Instructions for Book Review Authors
A Strategy for Reviewing Books for Journals1
Reprinted with permission from BIOSCIENCE 41:635-637, Oct 1991
"I'm a scientist, not a literary critic," many a biologist may silently protest when asked to review a book for a journal. "How can I be expected to produce a high-quality review?"
How? By drawing on skills and approaches you use as a scientist. Though a literary flair can enliven a review, book-reviewing for scientific journals is not a literary feat. Rather, it entails asking apt questions, gathering information to answer them, and presenting the findings and conclusions clearly - in short, the sorts of things that biologists do every day.
Deciding whether to review the book
Book reviewing is a valuable service, but you can serve readers, authors, publishers, and the journal best by choosing assignments carefully. You and the book must be well matched, the book must be worth reviewing, and you must be able to complete the review on time.
Finding appropriate reviewers often involves successive approximations. Especially if their journals span many areas, book review editors can lack adequate information to identify the most suitable reviewers. Thus, when contacted about writing a review, consider whether you and the book are indeed an appropriate match. Are you sufficiently versed in the subject matter? If so, are you free of potential conflicts of interest? (Such conflicts may exist, for example, if have you written a competing book, if the author was your mentor or student, or if you are preparing a volume for the same series.) If you conclude that you are not a suitable reviewer, suggest other candidates if you can.
Also consider whether the book is indeed worth reviewing. Editors generally try to assign for review only those books of sufficient quality and importance to justify using limited space in a journal. If at any point you feel that the book may not deserve review, contact the book review editor. Even a seriously flawed book can be worth reviewing if it also has substantial merits, or if it is being heavily promoted and thus its limitations should be made known. Sometimes, however, a book merely should retain the obscurity it deserves.
Finally, consider whether you have (or will make) time to prepare the review. By their nature, book re- views, especially in the sciences, should be timely.
And submitting reviews late disrupts the planning of the journal. If you doubt you could meet the deadline, refuse the invitation and suggest other reviewers.
Keep in mind the possibility of proposing a co- reviewer. If, for example, a book is interdisciplinary, collaborating with an expert in another relevant field can yield a stronger review. For some books, coauthoring a review with a colleague whose orientation is more theoretical or more applied than yours also can be of value. When reviewing a textbook, involving a student can add helpful perspective, as well as give the student some useful experience and an initial publication credit.
What about suggesting books for review or volunteering to be a reviewer? Book review editors tend to appreciate such initiatives. Calling their attention to little-publicized but valuable new books can be especially useful. And anything that helps editors expand their pools of qualified, willing, reliable reviewers is likely to be welcome - and to serve the journal's readers.
Identifying questions to ask
Although little information apparently exists about how journal readers actually use book reviews - or even about the extent to which they read them - book reviews have certain recognized functions. A main function, of course, is to acquaint readers with worthwhile books and to inform the readers of those books' strengths and limitations. Another function, especially for reviews in journals of wide scope, is to broaden readers' familiarity with their own and related fields; through reviews that place books in context and convey some of their content, readers can learn indirectly from books. Also, reviewers can help teach readers what characterizes a good book, which in turn can aid them in tasks such as evaluating books for courses and writing books of their own.
To serve these functions, a review should both describe and evaluate a book. Among questions that many reviewers should address, and thus that reviewers should keep in mind, are the following:
* What is the purpose of the book? According to the authors or editors, what does the book aim to do? How worthwhile is this goal? How well does the book accomplish it?
* From what context did the book emerge? For example, does the book reflect the development of a new field? Is it on a controversial topic? Is it based on a symposium? Is it a sequel or part of a set?
* Who wrote or edited the book? What are the qualifications and affiliations of the authors or editors? What are their previous accomplishments? If pertinent, to what school of thought do the authors or editors subscribe?
* Of what does the book consist? What is the scope of the content? How is the content organized? Does the format have any special features? What main points does the book make? What are some noteworthy things it says?
* What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book? How accurate and complete is the information? How sound are any central arguments? Does the book make a substantial new contribution? How readable, and otherwise how skillful is the writing? If the book includes features such as illustrations, a glossary, or an index, of what quality are they? If it lacks such features, is their absence a problem? How well designed and produced is the book? If, for example, the book is a field guide or laboratory manual, does its form suit its function? Is the book reasonably priced?
* How does the book compare with other works? If the book is a second or later edition, how does it differ from its precursor? If it is a textbook, how does it compare with the competition? If the author has written earlier books, how does this one stack up?
* Who would find this book of interest and use? Would the book be of value to specialists in the field? Is it suited for students at given levels? Would it interest policy makers or segments of the public?
By addressing questions such as these, you can prepare a review that fulfills its functions well.
Gathering the Information
During my first stint as a book review editor, I approached a favorite former professor about reviewing a book in his field. "Does this mean," he asked, "that I should read the book?" At the time, I felt amazed at his naivete. But now I realize that I may have been the naive one - for although answering questions such as those above usually requires reading the book thoroughly, sometimes the task requires less or more.
Generally, of course, you should read the book completely and carefully. Consider taking a sandwich approach: scan the book for an overview, then read it in detail, and then scan it again for the big picture. To aid in writing the review, take notes while you read; record, for example, possible points to make, passages to consider quoting, ideas for organizing and wording the review, and items to check for accuracy.
