Editing PsycCRITIQUES–APA’s Journal of Book and Film Reviews

Danny Wedding

Danny Wedding

Danny Wedding, PhD
American University of Antigua College of Medicine

It has been a genuine privilege to serve as editor of PsycCRITIQUES (formerly Contemporary Psychology, and, after 1999, Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books) for the past twelve years (2005–Present).  I was the editor chosen to manage the transition from a paper journal (Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books) to an online database (PsycCRITIQUES); doing so enabled the American Psychological Association (APA) to dramatically expand the number of books reviewed, and—more importantly—the timeliness of the reviews.

Gary VandenBos, the former APA Publisher, estimates that moving the journal to an online format expanded the readership tenfold (personal communication).   PsycCRITIQUES is available via individual subscription, and it is included in the PsycNET bundle available in almost every college and university in the United States and many international institutions of higher learning.   Reviews deemed especially important by the editor can be accessed at no cost on the (former) PsycCRITIQUES Blog or the (current) PsycCRITIQUES Spotlight.  Recent Spotlight reviews have included Phil Zimbardo writing about 2015 film The Stanford Prison Experiment, Robert Sternberg reviewing Albert Bandura’s newest book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, David Barlow commenting on the National Academy of Medicine’s report Psychosocial Interventions for Mental and Substance Use Disorders, Daryl Bem reviewing a new book on parapsychology, Alan Kazdin reviewing a book on corporal punishment in the schools, and APA’s President-Elect Tony Puente’s review of Michael Gazzaniga’s Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience. More than 42,000 reviews have appeared in the journal since the first issue was released in January 1956.

History of the Journal

Reviews of especially important books were included in the back pages of Psychological Bulletin until November 1955, and psychologically relevant book reviews also were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.  These reviews illustrate psychology’s roots in philosophy (e.g., Bakewell, 1904; Griffin, 1904), as well as its ties to German universities and psychology (Hickson, 1904). Early reviews critiqued books dealing with poetry and literature, as well as psychology (e.g., Jones, 1904).  In 1956, interest in books had grown to the point that the Publications Committee of the American Psychological Association decided that a journal dedicated to book and film reviews was justified, and the first issue of Contemporary Psychology was published with Harvard psychologist E. G. Boring serving a 6-year term as the inaugural editor (Girden, 1980).

Previous Editors

E. G. Boring was a fortuitous choice to be the first editor of Contemporary Psychology. He was well established as the foremost historian of psychology, he served as President of the Association in 1928, and his History of Experimental Psychology (1929; revised in 1950) was considered a classic work. Boring loved Contemporary Psychology (which he almost always referred to as “CP”), and he published 84 reviews, comments, and editorials in the journal.  Many of these were published in brief comments titled “CP Speaks.”  In the inaugural issue, Boring (1956) wrote an essay describing his vision for the journal.

Some academic investigators feel that a colleague who interrupts his research to write a book is definitely on the downgrade, deteriorating into the verbosities of aging, not rising at long last to the greater perspectives of maturity. Yet observation and experiment and statistical analysis are not enough for science … many articles … need, after they are printed, discussion, correlation, interpretation, and assimilation into a perspective. (p. 13)

The discussion, correlation, interpretation, assimilation and perspective Boring longed for were found in books. Later in the same editorial, Boring (1956) reflected on the audience he envisioned for the journal and the importance of every psychologist knowing at least a little about every area of psychology.

To WHOM is CP to be interesting? First to American Psychologists, the APA’s fourteen thousand and the others. CP is not the place for electroencephalographers to write to electroencephalographers. It is the place for electroencephalographers to write to religious psychologists who wish they were something more than religious psychologists, and for religious psychologists by being irresistibly interesting to usurp the attention of electroencephalographers. But that is not all … Psychiatrists, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, historians even—biologists, physicists, statisticians, and some mathematicians—none of these is immune to interest in psychology. (p. 13)

table1The succession of editors of Contemporary Psychology is listed in Table 1.  Four of these individuals served as APA Presidents.  The editors’ affiliations include illustrious academic institutions such as Harvard, the University of Texas, and Yale.

