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Anthropology Group Will Test a Faster, Digital Approach to Book Reviews

It takes years to research, write, and publish a scholarly monograph. It can take just as long to get that book reviewed by a scholarly journal once it’s in print. But a review that appears years after the book does, even if it’s a rave, doesn’t help an author whose tenure clock is running. Nor does it help a publisher hoping to attract attention to front-list titles.

The lag time between publication and review “is, for lack of a better word, appalling,” says Oona Schmid, director of publishing at the American Anthropological Association, a major publisher of scholarly journals. The association announced on Monday that it would test a prototype designed to expedite the review process by moving it online, in an experiment made possible by the backing of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Speeding up the process is one goal. Another is to test the idea that, in a digital publishing environment, reviews no longer need to be tethered to print vehicles for long research articles, Ms. Schmid says.

With a 12-month, $80,000 Sloan grant, the association will develop an online platform that scholarly publishers can use to upload metadata about new titles as well as digital versions of the books themselves. Once a journal editor identifies a reviewer for a particular book, the reviewer will be given access to the e-version of the title to work with. The new platform will build off Open Journal Systems, an open-source journal-management-and-publishing system created by the Public Knowledge Project.

To succeed, the association’s platform will have to be easy for publishers to navigate—part of the system they already use to deliver books to Amazon, Baker & Taylor, and other entities in the book-supply chain, Ms. Schmid says. “We want to be just another item on that list.”

With that in mind, the association plans to make its platform compatible with ONIX feeds, ONIX being “the metadata standard we use in the industry,” says Darrin Pratt, director of the University Press of Colorado. “As far as uploading files, that should be relatively easy, particularly if files can be received from a source like BiblioVault,” he says. (BiblioVault is run by the University of Chicago Press and handles the storage and transfer of e-book files for many other presses.)

Mr. Pratt’s press was one of five that sent letters of support to the Sloan foundation on behalf of the association’s idea; the others were Chicago, the University of Nebraska Press, the University of New Mexico Press, and the University Press of Florida. Since then, according to Ms. Schmid, five other scholarly publishers have said they’ll take part: Duke University Press, Rowman & Littlefield, Rutgers University Press, the University of California Press, and the University of Toronto Press.

Mr. Pratt calls the association’s experiment important. About a quarter of the books Colorado publishes fall into the broad categories of anthropology and archaeology; it’s typical for them to be reviewed about two years after they come out. Where that lag time “really has an impact in the scholarly ecosystem is on the movement of the whole tenure/promotion/credentialing process,” Mr. Pratt says. “For authors it’s very important to get reviews and to get them quickly,” and that impact carries over to the press.

The anthropological association has 18 journals that publish book reviews, according to Ms. Schmid. She doesn’t yet know how many will join the Sloan-funded experiment; two have signed on so far, but she expects that more will participate. If it’s a success, she says, the hope is that other scholarly societies will try something similar.

Joshua M. Greenberg, who directs Sloan’s program in digital information technology, called the approach “a potential game changer for academic publishing.” In a statement announcing the project, Mr. Greenberg said it would benefit authors, reviewers, and publishers. “And, most of all,” he said, “it’s better for science because it encourages and supports the debate, discussion, and evaluation that is the cornerstone of good scholarship.”

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