SIAM News Blog

Help Wanted at SIAM Review

By Desmond J. Higham, Tim Kelley, and David S. Watkins

SIAM Review (SIREV) is one of the few outlets for in-depth, expert overviews of recent books in applied and industrial mathematics. What makes a good book review? “A good book review doesn’t simply list the chapter titles and walk through the contents,” SIAM President Nick Higham said. “It gives a general feel for what the book is about, what the book’s distinctive features are, and how it fits into the landscape of existing books on the subject. It assesses whether the book is suitable for its target audience, comments on the accuracy of the contents (potential readers need to be warned if there are mathematical errors or many typos), and discusses the book’s usability (Good index? Useful bibliography? Suitable ordering of topics and cross-referencing?). Finally, it tells a non-expert reader something they didn’t already know about the field in question, such as what the most active research topics and questions are (or no longer are).” Vice President at Large Ilse Ipsen also added a few thoughts. “Good book reviews are informative, insightful, and can help in deciding whether to buy a book, be it a research monograph or textbook,” she said.

For good reason, authors of journal articles are bound by the conventions of technical writing. The writer of a book review, however, has the opportunity to be interesting as well as authoritative: to take a more personal stance on what’s important, provide anecdotes and historical asides, and speculate about future developments. Margaret Wright, a past president of SIAM and former editor-in-chief of SIREV, echoed these views. “In these days of information overload, more than ever people seeking to know more about a subject need help finding the right book,” she said. “A bland summary of the table of contents is easy enough to find for ourselves, but what we want most is an honest and fair review by an expert (even when opinionated). And this is precisely what SIREV book reviews give us.”

David Watkins will step down as Book Review Section Editor of SIREV when his terms ends in December 2017. The journal needs a book lover to take over the job starting on January 1, 2018. Perhaps you are that person.

The role is suitable for a senior applied mathematician with broad interests who enjoys books, likes to write, has some editorial experience, and is prepared to serve a three-year term. SIREV publishes quarterly, and the Book Reviews section has around 10 reviews (20 pages) per issue. The editorial board for the section currently consists of six members. The new section editor may wish to increase this number to handle a growing workload and reflect the diversity (demographic, disciplinary, and geographic) of applied and industrial mathematics.

When asked to serve SIAM as a volunteer, most people want a job description. Watkins has one: 

I look at new applied math titles as they publish and make decisions about whether or not to review. I’ve also been doing some catch-up, reviewing books that are two-three years old but still merit a review. For each book I decide to review, I also choose an editor (or myself) to handle it.

About once every three months, I send each of my editors a list of perhaps three or four books for which I would like them to seek reviewers. They have veto power; if they think a book isn’t worth reviewing, we won’t review it.

For those titles that I decide to handle myself, I look for appropriate reviewers and send out requests to review. I get many rejections, but I keep trying until I find someone who agrees to do the job. Many people who decline are at least willing to suggest other possible reviewers. The internet is also a great aid in the search for appropriate reviewers.

In the 21 months since I took over this job, I personally have handled about 70 books, not all of which were reviewed. I like to review books, and I try to provide at least one review per issue. The next editor is under no obligation to do this.

As the reviews come in, I collect them, make minor edits, and send in a batch for the next issue once every three months. When the galleys come back, I read them (and so do the review authors), make any last corrections, and write the introduction for that SIREV issue.

The nature of this job is changing, and will continue to steadily evolve. I do things a lot differently from my predecessor, Bob O’Malley. My successor will surely make still more changes. Bob had every book come across his desk. He decided which to review and solicited reviewers. Once Bob found a reviewer, he mailed the book out (with some local secretarial help). I ask publishers not to send me physical books, but some do anyway. If they want to send a book, they can send it to the SIAM office. Brittni Holland, SIAM’s editorial associate, lets me know what we have received. My editors and I rely on publishers’ websites for the information we need to make decisions about each book. Once we have a reviewer, Brittni mails him/her the book. Sometimes, and increasingly frequently, Brittni contacts the publisher and has the publisher send the book directly to the reviewer. Sometimes we deal with e-books, and I expect that to increase. We will probably end up with an entirely electronic operation eventually.

By reading book reviews, SIAM members explore the state of the art in research, keep abreast of emerging topics, and discover new teaching resources. By writing book reviews, authors can offer their slant on a subject, present insights and personal opinions, and draw connections between fields. At the top of this pyramid is the Book Review Section Editor, who steers the scope, content, and style of the section, and in doing so obtains a unique perspective on the field.

Persons interested in this role may informally contact Des Higham ([email protected]) for further information. Mike Miksis, SIAM’s Vice President for Publications, hopes to have the next Book Review Section Editor approved by mid-summer 2017.

Des Higham is a numerical analyst at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. He has research interests in stochastic computation, network science, and city analytics, and is a SIAM Fellow and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is also the editor-in-chief of SIAM Review
  Tim Kelley chairs the SIAM Board of Trustees and has served as editor-in-cheif of SIAM Review and the SIAM Journal on Optimization. He is Drexel Professor of Mathematics at North Carolina State University. David Watkins is currently Book Review Section Editor for SIAM Review and a professor of mathematics at Washington State University. 
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