Bringing Scholarly Book Review into the Digital Age: The American Anthropological Association Initiative

American Anthropological AssociationBetter, faster, stronger. Whether Superman or Daft Punk, the motto works. But until now, these words didn’t apply to how academic books got reviewed. The American Anthropological Association (AAA), with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and prominent university presses, looks to change that. The AAA is launching a digital book review platform to make reviews more accessible, appear more quickly, and have greater impact.

The press release, American Anthropological Association Pioneers Digital Book Review Process, highlights the benefits:

Using the current print-centric process, only a small fraction of books mailed out by presses results in a published book review. And even among these published reviews, they often appear at least one year – and sometimes up to four years – after a book’s publication. By using a completely digital workflow, the AAA will provide book authors with a wider audience and an opportunity for social engagement, as well as reducing costs for scholarly presses and the journals featuring reviews.

Or in the more succinct words of Oona Schmid, director of publishing for the American Anthropological Association: “The new platform will reduce editorial turn-around time and expense, increase readership, and introduce dynamic content.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has provided a 12 month, $80,000 grant to underwrite the creation of the digital book review platform. Josh Greenberg, Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Scholarly Communication program, says the Foundation is honored to support this AAA initiative. “Using digital information technology to improve the book review process is a potential game changer for academic publishing. It’s better for authors. It’s better for reviewers. It’s better for publishers. And most of all, it’s better for science, because it encourages and supports the debate, discussion, and evaluation that is the cornerstone of good scholarship.”

The AAA book review platform will utilize Open Journal Systems software, created by the multi-university Public Knowledge Project initiative. Open Journal Systems provides open-source management and publishing to effectively manage both workflow and dissemination. Using the platform, publishers can provide both digital versions of the book and upload metadata about the new title. Journal editors can then identify reviewers, who will access the e-book and any accompanying material through the AAA-managed system. When reviews are done, the reviewer uploads it, where editors can then do any additional overview. The book review will then get published online through the Anthropology News website.

Oona Schmid is excited about how the AAA is working with Open Journal Systems. “I am especially pleased that we could work with OJS, which provide a system that any journal could use. Their website indicates 24,000 journals have installed OJS. For many social sciences and humanities, books are still an incredibly important part of scholarly information. This system could conceivably help any journal that has book reviews.”

As of today, eleven presses have already signed up. The University of Chicago Press, University of Nebraska Press, University of New Mexico Press, University Press of Colorado and the University Press of Florida committed early to support the platform when it launches as a prototype later this year. Another six scholarly presses will also join the AAA initiative: Columbia University Press, Duke University Press, Rowman & Littlefield, Rutgers University Press, the University of California Press, and the University of Toronto Press. More are invited to join.

Darrin Pratt, Director at the University Press of Colorado, is ready to embrace this “radically new workflow for scholarly book reviews.” Pratt says that “the slow turnaround for book reviews in academic journal is maddening for university presses.”

In the Chronicle of Higher Education piece on the AAA book review platform, Pratt highlights that the platform will be compatible with ONIX, the bibliographic and metadata standard used in the book industry, permitting publishers to provide more than just the electronic text to reviewers. He then goes further:

Mr. Pratt calls the association’s experiment important. About a quarter of the books Colorado publishes fall into the broad categories of anthropology and archaeology; it’s typical for them to be reviewed about two years after they come out. Where that lag time “really has an impact in the scholarly ecosystem is on the movement of the whole tenure/promotion/credentialing process,” Mr. Pratt says. “For authors it’s very important to get reviews and to get them quickly,” and that impact carries over to the press.

Ed Liebow, the AAA’s Executive Director, highlights significant benefits for both presses and reviewers from this new process. “The presses will feed the titles (and accompanying meta-data) into the open source editorial workflow, and mail out the published book as a thank-you to the reviewers who actually complete the review. This increases the chances that a well-crafted review will be ready at or close to the time the book itself appears in print.”

Hopefully that will lead to increased purchases for scholarly presses. Liebow says, “Our university press counterparts tell us that an extra couple of dozen sales often make all the difference about whether a title covers its editorial and production costs. Getting the word out sooner about good books is a genuine service to these smaller presses, whose sustainability is in everyone’s interest.”

Together, Schmid and Liebow emphasize the feedback effect that this can have on anthropologists and their work. “The healthier the sales in the anthropology lists at university presses, the easier it will be for our members to get books signed. So we think it is important to emphasize that not only is this an improvement to a system that is out of date, it’s about supporting our members and the discipline.”

AAA Book Review Platform: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

There is also a harder part to the new book review process, to echo the complete lyrics of Daft Punk’s song. While the digital infrastructure will solve many problems in terms of access, management, and publication, the reviews still need to be written, edited, and disseminated.

Michael Chibnik is editor of The American Anthropologist, the AAAs leading journal, and supports the AAA book review initiative. Based on his experiences getting book reviews published, he knows that there are issues that will need to be solved as the platform moves ahead. “Expediting the process on the front end is important, but some of the major reasons for delays in book reviews are at the back end — deciding which books to review, finding reviewers, giving reviewers time to read the book and write the review, prodding late reviewers (some who never turn in the review), and editing the review once it is turned in.”

Schmid also notes that there have been questions raised about whether scholars will review works that are in electronic versions, compared to hard copies, and whether review of early electronic versions (such as uncorrected proofs) will mean that errors caught in the proofing process become part of the review content. The AAA hopes that building the prototype offers the chance to work out the wrinkles. “We will assess next year to see how it’s going and whether there are improvements that can be made.”

