Glenn Branch's picture

A Word from the Book Review Editor

I really like book reviews. No, I mean, I really like book reviews. I like reading them—I subscribe to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, and I read a number of on-line book reviews regularly (my favorites are those in the International History, Philosophy, and Science Teaching Group newsletter and Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews). In part, that’s just because of practicality. I’m a voracious reader, but there are only so many hours in a day, so I have to be selective. But it’s also because I like the genre. I like writing them. So much so, indeed, that looking at my publications, I count twenty-two book reviews, plus two essays reviewing a host of books together. So it’s small wonder that I became the book review editor for Reports of the NCSE.

I’m the first person to hold the position. Before I started at NCSE, a lot of reviews came over the transom, a few were reprinted, and a few were specially commissioned, but for the most part there was no systematic effort to ensure a thorough coverage of new books relevant to NCSE’s mission. Now, however, Reports of the NCSE makes a systematic effort to arrange for reviews of books relevant to evolution, evolution education, and threats to evolution education—and, starting in 2012, of books relevant to climate science, climate education, and threats to climate education. Questions about the policies and procedures of reviews reach my desk occasionally. Herewith, then, are the book review editor’s answers to the three most frequently asked questions about book reviews.

When are you going to publish my review?

Soon, I promise! There was such a spate of publications around 2009—the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of the Origin of Species—that a backlog in the review pipeline ensued. Only now, in 2013, is it beginning to clear. At the moment, there are about thirty-three reviews awaiting publication in Reports of the NCSE; typically, six appear in each issue, so the backlog is diminished to about a year’s worth of reviews. True, now that the journal appears on-line, there’s nothing preventing the publication of reviews as soon as they’re copyedited and typeset, which is usually a swift process. But (at least from the book review editor’s perspective) publishing all the pending reviews at once would be uncomfortably like eating the seed corn.

Why haven’t you reviewed such-and-such?

Any number of possible reasons...

  1. “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance,” as Dr. Johnson said when a lady asked why his dictionary defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse.” (The knee of a horse is the fetlock; the pastern is the portion of the leg below the fetlock.) I try to keep alert to relevant books to review, diligently reading through the print and on-line catalogues that publishers send, and searching for new titles on Amazon.com periodically. But I can’t commission a review of a book about which I’m entirely ignorant!
  2. It was self-published. Self-published books are generally of low quality and generally will not have a substantial impact or a wide readership. Of course there are exceptions, but there are so many self-published books that it’s simpler to have a blanket policy of not reviewing them than to have to evaluate each on its merits. Reports departed from the policy only once, to review the late Robert Schadewald’s Worlds of Their Own (2008). Schadewald, after all, was a former president of NCSE’s board of directors.
  3. It’s too technical. There are plenty of books about evolution or climate science, or about evolution education or climate education, that are written primarily for specialists in those areas. Readers of Reports are interested in and knowledgeable about these topics, but they’re generally not specialists in them. It’s often a judgment call, though, and sometimes a review of a moderately technical book will be commissioned, like George R. McGhee’s Convergent Evolution (2011), reviewed (PDF) by Kevin Padian.
  4. It’s not on-topic enough. What if a book is relevant, but only partly relevant, to NCSE’s concerns, say if it contains just one chapter about creationism, like Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) or Massimo Pigliucci’s Nonsense on Stilts (2010)? Generally, the decision is not to review it. But it’s often a judgment call. Since Donald R. Prothero’s Reality Check (2013) addresses both creationism and climate change denial, a review was commissioned and should, with any luck, be appearing in 2014.
  5. It’s too unoriginal. When I visited Answers in Genesis’s Creation “Museum” in 2008, I spent a bit of time in the bookstore, and was impressed by how repetitious, how redundant, how monotonous the various books for sale were. While Reports is by no means averse to reviewing young-earth creationist books, there are so many of them all repeating the same long-ago-debunked misinformation that there would be no point to reviewing them separately. (And they generally go unreviewed in any venue.)
  6. The publisher failed to send a review copy. Reviews, whether favorable or unfavorable, are publicity, so the cost of review copies is, or at any rate ought to be, part of the publisher’s cost of doing business. Accordingly, the budget for review copies here is approximately $0. If no review copy is provided by the publisher, then no review is likely to appear. There are exceptions, however, usually if the reviewer happens to have acquired his or her own copy of the book.
  7. A suitable reviewer couldn’t be found. This, thankfully, is rare. I have been impressed time and time again about how good prospective reviewers—often perfect strangers to me and even to NCSE—are about considering requests to review books for Reports. But sometimes there’s a book that nobody who seems suitable to review it wants to review. I don’t mean to imply any slight, but I found it impossible to find a reviewer for Conor Cunningham’s Darwin’s Pious Idea (2010), possibly on account of its length.
  8. The reviewer failed to write the review. This happens more often than I’d like. Sometimes there’s a good excuse, of course, but sometimes the reviewer not only fails to submit the review but also fails to respond to repeated inquiries—eventually entreaties—about the status of the review. On occasion, it’s possible to recruit a substitute reviewer (and I’ve served in that capacity a couple of times myself); often, it’s impossible, or by that time the book is too old to be worth reviewing.

Can I review for Reports?

Sure! Drop me a line if you’re interested, and I’ll add you to the (mental) database of potential reviewers. Give me a sense of what topics in evolution, evolution education, threats to evolution education, climate science, climate education, and threats to climate education you’re knowledgeable about. I may not have any books for review up your particular alley right now, but I’ll keep you in mind when something appropriate arrives. Right now, I’m especially eager to recruit prospective reviewers for books about climate science and climate education—I have a new introductory book on climate change science that no fewer than four people have declined (or, annoyingly, ignored) invitations to review, and I’d like to get it off my increasingly cluttered desk...