Careers: Writing book reviews for publication credit

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A graduate student in our Ph.D. program recently asked me about writing book reviews for academic journals. She didn't have any publications in her C.V. and thought it might be an easy way to remedy the situation. She had a couple of books she wanted to review and wondered which journals might be responsive. My first response was that most academic journals do not accept solicitations to review particular books. They have a dedicated book review editor whose job is to parcel out books to external reviewers. There's slightly more to the story as well.

Journal book review editors don't take solicitations to review particular books partly because of the concern of bias. There might be a problem of perception if an academic reads a book and decides that he or she likes or hates the book so much that they have to let the rest of the world know. It's best to instead reverse the process and farm the books out to interested but disinterested reviewers, so to speak.

Journal book reviewers rarely solicit graduate students to write reviews. There are at least four good reasons for this:

  1. Book reviews are usually the most read section of any journal. Why risk a potentially poorly written review by an unknown grad student versus one written by a well-known faculty member? Especially if the contents are inflammatory?
  2. Grad students can be unreliable. Not that faculty are any better, but journal editors expect book reviews to come in more or less in time since they are a fixed segment of the journal.
  3. It's easy to be critical when you haven't done it yourself. Like giving birth to a child, writing a book is singularly difficult and transformative. How can someone who hasn't even finished their dissertation know how hard it is to make sure you've talked to equal numbers of men and women or included a discussion about the latest theoretical rage to hit the academic blog networks? Grad students are trained to be scathingly critical of texts. This is a good thing. But finishing your dissertation and then trying to push it out as a book makes you aware of your own limitations, and hopefully makes you a bit more humble and gentle towards others.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, graduate students are structurally weak. If they write a book damning the work of Prof. XYZ, incurring his wrath, would the journal be liable for the results? If they write a book fawning over Prof. ABC's latest book, are they merely sucking up to her in the hopes she'll reciprocate? Even if graduate students aren't thinking nefariously about the ramifications of what they are writing, perhaps they should -- and refrain accordingly.

Even more than that, to return to the original problem of lack of publications in a C.V., book reviews are not publications in the sense of contributing to one's research record. I would consider them more in the sense of service to the academic community. And grad students shouldn't be expected to perform service until their own research is well underway.

Note: graduate journals, section newsletters, and e-mail lists often will take unsolicited book reviews. But then again, those don't really count for publication credit either. My advice would be to focus your attention on your own work and try to pump out at least a book chapter before you're finished with grad school.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on November 7, 2005 8:23 AM.

Link: Optical illusions was the previous entry in this blog.

Careers: 9 Interviews at the MLA is the next entry in this blog.

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