Philosophy Journals’ Book Review Policies and Practices


A recent discussion on social media of a book in metaethics, self-published five years ago and authored by someone who had left academia, prompted  questions about whether a review of the book would ever appear in an academic philosophy journal.

[Louise Bourgeois, plate 4 from The Puritan]

Alex Guerrero (Rutgers) suggested a post on journal policies and practices regarding book reviews, and I’d like to invite book review editors at philosophy journals to share theirs. Here are some questions I’d hope they’d consider answering:

  1. How do you decide which books to solicit reviews of?
  2. Do you ever accept review proposals from prospective reviewers?
  3. How recently must a book have been published to be considered for a review?
  4. Would you ever publish a review of a self-published book?
  5. What general restrictions, if any, are there on selecting books for review at your journal?
  6. To what extent are review decisions a function of publisher behavior (emailing you about books, proactively sending the journal review copies)?

Readers are welcome to suggest additional questions. Editors, please take a moment to respond. Thanks.

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Ian Olasov
1 month ago

I’d add that it would help if journals reviewed more public philosophy books – it would help get the word out, help subject public philosophy work to (productive, I hope) critical scrutiny, and would likely help us teach, since many of us use works of public philosophy in the classroom. Not gonna lie, though – I only realized this was a problem when it affected me personally (since my own public philosophy book wasn’t widely reviewed, and I would have liked it to be). Oh, and philosophers interested in promoting their books should check out the Philosophy Books FB group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1039085883266432/?ref=share).Report

Matt McAdam
1 month ago

As a general practice, publishers send copies of their books to relevant scholarly journals (usually those suggested by the author) for consideration for review. Journals don’t seek out or request books from publishers (at least, not usually). So one reason a self-published book might not get a review in a journal might be that the author doesn’t know to send out copies like this.Report

Johanna Thoma
1 month ago

I am book reviews editor at Economics and Philosophy. To your questions:

  1. How do you decide which books to solicit reviews of? I try to solicit reviews of books that are likely of interest to our specific interdisciplinary audience, and that I think will make for interesting reviews (So I, e.g., have a preference of monographs over handbooks). Often I am aware of books in the making that people in the community are already anticipating with interest. I also go through publisher listings of upcoming books regularly.
  2. Do you ever accept review proposals from prospective reviewers? Yes.
  3. How recently must a book have been published to be considered for a review? Generally within one, or at most two years. But I usually try to solicit a reviewer before the book is published, so they can get the book as soon as it’s out.
  4. Would you ever publish a review of a self-published book? I would not rule it out, but I’d have to have pretty good evidence it is of high quality. Short of reading the book (which I usually would not have time for before soliciting a review) I am just less likely to have that evidence for a self-published book. And I would probably not be aware of the book unless the author got in touch.
  5. What general restrictions, if any, are there on selecting books for review at your journal? None.
  6. To what extent are review decisions a function of publisher behavior (emailing you about books, proactively sending the journal review copies)? Not at all. The publishers don’t have a good enough understanding of what would be of interest to the specialist audience of the journal. Authors getting in touch is more likely to make a difference. Publishers are more often a hindrance in that most are not great at reliably responding to requests for review copies.

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Johanna Thoma
Reply to  Johanna Thoma
1 month ago

Just read the original discussion on FB. If a potential reviewer made a convincing case that a self-published book published 5 years ago really warrants a review and fell through the cracks undeservedly at the time I would definitely consider it. It’s just that I aim for a quick turnaround as the ideal case.Report

Billy Dunaway
1 month ago

ETHICS is an “An International Journal of Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy” and so any books in ethics, plus social, political, or legal philosophy are in principle something we would review. My predecessor Mark van Roojen had the policy of construing “ethics” very broadly and I have continued the practice.

The stated policy is that ETHICS does not accept self-nominations to review a particular book. (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/journals/et/instruct) (Perhaps I should add that I also follow the policy, though I am happy to learn who is in general interested in writing a review, and in what areas.) We can’t review everything, and so usually purusue reviews will be interesting and fruitful for the typical reader of ETHICS to read. That depends on a number of things including the book up for review and the candidate reviewers (who moreover need to be convinced to write the review). New translations and edited volumes are, even when they are high quality and squarely within the sub-areas ETHICS focuses on, not usually the kinds of books that make for good subjects of a review. Self-published and less recent books make it more difficult to find suitable and willing reviewers.

