Early career questions: Is writing a book review really worth it?

You probably agree that writing book reviews is a worst of time. Why spend a month critically reading a book, and then another week or two writing a review that will never be cited or counted as a scientific publication? You probably should have written an original research article or finished your experiments. However, book reviews deserve a better PR because they serve as an important resource for a busy faculty and a curious public.

Advising an early career researcher who had just written a book reviewer, Karen Kelsky wrote, “The important thing is that you don’t write any more.” She continued, “The problem with book reviews at your stage is opportunity cost. While you’re writing the review, you’re not writing the peer-reviewed publication that will actually count.”

I agreed with Karen Kelsky’s position. Until a family friend recommended me a book that was a deceptive pseudoscience quagmire. The writer of the book claimed he knew numerous natural treatments for cancer. And the US government did too, but didn’t want to disclose them last the big bucks in big pharma get ruined.

Sadly, my friend thought the claims were true. He wanted the miracle herb. After reading the book, I told him my thoughts – the book was rubbish. And using my little knowledge on cancer development, I pointed out the shortcomings of the book.

I’m sure he was disappointed. After all, who doesn’t want a miracle drug? Despite his disappointment, I’m glad I used my knowledge of the philosophy of science and mechanisms of toxicity to help him. Of course, my informal review of Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures will probably never appear on my resume. And I’m sure it will never count on tenure. But that book review, helped a person who was on the verge of being deceived.

Isn’t that the purpose of book reviews; fostering accessibility while promoting scientific integrity?

Writing a book review: My journey

A couple of months ago, I decided to write my first book review on climate change. As an African, climate change is a serious issue because we’re the ones who are going to be the worst affected. I contacted the book review editor at Science if they would consider my book review. They couldn’t because they had scheduled for the whole year. My inquiry on possible submission in 2018 went unanswered.

Since my book review was on climate change, I decided to submit it to Climate Change Journal. The editor told me they ‘consider book reviews by invitation only, and only those contributions which provide insight or stimulate discourse beyond a limited review are successful.’ I thought my review was up to scratch. It wasn’t, the editor rejected it because it was ‘too straight forward.’

I don’t consider the rejection a loss but I lesson. Because the next book review I wrote I made sure it provided insight and stimulated serious discourse. I submitted the review to Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management and it was accepted. There were two other books on climate change I wanted to review separately, but the editor advised me to consider a combined book review where I compare and contrast the two books. I loved it. And it was accepted too.

Working with book review editors helped me to become a better writer. But the best lesson came from the editor who rejected my book – a book review should provide insight and stimulate discussion. Doing that might take a lot of time, but I’m convinced it’s worth it. After all, even professors busy with research need book reviews for their own books and the ones they want to use in their classrooms.

Let me end this by quoting the wise words of Gary Natriello:

Reviewing books is truly a service to the community of scholars. Those who prepare careful reviews should be commended for their efforts. If all of us take the time to review books now and then, the resulting catalog of reviews will offer an efficient entre into our growing literature.

Image by Giammarco Boscaro

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Edmond Sanganyado

Edmond Sanganyado (PhD, University of California) is a postdoc in China. He is interested in the effect of organic pollutants in aquatic environments. His work has been featured at Publons, The Good Men Project, and University of California Riverside's Gradsuccess blog.

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