Notes from our Bibliographer – October 2021

Editor’s Note: I don’t think that there’s been a single issue of the HSS Newsletter on my watch that hasn’t featured books in some way. I feared that this final issue might prove the exception until that is, Stephen turned the following piece in from the bibliographer’s desk, complete with some delightful and important recommendations for further reading from within our ranks.

Book Review Olympics

by Stephen P. Weldon

This week I was looking around for a new book to put next to my living room chair in the evening, professional reading outside of my research, just to keep me current. My main criterion was that it should be making waves in the field in some way.

But how to choose? I could talk to colleagues in the department, of course. Or look over publisher lists, they come regularly to email, after all. Twitter and other social media inundate me with recommendations from all directions. Also, I thought of the enormously useful HSS award-winning book list (thanks, Ryan, for this handsome and easy-to-use site). The one place I really can’t rely on any longer is my local bookstore; browsing is not what it used to be, certainly not here in central Oklahoma.

In the end, though, there are a lot of outside ways to get recommendations. But, turning inward to my own resource, I wondered, what about the Bibliography. Could the IsisCB Explore do something for me? Was there any way to turn it into a recommendation engine?

Given the kind of data we have in the database—primarily citations without full text—I decided that book reviews were the key. Perhaps I could simply count the number of reviews for every book we had for a given time period, sort them, and look for the books at the top of the list. This wouldn’t tell me the content of the reviews, but it would show me the books journal editors think are important. Not a bad criterion in my mind.

Moreover, it’s kind of fun. Why not make it a competition? What’s the top-reviewed book? Is there a winner? And if so, what is it?

After some trial and error, I ended up with a set of book review data on all the books in the Current Bibliography published between 2011 and 2020. Judging, however, was harder than I thought. And more subjective. I had to take into account different types of review formats. How much weight should I give essay reviews? Should a symposium in a journal containing several essay reviews of a single book count more or less than the same number of essay reviews in different journals?

Well, I came up with a set of criteria that seemed to make sense to me, and it resulted in two top-twenty lists divided into two five-year periods: 2011-2015 and 2016-2020.

And the winners are… The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order (University of California Press, 2011) by Robert Westman in the 2011-2015 category and Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) by Maurizio Meloni for the 2016-2020 list. Westman’s book had only nine reviews, but that included six essay reviews across a total of seven different journals. There was also a back-and-forth between author and reviewer in Isis and a four-article symposium in Metascience (which was only counted once because of how we entered it.) In the recent books competition, Political Biology came in with ten reviews, including six essay reviews in a symposium published in the History of the Human Sciences. Check out both books, and both lists on this Google Sheet.

The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order by Robert Westman and Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics by Maurizio Meloni

One other motive behind this exercise was to learn what it would take to automate these calculations and, more importantly, consider how useful it would be to indicate the number of reviews next to the search results for books. I do think this kind of data can help assess which books are most talked about.

Although we are not there yet, I am hopeful that we can create a book review highlighter in Explore. So stay tuned. But for the time being, let me extend my congratulations to Westman and Meloni for winning our gold medal!

More from the October 2021 Newsletter