Sometimes reading a work from cover to cover is neither feasible nor appropriate. Rare is the reviewer who would plow through a massive reference text, an encyclopedia of science, or a scientific dictionary. Nor would doing so be valid, as such works are meant to be drawn on selectively. When reviewing such a work, determine its general characteristics and then sample the content. One approach is to sample entries totally at random. Another is to take a systematic sample; for instance, sample some entries in your own subfield (for accuracy and completeness) and in some other subfields (for usefulness to relative outsiders). And a third approach is to consult the' work as appropriate occasions arise and keep a log of the findings. Sampling also can complement traditional approaches to reviewing; for example, you can use it to gather data on recency of references or on adequacy of indexing.
Consulting materials other than the book can strengthen a review. Consider drawing on sources of historical: information, looking at competing and other related' books, and referring to previous items by and about the authors or editors. Doing so can help you more fully, accurately, and effectively show how the current book fits in.
Also, consulting other people can enhance a review. ! If the book is meant at least in part for students, show it to some of them and report their reactions. Ditto if members of the public are an intended audience. If the writing or graphic design strikes you as especially good or bad, see what a colleague in such a field has to say. Supplementing your own reading with the use of such' sources can yield a more complete and useful review.
Writing the review
Having gathered the information for the review, you are ready to write it: Or, more precisely, you are almost ready. Before starting to write, be sure to review the instructions from the book review editor. Check such items as how long the review should be, what sort of heading it should have, and whether it should be double spaced. In writing book reviews as in writing scientific, papers, following the instructions from the journal is crucial to accurate, smooth, and prompt publication.
Also, in book reviewing as in other scientific writing, looking at good models can help. BioScience sends reviewers examples of reviews that it has published. If you are reviewing for a journal that does not do so, track down some sample reviews from recent issues. Not only can such reviews illustrate suitable content and format, they also can aid in ascertaining the usual level and tone' of reviews that appear in the journal.
Before setting pen to paper (or digits to keyboard, or voice to tape), perhaps discuss the book with others. Doing so can help you formulate your ideas and come up with effective ways to express them. It can also aid in determining what readers would want to know about the book. Having discussed the book, you may find the review in essence largely written.
One question that may remain, however, is how to organize the review. Unlike scientific papers, book reviews lack a standard structure; the information can be presented in any reasonable order. This flexibility can be a plus, especially for reviewers who enjoy the craft of writing. However, lack of a format also can be a problem, delaying the writing of reviews and leading to submission of reviews that are ineffectively structures.
A solution that often works is to structure the book review much like a scientific paper. In other words, adapt the IMRAD format: introduction, methods, results and discussion. A review that is organized in this way can readily address the questions it should.
The introduction section of a book review in this format can take various approaches. One possibility is to start with historical or other background so that readers can place the book in context. Another is to begin with a capsule description and an assessment of the book - in other words, a miniature abstract of the review. A third option is to draw readers in by summarizing some of the most interesting material in the book. Often, a combination of these approaches works well.
If you evaluated the book other than by reading it from cover to cover, the review also should describe the methods used. Sometimes these methods (for instance, sampling the book's content) are most logically presented early in the review, shortly after the introduction section. In other cases, descriptions of methods fit better later in the review. For example, they may be interspersed with observations and conclusions to which their use led.
Somewhat equivalent to a results section is the description of the book. Here you should note such items as the scope, organization, and format of the book; the main arguments presented (if any); and the presence of special features. Either this section or the introduction can be a suitable place to identify the purpose of the book and provide background on the authors or editors.
In describing the book, avoid merely reciting the table of contents. Rather, try to convey the essence of the book. For example, when reviewing a conference proceedings, do not list all the titles and authors; instead, supply a brief overview and then focus on the most noteworthy contributions. The book review section of a journal should not read like Current Contents.
A review should, as previously noted, contain your assessment of the book. Often, much or all of the assessment fits most logically at the end of the review, in a portion analogous to a discussion section. Here you can state the strengths and limitations of the book, compare the book with others, and note the audience for which the book is suited. In book reviews, as in scientific papers, summarizing your main point is generally an effective way to end. Book reviews in some journals, including BioScience, can list references.
In presenting your assessment, strive for balance. A review is not an advertisement, and you owe it to readers to mention any substantial weaknesses. But the word to remember is substantial Avoid the temptation to nitpick. And though scathing reviews are often cathartic to write and amusing to read, a sarcastic tone rarely serves science (or the community of scientists). If you have criticisms that are too detailed to include but could aid in preparing future editions, consider sending them to the authors or editors of the book, either directly or through the publisher.
Like other scientific writing, book reviews should be clear and concise, without overly specialized jargon. They should contain evidence to illustrate and support their points, but they should not overburden readers with detail. Ideally, they should be interestingly written. If word play or other wit is your style, here is your chance to have some fun - and still earn at least a minor line for your curriculum vitae.
After drafting your review, set it aside. Then come back and edit it. Maybe show it to one or more colleagues; in book reviewing, as in other writing peer review can improve the product. Before submitting the review, check it for accuracy. In particular, make sure that all names are spelled correctly.
If others have published reviews of the book, should you read theirs before submitting yours? Doing so can be helpful, but doing so too early may bias your assessment. One reasonable tack is to draft your review, then scan the others for major points you may have missed, and then prepare your final version.
Last, check your review against the instructions, produce a final copy, and submit the review on time. When editors and readers compliment you on the review, think to yourself, "Of course, it's a fine review. After all, I'm a scientist."
1 Copyright 1991, American Institute of Biological Sciences
2 Department of Journalism, Texas A&M University, College Station TX