It used to be that all major publishers sent relevant books to my office, which could then be mailed out once a reviewer agreed to review the book. Over the past year, some continue to mail books, but others have moved to emails, which provide helpful information about the contents of the books to various degrees. In general publishers are keen to mail their books to authors who have agreed to write a review for ETHICS but for example OUP is now resisting doing even that, having already suggested that they will only provide e-copies. As far as I know they have come through with a hard copy each time we have asked for one, but my sense is that reviewers will be much more hesitant to agree to review if we can’t secure a hard copy for them.Report

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Billy Dunaway
1 month ago

FWIW, when I was editing Ethics book reviews, an unwillingness to send physical copies to reviewers increased the workload on getting a book reviewed. And given that both editors and reviewers are unpaid volunteers, increased workloads meant decreased likelihoods of getting a book reviewed. Many reviewers like to mark up physical copies as they prepare to write reviews, so being willing to send a hard copy matters. (Some presses sent links to e-copies that would expire before realistic timelines would actually get a review written and were thus less likely to get their books reviewed.) I occasionally paid for a physical copy (with my own money) to go to a referee so that we could get a good reviewer of a book I thought we should review. If presses care about reviews it would be in their interest to make it easier – not harder -to get copies in the hands of reviewers.

(Background fact: Most BR editors get only a decent but not stellar percentage of the promised BR reviews actually submitted. Make it more difficult for reviewers to review and less attractive for potential referees to review and you will get fewer such reviews in journals.)

I’m unhappy to hear OUP is being difficult, as in my day they were the best of all the presses about sending us copies to forward to reviewers. Maybe publishers don’t care about book reviews. But if they do care, they should be aware that much of our infrastructure runs on volunteer labor by people who don’t get paid for their work. Making their lives harder is not a good strategy for getting book reviews of the books one publishes.Report

toro
toro
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
1 month ago

I can’t be the only one for whom getting free books is the main and nearly only motivation for writing reviews. The library probably has an e-copy already, so if that’s all I’m getting for my work why bother? My employer doesn’t care how many book reviews I publish, so I’m not remunerated that way.Report

Evan
1 month ago

I have several questions pertaining to the content of a review:

1. By what criteria does one use to review a book?
2. Are these criteria reliable? If so, how so?
3. How much space is and should be spent summarizing and evaluating the book?
4. What counts as interesting? And why?
5. Should there be some kind of overall score a reviewer gives a book? Why or why not?
6. Should reviewers tell readers whether or not the book is worth the money, given the financial limitations of scholars? Why or why not?Report

K. Brad Wray
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

Evan
I am not quite sure what all of your questions are getting at, but let me give some insight. I am an editor for a journal that publishes book reviews (Metascience), and I have written many book reviews (20 or 30), some of which have been excerpted on the backs of paperback editions of the books by the publisher. As a book review editor, I have read about 350 book reviews. I also read book reviews to keep abreast of developments in my area.
First, a book review should be about the BOOK, not about the person writing the review. So discuss features of the book. It helps to (i) situate the book in the larger literature. “This is a contribution to the ongoing debate on collective agency which gained momentum after the publication of Gilbert’s Social Facts”, for example. It helps to discuss (ii) the basic structure of the book, and (iii) the key argument. “In the first four chapters, the author provides a historical overview of the problem”.
Second, it helps to provide some sort of assessment of the book, including identifying its audience. Keep in mind who your audience is. Your audience is other potential readers, and those who may order books for university libraries. Hence, something like this helps: “this is essential reading for those working on the problem of evil”; or “this is a useful book for advanced undergraduates who want understand the contemporary realism/anti-realism debate in philosophy of science”; OR “the book purports to be for scholars and advanced graduate students, but it presupposes so much that it would be …”
Third, you should mention problematic features that are a genuine impediment. “Though the structure of the argument is interesting, there was little care taken in production, as there are typographical errors on every fourth page” OR “The book is so expensive that it is doubtful that many scholars who would benefit from it will be able to afford to buy it”.
Fourth, I always find it is useful to offer something of a personal perspective, without making this the bulk of the review. For example: “I especially enjoyed the author’s rigorous analysis of …, as this helped me understand …”
A general tip: be respectful. A book is, in many cases, the culmination of a colleague’s research career. Treat it as such. Still, you can be critical, but do it in a respectful manner.Report

Evan
Reply to  K. Brad Wray
1 month ago

I guess what I’m trying to ask is:

What makes an academic book worthwhile to an audience of intellectuals (both specialist and non-specialists)?

