Are unfavourable book reviews acceptable?

Yes, provided that the reviews are factual.

Sadly some reviews are not, and one can even wonder
whether such book reviewers even read the book?

Here is an example from one such review,
a Reading University geographer...


Any author is put between a rock and a hard place when confronted with an unfavourable review: either one accepts it in silence, or one defends oneself and risk coming across as suffering a case of sour grapes. Normally if a bad review is purely subjective (complaint about personal style of writing or whatever) then I remain silent. (Fortunately, I have only had a tiny minority of such reviews of my work over the decades and in fact half of these said more about the reviewer than my work, and one actually secured a contract for myself.) However if a review contains factual errors and incorrect statements about one of my books, matters become very different.  Here science text book writers do have it a little easier over fiction writers in that they deal in facts for people who deal in facts, and facts (scientifically based) should be verifiable: hence complaints based on factual content and areas of fact in books should themselves be verifiable.  The problem is that those reading book reviews are not in a position to check the facts themselves unless they read the book: it is the book reviewer who is meant to have read the book and given an opinion for prospective readers.  Now let me be clear, I can accept someone not liking my work: that is not a problem. What I cannot accept is when someone makes a number of false statements about my work in their review: falsehoods I will not abide! (Even when the reviewer in question sweetens their criticism by demonstrating their own lack of knowledge on the topic.) Now alas, for the first time in my career I have come across this problem with reviews of one of my works by a sole reviewer.

And so we come to two reviews of the 2nd edition of Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects by Antoinette M. Mannion, Reading University, in Biologist and the British Ecological Society Bulletin. Now, fortunately we have a control in that both these publications previously reviewed the first edition: Biologist here and British Ecological Society Bulletin here. These two reviews alone (let alone others) were markedly different from Mannion's. Here is a summary what Mannion said in the December (2013) Bulletin (I'll focus on just one of her reviews and include numbers relating to my subsequent comments)...

"The introductory chapters consider the various components of global climate (e.g. the greenhouse effect, carbon cycle and hydrological cycle), and how they are interact (sic). Then the all-important techniques of climate reconstruction are described. Biotic indicators including pollen analysis and dendrochronology are used, though there is no mention of beetles(1) or snails, alkenes(2)(sic) and 18O isotopes(3). Examples of abiotic indicators are isotopes of water and carbon content of ice cores. A notable absence is a discussion of amino acid racemisation(4), an innovation developed in the last 30 years, to date fossil biological materials such as bone or shell.

Cowie chooses 1600AD as the beginning of modern times. There is a case for this: it was the beginning of significant scientific research endeavour and, not least, the start of meteorological records. It was also, as I have pointed(5) out (Mannion 2006), one of several carbon thresholds...

...It would have been more convincing if Cowie had avoided the awful and indefinable 'we' which always fails to impress(6) especially in a book with a serious scientific message."

You can read Mannion's full review in all its glory here. Enjoy.

OK, leaving aside the review misses the book's unique selling point (USP), I will now summarise my complaints linked to the footnote numbers in above summary, and you can decide for yourself whether or not I am just suffering a case of sour grapes or whether reviews such as this have a place in a serious learned publication.

1) 'No mention of beetles'. Untrue: Section 2.1.6 on species as climate proxies clearly 'mentions' beetles on page 52 for example. Beetles are also mentioned elsewhere in the book as revealed in, had the reviewer bothered to check, the subject index at the back.

2) 'No mention of... alkenes'. This is true... but then 'alkenes' are not a climate proxy! (It would help if reviewers of climate change books knew their climate change science.) The reviewer probably means 'alkenones', and to say that there is no mention of 'alkenone' analysis would also be, quite simply, false. For starters there is a sub-section on 'Alkenone analysis' 2.2.2 on page 58. Alkenones are also mentioned elsewhere in the book as revealed in, had the reviewer bothered to check, the subject index at the back.

