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The Scholarly Publishing Scene — The 2022 PROSE Awards

by | May 9, 2022 | 0 comments

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by Myer Kutz  (President, Myer Kutz Associates, Inc.) 

Against the Grain V34#2

Books have power.  They can make you laugh or cry.  They can make you cringe.  They can horrify you.  They can sell you new ideas, good or evil.  They can make you change your mind about something.  They can make people so crazy, even, or especially, if they haven’t read them, that they demand their removal from classrooms and library shelves.  If that’s not enough, ban them outright!  Burn them!  No more having your cherished beliefs challenged!

OK, I admit it.  Some books make me very uncomfortable.  Some of them are supposed to.  Some of them preach to a choir different from the one I belong to, a choir that seeks to harm me and those whom I care about.  Does that mean I should try to prevent other people from reading these difficult (for me) books?  I have a hard time with that concept.  

Besides, I love reading books.  I love reading lengthy book reviews.  I love talking about books with a friend in his nineties who used to teach philosophy.  Every January, I get to talk about books with my fellow PROSE Awards judges.  The books competing for prizes are all challenging.  They instruct, enlighten, and provoke.  Some might make some people feel uncomfortable, and some years, those are the books that capture the judges’ imaginations. 

PROSE Awards (just Google for more information) deals with professional and scholarly books (as well as electronic products and journals).  The program, forty-six years old, is run by the Association of American Publishers.  It’s like a professional and scholarly version of, say, the National Books Awards, but with arguably more interesting winners.  To me, at least.  And because National Book Awards winners are almost always published by trade houses, they receive more publicity than PROSE Awards winners, which are published mainly by university presses and commercial STM houses, which newspapers, radio, television, and, probably, most of social media and, therefore. much of the general public usually ignore, unless there’s a juicy scandal of some sort.

This past January, twenty-four PROSE judges reviewed and discussed a total of 560 entries, published in 2021, spread across over three dozen disciplines and formats.  In deference to COVID and scheduling conflicts, discussions were conducted over Zoom and spread over more than a week.  The inimitable Syreeta Swann, aided by Nadia Mathis, ran the program and set up the sessions.  As they did last year, they went off perfectly. 

The plan was to distribute entries and materials to judges electronically, so PDFs were to be read on screen.  Now, I do read fiction and general non-fiction on my iPad’s Kindle App.  But I had a hard time reviewing high-level mathematics books on screen.  PDFs of Popular Science and Mathematics books, my other category, were easier to deal with.  Because I got fewer popular books and the same small number of mathematics books as usual, I asked for print copies of everything.  Probably because of COVID, warehouses weren’t operating as usual, I didn’t receive all the books I asked for (but I did receive three books, two of which were ineligible because of publication years, that I didn’t request). 

Once the winners in each category are selected, they’re grouped into four overarching categories.  From the four ultimate winners, the best-in-show, the R.R. Hawkins Award, named for the legendary post-World-War-II head of science and technology at the New York Public Library, is chosen.

I asked the judges who presided over entries that won the top four book awards and the innovative journal award to describe the winners.  Let’s start with the winner of the Award for Excellence in Humanities, which the judges moved up to the top prize, the R.R. Hawkins Award.  This book happened to be in the purview of PROSE Awards chief judge, Nigel Fletcher-Jones (University of Cairo Press, retired).  He describes a terrific book that could make some people uncomfortable:

“Every so often a PROSE Award submission comes along that shouts out to the judges, ‘this is a story that absolutely needed to be told.’  Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam (Duke University Press) by NYU Professor Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu is one of them.  The book clearly illustrates Faulkner’s famous line, ‘the past is never dead.  It’s not even past.’

Experiments in Skin is a finely written amalgam of ethnography, military history, chemistry, and biomedicine that illuminates the links between the substantial modern day ‘cosmeceutical’ industry in Vietnam;  the Vietnam War and its continuing toxic aftermath in the form of dioxin in the food chain;  and the racist history of dermatological experimentation in both the U.S. and Vietnam that occurred around that war and continues to resonate to this day.”

