6

In academia we collectively evaluate the validity, quality and significance of shorter publications - papers - with a complex system of conferences and journals. With all its flaws, you can get a typically-not-so-bad idea about those aspects of a published paper by looking at things like venue and citations.

But that's not the case with books. I don't have any experience publishing books, but obviously it's not the same process as for papers.

Now, suppose I've entered a field which I've studied through papers; and I now want to either teach from a book, offer it to someone for some concentrated self-study, or cite from it. Also suppose I have some specific books I'm considering. How would I obtain some sort of evaluation or review of them, overall or by specific criteria such as correctness of proofs, rigor, clarity, narrative flow, being up-to-date etc.?

Note: Of course you can evaluate a book pretty well by reading it, but the idea is to choose what to get and read.

  • It is true that books (unlike published papers) are not peer-reviewed. So all the snake-oil purveyors do it by writing books—with an M.D. after their name, the gullible public will (sometimes) eat it up. – GEdgar Jul 19 '17 at 12:57
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    @GEdgar That's not true. Many academic publishers in fact peer review their books. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 19 '17 at 13:25
11

Obviously, this question asks about reliable predictors for the quality of a book. Otherwise the answer can only be: You evaluate a book by reading it. With this out of the way:

  • Ask around. In particular when you are interested in using a textbook for a course, ask people who have directed similar courses.
  • Publishers. There is an informal hierarchy of publishers that can be used to predict a book's quality, just like conference venues and journal ranks for papers. This differs between disciplines, but the edge-cases are vanity presses (low-end) and Famous University Presses™ (high-end).
  • Citations. Just like for journal articles you can count the citations of a book to estimate its impact (with all the known caveats).
  • Reviews in journals. Many journals publish a review section. You can search these for discussions of the book that you are interested in.
  • Peer review. Some publishers also send full book manuscripts or at least the book proposal with sample chapters out for peer-review.
  • Professionals. Ask your trusted librarian for advice.
  • +1 for reminding me that journals are more than the collection of refereed papers they publish. I should actually have a look at those things. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jul 19 '17 at 16:30
5

(This is a semi-joke answer, in that I would like to discard it as a joke answer but I've actually been applying it.)

Online bookstore reviews. Specifically, reviews on amazon.com. Example 1 (for some Computer Science book with few reviews), Example 2 (a more popular and well-known Computer Science book).

Different people review based on different criteria, and mostly the reviews are very short and terse, but it gives you some idea of what the book is like, and various things to watch out for.

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    I found reviews often misleading. The same book I hate with fiery passion often happens to be the first choice of other people. Also, a high number of positive reviews for a textbook, might mean the textbook was too accessible. – user21264 Jul 19 '17 at 12:52
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    @Magicsowon Isn't accessibility a good thing? Or do you mean seeming accessibility, i.e. the content is easy to understand but is actually wrong? – JAB Jul 19 '17 at 13:39
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    @JAB I actually didn't mean seeming accessibility. I meant that sometimes I'm looking for a good textbook from the point of view of the researcher and that gets voted down in favor of an "easy" textbook with much less value for someone aiming to learn a subject thoroughly. – user21264 Jul 19 '17 at 13:54
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    @Magicsowon Do not confuse accessibility with depth of coverage. It is possible, although not easy, to write a very accessible book that also covers the subject thoroughly. And vice-versa. – Bob Brown Jul 19 '17 at 14:02
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    @BobBrown There are precious few of those books, and you're better off asking someone who teaches the subject to point you to them, unless you aren't a beginner anymore. – user21264 Jul 19 '17 at 14:12

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