I watch and read a lot of product reviews. I’m wondering what makes academic book reviews different and similar. All of the product reviewers that I watch and read use certain criteria. Camera lens reviewers will have their own criteria and the horological community will have their own criteria and so on.Report

CraigAgule
Reply to  Evan
1 month ago

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Last edited 1 month ago by CraigAgule
K. Brad Wray
1 month ago

I am one of the two editors for the journal Metascience. Metascience publishes only book reviews, book notes and symposia – we do not publish articles. There are about 35.000 downloads from our site each year. We publish reviews on books in the sociology, history, and philosophy of science. The journal is published on-line and in print. There are three issues a year, with about 40 pieces in each issue.
In answering the questions, I speak only for myself, not my co-editor.

  1. I look for books that would be of interest to our readers, and for which I can expect to find a reviewer. There are some areas where I have discovered it is easier to find reviewers, for example, philosophy of space (not an area that I work in).
  2. We do accept proposals for reviews from people. In fact, we welcome them. BUT we do keep an eye out for conflicts of interest. You should not ask to review your supervisor’s book, your student’s book, or a colleague’s book. (Yes, people have done this). Further, please check the website – do not ask to review a book that has already been reviewed. If young scholars want to review a book, then make it easy for me to find your e-mail address on the web. If I have to spend time search, at one point I give up, and move on to the next task.
  3. We would prefer to review books published in the last two years. In fact, we try to commission a review as soon as the book is in print. (Imagine a book is published three years ago, and the reviewer is given six months, but it takes them 1.5 years – well, now the book is 4.5 years old)
  4. I would not review a self-published book. In self-publishing one is deciding to take another path … a path outside of peer review. If that is what you want, do it. But I need to have some good reason to believe I am not wasting a colleague’s time asking them to read a unreviewed posting on the web (that is, a self-published book). Further, I cannot spend a lot of time looking for a reviewer for each book – I am responsible for about 60 reviews a year. This takes time. I have a regular faculty job to do! Reviewers seem keen to review a book from the big University Presses, far less keen to review a book from an obscure publisher. If I have to ask 6 people, and I still have not found a reviewer, I have wasted a lot of time. It suggests that there is little interest in the book.
  5. The book must be in sociology, history or philosophy of science, broadly understood. Please see out journal site, you will see the range of books we have had reviewed. We have reviewed some books geared to a popular audience. We have even reviewed textbooks. We are interested in keeping those involved in our interdisciplinary area up to date on what has been published.
  6. Sometimes publishers reach out to us, and in doing so, they draw our attention to a book we may have initially missed, and we will review it. Similarly, we have encouraged book authors to contact us about their new books. I cannot keep up with all new books. I do have my methods of finding what has been published, but we miss things. So do reach out to us. BUT even when publishers do alert us to a book, there is no guarantee that we will review, and we tell publishers that.

Please contact me if you have any questions, or a new book in print, or would like to write a review.Report

Malcolm Keating
1 month ago

I am book review editor for South Asian philosophy at Philosophy East & West (https://uhpress.hawaii.edu/title/pew/) There are four other editors; the below may not reflect their approaches.

  1. I look for books that would interest our readers and which reflect a range of topics and methodologies within philosophy. I try to solicit reviews for books from publishers with reputations for publishing excellent work, and I do keep an eye on the kinds of authors represented by our reviews–so as to push against imbalances in gender, nationality/ethnicity, etc.
  2. Yes, although I do my due diligence in checking about relationships between reviewers and the authors as well as the reviewer’s scholarly credentials, etc. (I do this for reviews I solicit, too.)
  3. Typically I am looking at one to two years (at most) prior, and I also look at forthcoming lists from publishers.
  4. Potentially, though I would need to know more about why the book was self-published rather than going through the usual vetting process of publishing. I’d certainly look at the author’s credentials and prior publishing record. I also prefer potential reviewers contact me rather than sending a completed review, as it allows me to discuss with them how we want our reviews to be written.
  5. I’m not aware of any restrictions apart from fit for the journal.
  6. Publishers send me emails and also send review copies to the journal, but this has no impact on my decisions to review–it’s just a way to ensure I’m aware of what’s published (usually I already know through my own research).

