of people willing to do so is declining. We need to be realistic about where writing a book review ranks on the busy scientist’s list of priorities.
Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there. The precarious position of peer review in the science communications ecosystem could be further exacerbated by the inevitable shift to open access (OD), or at least its most widely adopted version.
To explain this point, let’s go back to the original purpose of open access. The purpose of open access is to make research available for free reading. All is well, but the publishing costs have to be paid by someone. In the most common open access model, the author pays for publication through an article processing fee (APC). This is sometimes referred to as the “pay-to-publish” model.
While APC seems sound in theory, it only works if the researcher can secure funding for their research in advance. Since science disciplines receive the majority of grant funding, this traditional approach works well for them. However, because humanities scholars receive much less funding—or none at all for some types of content—the APC model can pose a serious threat to the sustainability of book reviews, as well as many other types of academic content.
Non-research content such as book reviews, commentaries, interviews, and letters are often excluded from funding in transformational deals.
Unlike many STEM journals, the types of humanities and social science journals we publish contain a variety of content. Some of it will be original research—and therefore more likely to be funded—but many will not. Non-research content such as book reviews, commentaries, interviews, and letters are often excluded from funding in transformational deals. Book reviews are the most important in this category of non-research articles—in fact, they make up about 40% of all of our articles in the humanities.
As a publisher primarily focused on the humanities and social sciences, we believe that the OA funding model, which is designed to publish well-funded original research, does not work for authors in the humanities and does not apply to publications in the humanities. The lack of attention to funding formats such as book reviews, which can be just as important in advancing scientific debate in the humanities and social sciences as original research articles, clarifies this point.
And if not an armored personnel carrier, then what? We have thought long and hard about what alternative model could be used in the humanities and social sciences to support non-funded scientific content formats such as book reviews, and one solution is clear. This is the model we’ve been testing since 2021, and which we’ve successfully used to convert journals to open access: Subscription to Discover (S2O).
Under S2O, a journal is converted to open access each year when a sufficient number of subscribers in institutions and libraries continue to support the journal as it has done in the past. Thus, the transformation of the journal into open access is actually carried out by “crowdfunding” of existing subscribers, while the author does not have to cover the costs.
It’s important to note that this means that the entire magazine is funded, maintained and made sustainable – book reviews and all. In May of this year, our S2O pilot project has been successfully expanded to include 16 journals. This allows more than 600 articles to be placed directly in the open access, corresponding to about ten percent of De Gruyter’s total annual open access output. For some of these journals, book reviews are an important part of their editorial content. One magazine which we recently moved to open access via S2O, consists exclusively of book reviews.
Kill or heal?
We believe that the S2O model is more suitable for publications in the humanities and social sciences because it does not require publication fees for the author and its focus is on making entire journals financially sustainable – and this last point is especially important in this context because it allows formats such as book review to survive.
As a publisher, we know the value of book reviews to scholars, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and we will continue to do our best to keep them alive. One way to do this is to continue experimenting with alternative, inclusive and fair paths to the future of OA, one of which is S2O.
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