The AAA has a total of eighteen journals that publish book reviews. That’s a lot of cooks. Managing different editors, and streamlining the whole process, will require not just a digital platform but also managerial guidance. The AAA has handled that with another digital initiative, the collaboration with the Huffington Post to publish timely content from many different anthropologists. A similar approach is in place for the review platform: collaboration with a strong digital partner, work done by many individuals to produce and publish content, and guidance and support from the association.

The final piece is publication through Anthropology News. Inclusion of book reviews represents a significant expansion of what AnthroNews does, with accompanying questions of site management and the handling of dissemination. These considerations go beyond the creation of a new digital work platform. Gathering the reviews in one place is just the start to improving how book reviews can help create greater interest in book-length scholarship.

AAA Book Review Platform Logistics: “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”

AAA Book Review Platform – Some Thoughts

Personally I am excited to see this AAA book review initiative. I called for something quite similar two years ago when writing about the AAA, open access, and digital publishing.

I propose we combine all book reviews done across the AAA journals into one digital platform – AAA Book Reviews. That has a nice ring to it.

There are many advantages to this move to one consolidated platform for book reviews:

-AAA Book Review will increase interaction across the discipline and across sections by having all book reviews accessible in one spot.
-At present book reviews are wasted space in expensive print journals. They barely count for tenure and promotion; the extra space could be dedicated to getting more research into our journals and/or simply eliminated, to cut costs.
-There is already a precedent. Ethos, the journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, only publishes its book reviews online.
-The AAA Book Review will greatly increase the accessibility of these book reviews, since they won’t be behind a pay wall and search engines like Google will now include the reviews in their results.
-There is the potential for revenue from such an arrangement, for example, by having a deal with Amazon where a percentages of purchases that come through the site are given back to the organization or including some modest advertising as part of the overall website.
-They will increase sales of our books. Who goes from a printed book review directly to a purchase? Online, such sales will only be a click away.
-The steady stream of content – 411 reviews in 2010 – present a good model for online platforms, where frequent updates generate greater traffic (and thus greater weight from search engines) while the entire site is easily archived and is accessible through a variety of means, from category and word searches to month-by-month review.

AAA Book Reviews will bring a vibrant new platform to the Association, and permit the Association and relevant editors and reviewers to gain experience with what building and running a platform is like. It will also foster experimentation with an open access model that could become the basis for more ambitious undertakings, such as moving an entire journal to open access. Finally, it will get us to read each other’s work more, and let the public have access to these wonderful books and all our ideas about them.

This proposal came out of my earlier call to recognize the importance of digital platforms for scholarship. It is particularly exciting to me to see the AAA embrace this approach. Crucially, they are taking care of one of the hardest parts – doing the serious work to cover the technical details and necessary collaborations to create such a platform. It is a project that will benefit so many anthropologists, and bodes well for future initiatives related to AAA publishing.

I want to stress one point in closing. Peer-reviewed articles and journals have created a rich digital ecosystem. They have powerful dissemination systems, from for-profit publishers to Google Scholar and PubMed. They provide important metrics to gauge the impact of research. Together, university libraries and open-access publishers provide a tremendous amount of access to research.

Scholarly books still have some way to go in comparison. Creating greater access to the incredible scholarship locked up in books and to the scholars who write them is vital. Digital platforms like the AAA’s new book review initiative are an important step in that direction. But it’s not a full ecosystem. Platforms and collaborations do provide the foundation. Optimizing material for search, utilizing multiple forms of media, creating access to particular chapters as well as the whole work, addressing issues of cost, and working on publicizing alongside publishing will all be parts of creating a richer ecosystem for the scholarship embedded in books.

So some thoughts along those lines. The journal Cultural Anthropology has driven forward innovation on the peer-reviewed journal side of the discipline, including becoming fully open-access recently. The journal took an early lead in providing additional content and media alongside text-based articles, and made that material accessible online. This same approach should yield benefits for books.

For example, including internet links and multimedia in the book production, review, and dissemination process is one way to match what journals are already doing. On the author side, I could see links to websites and supporting scholarship, as well as interviews, images and videos related to research. On the editorial side, editor picks and interviews with authors are often used to highlight important material. And on the review and dissemination side, I could see a discussion of the book’s content between reviewer and author, whether sparks or praise, as a potential vehicle.

For examples, two sites engaged in scholarly book review online are Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews and the Brain Science Podcast. They do different things, but both add something to the review process. In the end, for me one key thing will be to develop ways for authors and reviewers to add something to the overall process. That will help in generating a more robust ecosystem.

Finally, I wonder how book reviews might get further disseminated. Reviews of prominent books could get featured on the Huffington Post page, on university press websites, on Amazon, and elsewhere. Once the material is created, repurposing can extend its reach online. I also wonder whether Anthropology News will become Anthropology News and Reviews, a site that reports news and provides reviews of all sorts.

In any case, the American Anthropological Association has done good with getting this latest initiative started, and I look forward to how anthropologists, scholarly presses, and the AAA bring the digital book review platform to full fruition.

Further Reading

American Anthropological Association Press Release – American Anthropological Association Pioneers Digital Book Review Process

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anthropology Group Will Test a Faster, Digital Approach to Book Reviews

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