I really like reading reviews. My favourite magazine is Empire, which reviews movies and, increasingly, TV series. My favourite podcasts review boardgames (like The Secret Cabal and Blue Peg, Pink Peg). My favourite science journal is the Quarterly Review of Biology, which reviews recent science books.
I sometimes think that I like the reviews better than the actual products. I have many unplayed boardgames on my shelves. Dozens of unwatched movies on my SkyGo and as DVDs in storage. Lots of unread books in my library. Heaps of unread papers in my download folder. But I do love reading, writing and listening to reviews of these things.
I’m sure that there is some deep psychological reason for this. Perhaps it’s because I am a generalist in that I prefer some information about lots of things rather than lots of information about some things. The old fox versus the hedgehog idea. Or maybe I just don’t have good personal restraint.
Anywho, while reviews are generally going great guns in most areas of human endeavor, where would Youtube and social media be without these, there is one place in which they are slowly dying out. Science book reviews. Once most journals would publish many book reviews in a year. Journals would contact someone prominent in the field and ask them to provide a review. Now most publish none.
But books aren’t really a thing anymore, are they? They seem to be. Many books written about science are still published every year. So why aren’t they reviewed as much? Well, put simply, even though book reviews in science journals are generally well read, they are almost never cited in other publications. And citations make the science world go around.
One of the main methods of comparing scientists is called the H-index. Basically, this is a measure of how cited a scientist is. If I have a H-index of 20 then that means that I have had 20 papers that have been cited by at least 20 other papers. To move to an H-index of 21 I would need to have 21 papers cited 21 times. Given that most papers are only cited a few times, this can be very hard to do. Currently, I have published over 90 papers and have an H-index around 30 (note that there are some differences in some of the main measuring sites).
If I want to improve my H-index then I am better placed to spend time working on a manuscript for a paper, which may get those valuable citations, rather than a book review, which will not help me in this regard. Journals are measured also by how much their papers are cited on average (Impact factors) and they don’t want to give up space to articles that they know will not be cited (even though they may be read). So, very few book reviews are published.
But. Citations, H-indices, Impact Factors are not why we got into science. They are not good measures, they are not fair and are seldom comparable in a meaningful way. We just seem to be stuck with them.
Also, book reviews are fun to read. They are also fun to write. I have written a few in my career, most recently on the new edition of the great Ghosts of Gondwana book by George Gibbs. There are lots of reasons for us to write book reviews. It’s nice to break away from our very formalised science writing structure and just write as we please (that’s one reason I write these EcoLincnz articles). You feels like good outreach as you are letting people know that here is a great book that you should read (or a turkey that they should avoid). You get to make time to think deeply about a large body of work. In our busy age, this is increasingly difficult to do and justify. You can use it to vent against, or applaud, certain ways of thinking.
Most importantly, there is a tradition in science reviews of using the book review as a springboard to offer some opinions about a field of science, some hypotheses and ideas, a succinct overview of a research area, or some comment on the shortcomings of the science. Some of the most thought-provoking articles that I have read have been in book reviews. Constraints are released and the ideas can flow. Crikey, they can almost be entertaining!
John Marris, the Lincoln University Entomology Research Museum curator, knows his beetles. Not the Paul, John, George and Ringo that are more my thing, but those rather unassuming, if numerous, insects that do so much for global biodiversity. John was the ideal person to review Australian Beetles Volume 2. Archostemata, Myxophaga, Adephaga, Polyphaga (part) edited by Adam Slipinski and John Lawrence. John’s review appears in the latest Weta.
In the time-honoured tradition, John talks about how well the book is written, the use and ease of locating the information it contains, and how it might be useful to those of us in New Zealand. He also takes the opportunity to voice a broader opinion.
John complements the Australian’s on having several books that allow scientists and natural historians to identify their insect biodiversity. He states that “it is regrettable that there is a lack of general family-level treatments for the insect orders in New Zealand.” This makes it difficult for those of us working on New Zealand’s insect fauna and also creates a challenge for the training of students who are interested in biodiversity. John ends with a statement that is always difficult for us Kiwis to make “Wouldn’t it be nice to keep up with those Aussies“.
These kinds of comments do not tend to end up in papers. They remain valuable nonetheless. I would encourage journals to retain at least a smattering of book reviews.