3) 'No mention of... 18O isotopes.' Completely untrue. 18O is referred to in a number of places, it too even has its own sub-section '18O isotope analysis of forams and corals' (p54) as well as another on the 'isotopic analysis of water' (p59) not to mention as the subject of a number of graphs such as figures 4.5 and 4.6a and oxygen (in a number of guises including isotopes) gets over a score of listings in the subject index at the book's end. (Did the reviewer even read the book? One can but wonder.)

4) Yes, there is no mention of amino acid racemisation. Leaving aside that no condensed 'summary review' of the broad literature of climate change science can by definition include 'everything', and so singling out an omission in books that are summary reviews of a large science topic is arguably a cheap shot, use of amino acid racemisation in determining a palaeoclimatic record is very problematic. Indeed, this is so much so that the IPCC 2007 assessment chapter on palaeoclimates has no mention either of the terms 'amino acid' or 'racemisation'. Conversely, there are numerous mentions by the IPCC (2007) of the terms 'dendrochronology', 'ice core', 'isotope', 'oxygen', 'deuterium' and the other palaeoclimate indicators cited in Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects. If the reviewer considers discussion of amino acid racemisation 'a notable absence' then perhaps that complaint should be first directed to the IPCC?

5) I have no problem with the reviewer plugging their own work rather than reviewing the book at hand. That a reviewer chooses to devote one out just half a dozen paragraphs in the review to their own work arguably says more about the reviewer than the book reviewed.

6) Again I have no problem with complaint about something as subjective writing style: again often, as in this case, this tells us more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed.

Peer review is a vital component of the scientific method and book reviews in publications are peer reviews open to all the publication's readers.  Falsely stating that a work has specific omissions when in fact there patently are no such omissions is, quite simply, lying.  A review based on untruths, self-aggrandisement and factual error of terminology is neither helpful to publishers, authors, nor fellow scientists, let alone from a science perspective being unprofessional and unethical.  Sadly, when this happens it leaves authors with two difficult options: to keep silent and so perpetuate falsehoods about their work, or to clearly point out the reviewer's errors and risk coming across as suffering sour grapes.  As you may have gathered, I prefer to openly champion for, and work in, a profession where criticisms are founded on fact, not lies, and where peers have professional integrity. If this makes myself diminished in some people's eyes then so be it.


(Footnote on the grievance process.  Following the review's publication in the British Ecological Society Bulletin I contacted the editor (whom I have known professionally from years back) by e-mail and we subsequently had a cordial phone conversation. While BES Bulletin regularly publishes science book reviews with no problem, apparently there have been a very few isolated cases of concern. Consequently, BES Bulletin currently takes a laissez faire approach letting reviews stand. I informed the editor that in that case on grounds of right of reply and openness I would air my concerns on my own website, to which the editor did not object and so we have this web page. However having had this phone conversation (December 2013) I did delay a month before posting (January 2014) as a professional courtesy to afford Bulletin time to further consider matters. Their decision on this is an internal matter to Bulletin and the British Ecological Society. However for a year further to the Spring 2014 edition, this reviewer did not have any reviews published in Bulletin but did start reviewing again in 2015 primarily focussing on the book's contents as opposed to expressing an opinion (be it founded or unfounded). Meanwhile, as a point of principle, reviewers who fail to review with factual objectivity will only continue to thrive unless they are outed and if you ever find glaring flaws in any reviem of any publication then you arguably have a duty to speak out. Professional integrity is at stake.)


Quick links below to the 1st (2007) edition
reviews by the following:-
            United Nations Environment Programme recommended
            British Ecological Society Bulletin
            Petroleum Review
            Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
            Choice Reviews On-line
            Eos: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union
            Physics in Canada
            Global Environmental Politics
            Meteorological Applications Royal Meteorological Society

Quick links below to the 2nd (2013) edition
reviews by the following:-
            Teaching Biology
            Astrobiology Society of Britain
            Landscape Ecology
            Biological Conservation