The winner of the Award for Excellence in Social Sciences, another book that could make some people uncomfortable, is described by Ilene Kalish (NYU Press):

“Even with only 4% of the world’s population, America, with 25% of the world’s prisoners, is the world’s number one jailer.  Of the roughly 2 million men and women behind bars, 40% are black and 84% are poor, so 95% of cases end in a plea deal, not because 95% of people ensnared in the criminal justice system are guilty, but because many of them lack resources or time to spend on ‘waiting for their day in court.’  And once someone agrees to a felony conviction the ‘afterlife’ of punishments goes well beyond a prison term.  Rights are curtailed by the way the criminal justice system operates as a a ‘supervised society.’  In Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration (Little Brown), Reuben Miller, himself familiar with the effects of mass incarceration as his father, brothers, and other family members have spent time in prison, brings these grim statistics to life.  He describes the colossal sweep of the crisis in mass incarceration that began with the Nixon era War on Drugs and the laws enacted since then that have fed America’s addiction to punishment.  Focusing on Detroit and Chicago, Miller conducted interviews with over 250 people, visited halfway houses, shadowed people on job interviews and at check-ins with their parole officers, and met with family members in prison waiting rooms.  Halfway Home lyrically and hauntingly brings to life the harsh realities of prison scenes, sounds, and smells, and of gritty Midwest urban streets.  The people and their devastating plights are hard to forget.” 

Joe Alpert, MD (professor of medicine at the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center) describes the book that won the  Award for Excellence in Biological and Life Sciences as a call to action: 

“The COVID-19 pandemic showed just how poorly prepared the U.S. and the world were for such an event.  Sophisticated national public health systems had difficulty coping with the pandemic.  Lawrence O. Gostin has spent three decades designing resilient health systems and governance focused on our interconnected world.  He is a close advisor to many public health agencies in the U.S. and globally, as well as to U.S. presidents.  In Global Health Security: A Blueprint for the Future (Harvard University Press), he addresses the dangers societies now face from infectious diseases and bioterrorism.  Gostin examines the political, environmental, and socioeconomic factors creating and magnifying these threats.  The solution for future pandemics is not just improvement in national health policy, which reacts only after a threat has become a reality at home.  Gostin proposes robust international institutions, tools for effective cross-border risk communication and action, and research programs involving global public health.  In the current age of global pandemics, no country can achieve public health on its own.  Global health security planning is essential.”

Steve Chapman (McGraw-Hill), describes the beautiful and instructive book that won the Award for Excellence in Physical Sciences and Mathematics:

“Data models and visualizations are a way to manage complex systems in technology, education, and policymaking.  Indiana University distinguished professor Katy Borner’s Atlas of Forecasts: Modeling and Mapping Desirable Futures (MIT Press) uses (very well-illustrated) visualizations to show different types of computational models and how they can be used to understand potential outcomes in complex systems.  It’s a (complex) picture book for a broad audience — particularly policy-makers.  While there’s nothing substantially innovative in the content, there is in the terrific physical product, which takes pains to demonstrate how powerful good data visualization can be in explaining complexity.  This is an impactful issue at the moment.  As an example, consider all the jousting over contesting visualizations of Covid case data.  This is terrific-looking book, in a manner that well serves its key themes.  Its good looks are a big plus for non-specialists (as is the $29 price tag).”

Finally, Chris Reid (AAAS) describes the winner of the Journal Innovation Award:

Rapid Reviews COVID-19 (MIT Press), edited by a UC Berkeley team, won the journal innovation award because it addresses a growing challenge posed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.  The rapidly growing number of preprints around COVID-19 vary substantially in quality.  There is no peer review to triage this quality.  Rapid Reviews COVID-19 adds expert reviews to these preprints, assessing whether a preprint is reliable and trustworthy, and, using a strength of evidence key, helps readers easily assess the main claims of the preprint.  This is an innovative approach to a very real problem affecting the science, treatment and public policy of an issue that has dominated the last two-plus years.  This journal should be commended for both its innovation and its contribution to the pursuit of accurate science.”

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