Bob Sternberg (1999), my predecessor as editor, detailed his expectations for reviews published in Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, and these same guidelines have been carried over into decisions made about reviews in PsycCRITIQUES.

I am seeking reviews that are (a) incisive—going into depth well beyond simply summarizing the book and ending with a brief commentary; (b) integrative—relating the book to the field and both classical and recent developments in it; (c) balanced—pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses of the book; but (d) provocative—taking a stand and then explicating and defending this stand. (Sternberg, 1999, p. 5, bolding added)

Contemporary Psychology Becomes PsycCRITIQUES

About one-third of the readers of Contemporary Psychology—APA Review of Books were librarians who made purchasing decisions based on the reviewers’ critiques of the merits and shortcomings of each book reviewed.  However, this was cumbersome and clumsy, in part because reviews would sometimes appear 2 years or more after a book was first published.  The solution proposed by the APA’s Publications and Communications Board was to move to online publication, and the newly named PsycCRITIQUES became the APA’s first online journal.  We don’t always succeed, but whenever possible we strive to have books reviewed in their copyright year.

The mission of PsycCRITIQUES is to review any book or film that substantially advances the science and practice of psychology.  About 2000 books are submitted each year for possible review, and I select about one in four to be reviewed in the journal.  I have a pool of over 2000 psychologists and other mental health professionals who have volunteered to review for PsycCRITIQUES; however, my six Associate Editors and I work hard to identify and recruit the world’s most prominent psychologists to review important books. In general, we try to review any book that substantially advances the field (e.g., Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, Martin Seligman’s Flourish), and our reviewers have included many of the most eminent figures in psychology.

We have loosened the criteria for selecting books so we can review popular books that psychologists and other social scientists are likely to find interesting and relevant (e.g., Freakonomics¸ The Secret Life of Pronouns), as well as other social science books likely to be of interest to psychologists (e.g., Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother).

One feature Boring introduced in the first issue of Contemporary Psychology was film reviews, and one of Boring’s associate editors was devoted exclusively to films.  I have returned to this tradition, and each weekly release now includes 9 book reviews and 1 film review.  Many readers tell me they read the film reviews first—and sometime only the film reviews!  Movies like Silver Linings Playbook, The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and The Experiment (about the life of Stanley Milgram) are all of particular interest to psychologists.

I have used the New York Review of Books as the model for PsycCRITIQUES, and we aspire to crisp and clear writing.  Some examples of particularly bad writing in reviews submitted—but rejected—are presented in Table 2.

table2It has been an honor and a pleasure to edit PsycCRITIQUES for more than a decade.  Over 7,650 reviews have been published during my editorship—and I’ve read every one of them!  I especially appreciate the many members of the Society for Media Psychology and Technology who have reviewed for PsycCRITIQUES, and I welcome feedback about the journal and suggestions for how it might be improved.


Bakewell, C. M. (1904). Review of The Origin and Significance of Hegel’s Logic: A General Introduction to Hegel’s System. [Review of the book The Origin and Significance of Hegel’s Logic: A General Introduction to Hegel’s System. J. B. Baillie]. Psychological Bulletin, 1, 65-71.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0070286

Boring, E. G. (Ed.). (1956). CP Speaks … Contemporary Psychology, 1, 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/005575

Girden, E. (1980). The birth of Contemporary Psychology (CP): A personal view. American Psychologist, 35, 841-845. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.35.9.841

Griffin, E. H. (1904). Review of The Philosophy of Hobbes. [Review of the book The Philosophy of Hobbes. F. J. E. Woodbridge]. Psychological Bulletin, 1, 71-73.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0075842

Hickson, J. W. A. (1904). Book Review: Geist und Körper, Seele und Leib. [Review of the book Geist und Körper, Seele und Leib. L. Busse]. Psychological Bulletin, 1, 118-122.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0073143Hick

Jones, A. L. (1904). Philosophy in Poetry and The Mind of Tennyson: Two Book Reviews. [Reviews of the books Philosophy in Poetry and The Mind of Tennyson, 2d ed. E. H. Sneath & E. H. Sneath]. Psychological Bulletin, 1, 78-79. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0073053

Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.). (1999). Editorial. Contemporary Psychology, 44(1), 5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/005041

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