The Critical Document Review

Review of Books, Journal Articles & Digital Documents


Introduction to Review:
As (at least temporary) members of a scholarly discipline called "geography", we share not merely overlapping interests and academic goals, but also collaborative responsibilities which include, among others, the task of identifying, examining and assessing scholarly works. Thus, reviews of books or other paper- or digital documents have become an important mode for scholarly exchange.

The review should address the following objectives:

  1. It should be written so as to enable other students, instructors, researchers and professionals to gain a quick overview of the content of this document and thereby also of its contribution to the field to which it is supposed to contribute to.
  2. It should address the following questions:
    1. How well does the document respond to the objectives which the document's author has set for her/himself?
    2. How well does the document respond to additional objectives which the reviewer suggests might be appropriate given the title or the context in which the document has been presented?
    3. What kinds of readers can the document be recommended to?
  3. It should help the reader to decide whether or not to
    1. go through the trouble finding the digital document, printing it out or checking out the book or journal.
    2. spend the time reading it, on-screen or off, processing its content, taking notes etc.
    3. risk possibly substantial fines for returning the book late to the library.

Thus, for better or worse, we can simplify the structure of the typical review as to contain three parts, namely

  1. the nature and content of the document
  2. your assessment of the document based on the explicit or implicit objectives which the document's author set out to pursue.
  3. your assessment of the document based on your own criteria and/or the criteria which you associate with the needs of particular types of readers including your own.


1. Selection of book, journal article(s) or digital document(s) to be reviewed:
You are welcome to select a book or document which suits your interests, provided that it has to do with economic or business geography; however, my approval of a book is required. I encourage you to consult with me regarding your selection and to use this reading opportunity to explore the viability of any project ideas you may have for the coming weeks. Thus, ideally, the review introduces you to the academic and conceptual perspectives of your "field" or area of interests.

Part of the selection process is also some ex ante assessment of the quality and reliability of the document you plan to review. Developing a judgement as to what sources or documents are "reliable" is something all of us have to learn, starting with the reliability of our friends, instructors, local and national newspapers, TV news etc. In general, we have to be somewhat more cautious with Internet sources than we have to be with academic books or journals due to fact that we are still less experienced in recognizing and judging as to the nature and quality of the editorial process to which the document is (or has been) subjected. This includes, but is not restricted to, the extent, nature, quality and integrity of any "peer-review" and the extent of updates since original posting. Besides, in the social sciences, there are as many opinions as there are social scientists... thus, as an up-and-coming social scientist, develop yet another set of opinions and some judgement as to what to believe, what to check out for accuracy, when to solicit second opinions etc. But clearly be cautious with whatever you come across on paper or on the screen. We all are part of the effort to improve the quality of information and to develop, adjust and convey criteria and processes to make better judgements about the quality of any particular information.

If you want to make a judgement as to the credibility of a specific author (in a journal, book or on the Internet) and this credibility is sufficiently important for your own research plans, find more publications from this individual (through the Library data bases or via an Internet "Search Engine), find out who may have quoted this individual in what context (e.g. through the Social Science Citation Index), where this person comes from etc.. (For more help, click here!).

2. Finding materials in support of your review

    1. Has this document already been reviewed?
    2. Who is the author and what else has he/she written?
    3. What materials will help to place this document into a larger context (particularly important if it does not exactly overlap the reviewer's own field of expertise -- which happens not just in the case of student - composed reviews)

3. Deciding on form and format of your review

The shorter the review the more difficult it tends to be to reach some depth and to go beyond a summary description of the content.

Nature of Document and Summary of Content:

Readers are not interested in the size, weight, color and other external attributes of the book or the format of the digital documents unless particular attributes are particularly attractive or are missing, overdrawn or inappropriate. Thus, there are no general rules as to which external features should be stressed. There are also no rules as to how the content should be presented. A chapter by chapter account often cannot avoid to be boring. On the other hand, the more challenging creation of a new outline which better permits to select the major foci of the document as seen by the reviewer could be criticized as taking too many freedoms and imposing the reviewer's analytical perspectives too early. A combination of giving an honest overview of the content on the author's terms, but, at the same time stressing the most important, interesting or relevant contributions, especially those which will play a role in the assessment should almost always be a good compromise.

Assessment of the Document (Based on Author's Criteria):

The assessment or analysis of the book is not the place for preaching how the book could have been written. Concentrating on the author's mistakes is equally out of place. Given the effort of writing the document, the author deserves a sympathetic, appreciative assessment. That requires that the reviewer makes every effort to discern the objectives behind the document. Since it is likely that the author meets at least some of these objectives, identify these successes and make it easy for the reader to comprehend the significance of these high points, to relate them to already established knowledge and to find these places in the document without necessarily having to read the whole document.

Assessment of the Document (Based on Your Own Criteria): This final part of a typical review tends to be the most controversial. On the one hand, reviews should generally not be used to advance a personal agenda of opinions, prejudices or revenge. On the other hand, it may be necessary, e.g. to delineate what the book can and cannot do, or to compare it with its predecessors, to develop criteria beyond those which the author had in mind.

Sources (used for these guidelines or otherwise potentially useful for readers):

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