Book Reviews & the Value of Print
NBRE’s statement on publishers’ digital-only & digital-first review copy policies
A number of academic book publishers have lately adopted a policy of either refusing to provide print copies of recent titles for review in academic journals, or offering access in the first instance to an e-edition. This is often in a form that can only be accessed through cumbersome and proprietary software that is not part of most reviewers’ or editors’ regular workflows (e.g. VitalSource Bookshelf), and/or for a limited period. Eliciting a hard copy for review often requires the author’s mediation and/or numerous emails from the reviews editor, and sometimes proves impossible. As journal review editors, reviewers and readers, we feel these policies are damaging to academic culture, unfair and potentially discriminatory, and ought to be revised.
Academic book reviews ‘offer immense contributions to the reviewer, the scholarly community and the public’, and ‘it takes significant intellectual effort to do them well’. We understand that Covid-19 has disrupted the publishing industry, and celebrate the role digital delivery has played in remote learning and research over the last 18 months. The introduction of many of these policies, however, predates Covid-19. When queried, publishers have justified their digital-first or digital-only policies as part of an industry-wide shift towards digital delivery, often citing environmental considerations. But current scientific evidence regarding the environmental benefits of a switch to digital is inconclusive at best. These benefits may be outweighed by the costs associated with the extraction and use of scarce, non-renewable resources in the production of electronic devices, and the continued use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. Books usually have a longer life than electronic devices and are more easily recyclable. In any case, the publishers in question continue to sell large numbers of printed copies, against which any environmental impact of the small number of copies traditionally reserved for review purposes is very slight indeed.
We are deeply concerned about the scholarly, physical and mental impact of digital-only/digital-first review strategies. Not being able to provide reviewers with physical copies has made it increasingly difficult for journals to secure reviews. Many reviewers do not wish to read an entire monograph on a computer screen or e-reader, even if they value access to an e-edition. Many others are simply not able to do so. Some research has also indicated that on-screen reading can not only increase fatigue and stress, but also lead to inattentive reading, ‘shallow information processing and lower comprehension’. While some reviewers prefer or even require digital copies, we cannot assume that either physical or digital copies are accessible, workable or appropriate for all. This is both a practical and an ethical matter. Accessibility is a primary concern for our members when commissioning reviews and digital-only/digital-first policies represent a barrier to our pursuit of an inclusive approach. We hope that publishers and their authors will want to support an equitable reviewing culture.
Reviewers for academic journals give up their time and expertise for free as a service to the discipline, providing publishers with free publicity for the books that they review. In return we ask that publishers have the courtesy to send each reviewer a copy of the book in the format they prefer. Receiving a hard copy has traditionally been regarded as a form of compensation for the labour of reviewing. For most reviewers owning a digital file is not comparable. Reviewing also offers many postgraduate and early-career researchers an introduction to academic authorship: hard copies are often especially appreciated by these reviewers, and by scholars on the margins of the academic establishment.
Similarly, review editors often do their editorial work without remuneration and in their own time. The effort they spend on soliciting, commissioning, and promoting book reviews benefits the books’ publishers and authors. The additional time book review editors have spent on explaining ebook-only policies to potential reviewers and dealing with the frequent refusal to review under such circumstances has added significantly to their workloads and sense of frustration.
Authors too are being failed by current policies. Most academic authors make minimal financial profit from their monographs. One key expectation an author has of a publisher is that their book will be publicised. Many potential reviewers decline to review if they are expected to review from an ebook, and book review editors are tired of wrangling. Books are already missing out on reviews due to these policies. Ultimately, these policies will result in books by these publishers no longer being considered for review, disadvantaging their authors.
We recognise that a series of wider dialogues are needed (and in many cases ongoing) around review culture, academic publishing, the role of open access, the relation between electronic media and print, and the future of the academic book. We also recognise that journals and reviewers too have responsibilities, including ensuring that where copies of a book are requested and provided a review does appear, and in a reasonably timely fashion. However, there is a real danger that without some kind of immediate support from publishers we will find ourselves teetering at the edge of the end of the scholarly review. We appreciate that many presses are struggling financially, and want to do our bit to support publishers. We also appreciate that in some cases it may not be affordable for publishers to supply a review copy to every journal that requests one. However, the publishers in the vanguard of the ‘digital-first’ or ‘digital-only’ turn include large commercial ventures with high profit margins, and prestigious university presses. In some cases, these presses also publish the very academic journals whose review editors are struggling with these issues. Publishers have a responsibility to the academic community that supports them to play their part in sustaining reviewing culture.
We therefore request that publishers reconsider digital-only/digital-first review copy policies, which are against the spirit of disability equality and are at best ungrateful to the time offered by the academic community from which they directly benefit. In their place, we ask that publishers implement instead a default “reviewer’s preference” review copy policy.
We also ask that publishers
- clearly and visibly state on their websites their policy regarding review copies;
- ensure that there is a named contact for journal review editors, and that requests for review copies are responded to in a timely fashion;
- enter into dialogue with the Network of Book Review Editors (NBRE) to ensure better understanding and communication between publishers and review editors, and find solutions acceptable to all parties.
In addition, we recommend that authors
- consider publishers’ records in this regard when deciding where to publish their work;
- request that the provision of hard copies for review is written into their contracts with publishers;
- exert pressure on publishers to reconsider ‘digital-first’/‘digital-only’ review copy policies.
 Franklin Obeng-Odoom, ‘Why Write Book Reviews?’, Austrialian Universities’ Review 56:1 (2014): 81-82. <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1017964.pdf>
 Ran Liu et al, Impacts of the digital transformation on the environment and sustainability, Issue Paper under Task 3 from the “Service contract on future EU environment policy”, Öko-Institut e.V., for the E.U. (2019)<https://ec.europa.eu/environment/enveco/resource_efficiency/pdf/studies/issue_paper_digital_transformation_20191220_final.pdf>
 Pablo Delgado & Ladislao Salmerón, ‘The inattentive on-screen reading: Reading medium affects attention and reading comprehension under time pressure’, Learning and Instruction 71 (2021) <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959475220306915>
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