Potential reviewers and recent authors are welcome to contact me ([email protected])Report

Sarah
Sarah
Reply to  Malcolm Keating
1 month ago

I am the Chinese philosophy book review editor for PEW, and I would agree with what Malcolm has put here. I’d also add that what presses send me does have a great deal to do with what we review, as it is hard to find a reviewer without a hardcopy text to offer as incentive. Authors very rarely reach out to me, but I would be open to that. Potential reviewers and recent authors are welcome to contact me ([email protected]).Report

Beth
1 month ago

Answers on behalf of the BJPS…

•    How do you decide which books to solicit reviews of?

The question driving our decisions on this (and much else) is: what does our audience want to read about? Would an academic philosopher of science want to know about this book?

In practical terms: Three editors discuss whether a book looks to be worth reviewing (usually it takes only one of us to think it’s worth reviewing for us to proceed). 

•    Do you ever accept review proposals from prospective reviewers?

We accept proposals (but please don’t sent full reviews!)

•    How recently must a book have been published to be considered for a review?

In the previous two years (so as of now, nothing before 2019)

•    Would you ever publish a review of a self-published book?

Not impossible, but also not likely. Knowing that the book hasn’t undergone any form of peer review, we’d probably want a good deal more info than normal about the book, or perhaps some serious endorsement from an independent expert.

•     What general restrictions, if any, are there on selecting books for review at your journal?

We cover introductory texts, textbooks, etc. only if they do something else that makes them noteworthy (e.g. ‘opinionated’ introductions that add to the conversation and not merely report on it).

•    To what extent are review decisions a function of publisher behavior (emailing you about books, proactively sending the journal review copies)?

If the publisher won’t send print copies (on request is fine), we won’t review their list. As others have noted, finding willing reviewers is really hard—never more so than now—and people are even less likely to agree to review a book without the promise of the print copy. As others have said, our method for finding books to review is a combination of keeping an eye on emails from publishers and an ear to the philosophy grapevine.

I try to find books before they’ve been published, in order to get a reviewer on board and the review published as soon as possible after the book’s publication (but results so far are mixed!). Publishers often list on their websites books in press, but send out emails only once the books have been published—early warnings for review editors would be a welcome development!

Two other factors at play in the books we review: We agree on a list of relevant experts to invite, but we give up after 4-6 invites and no success. Also, it’s not unknown for people to agree to review a book and then not deliver the review.Report

Måns Abrahamson
1 month ago

I’m an editor at the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics. All editors at the journal are involved with soliciting and handling our book reviews.

  1. How do you decide which books to solicit reviews of? – Our decision is primarily based on what we expect to be of interest to our readers. Within that domain, the books we tend to solicit reviews of are recent and upcoming books that caught the interest of individual editors, based on their interests and profiles.
  2. Do you ever accept review proposals from prospective reviewers? Yes! Very much so. We especially encourage junior scholars (and, particularly, graduate students) to reach out to us with review proposals of recently published books on the topic of philosophy and economics.
  3. How recently must a book have been published to be considered for a review? – As a rule of thumb, we publish reviews of books that have been published within the last two years.
  4. Would you ever publish a review of a self-published book? – Like some of the other journals that have replied here, we wouldn’t rule it out a priori, but we would need to do more due diligence at the editorial stage before soliciting a reviewer. (And we would indeed be less likely to hear about the book.)
  5. What general restrictions, if any, are there on selecting books for review at your journal? – Generally none, beyond that the books should be relatively recently published and of interest to our readers (so, philosophy and economics, broadly construed). We do tend to generally not review collected volumes and essays, although there have been exceptions and we are open to straying from this rule if the volume is important or if there is a willing reviewer with an interesting perspective.
  6. To what extent are review decisions a function of publisher behavior (emailing you about books, proactively sending the journal review copies)? – Electronic ads from publishers are not very helpful in identifying potential titles for review. But the journal does rely on publishers for review copies (and the recent switch to electronic books has been frustrating for us as well).

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Daniil M. Ozernyi
28 days ago

A linguist, but I’d like to chime in. I recently wrote a book review for Applied Linguistics, and the review editor shared this great piece on what they are looking for in book reviews and what the role of book reviews appears to be in modern academia. The points are easily and profitably generalizable beyond linguistics. The link above is to the pre-print, doi here.Report