Late one Friday, in November 2008, I hit send. I knew it was poorly worded but my email was gone.
“Not sure where I put your last email – but just wondering if you still needed applicants for this position?”
I began as the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) Book Review Editor for the journals Austral Ecology (AE), and Ecological Management and Restoration (EMR), in March. My third child was ~4 weeks old. Was I insane? Perhaps. Thanks to the previous editor, Ian Lunt, I was well equipped – his description of the role was detailed and methodical. I still use his guidelines and what few questions I had were quickly responded to. I was ready.
My reasons for wanting the role were partly selfish. My post-doc had wound up, and given we were still collecting data, there were few papers on the radar (>20 have generated from the project since). I’d gone back to work 5 months after my eldest was born, so it wasn’t as if I couldn’t work. However, finding work in ecology was getting harder, and moving wasn’t an option. How many women do you know in ecology who work part-time/full-time with 3 or more children? I realised I now walked around with a label on my forehead – “she has three children”. I needed my career label to cover the label that now says “OMG now she has 4 children – she definitely can’t do it!” I needed to keep ‘in the loop’ and this was one way.
The ESA is governed by a dynamic board of ecologists. The editors of the two journals are learned and experienced; their editing skills are excellent. In addition, the leadership, promotion of ecology and inclusion in ecology is second to none. The previous book review editor gave me time with my newborn before I took over; the AE editor keeps account of the gender ratio for associate editors and allows associate editors with newborns to have time off from their editorial duties. Our journals, and the way they respond to editor and gender issues, are way out in front of other ecological journals.
Being a Book Review Editor for two top rated ecological journals – Austral Ecology and Ecological Management and Restoration – is not easy. I am a volunteer. To date I have edited over 200 book reviews.
Although I shudder to think of how many papers that could have been, I don’t regret the unpaid work. Yes, I do get some benefits in annual membership and meeting attendance and some might consider this as my ‘payment’ but the experience is the reward. The best payment is where my networking skills have benefited greatly – I am in touch with ecologists from all levels of management and academia, located around Australia and overseas. Being able to be ‘in the loop’ with the ecological community whilst not employed full-time has helped keep me to keep up to date and in touch with research and events.
As part of their subscription, ESA gives members an opportunity to offer to review a listed book, advertised via the ESA E-news (via the ESA membership email list). The first book reviews appeared in the year 2000 for both AE and EMR, in hardcopy print. Printing changed to only online in 2011, with title and reviewer of the reviewed book appearing in the Table of Contents for each journal, both in hard copy and the journal website. The long-term aim is that a list of titles along with weblinks will be available on the ESA website, so one can easily click on a link and view where to find a book review on the publisher website.
The book review process is quite easy. I contact publishers and request ecological books, and publishers also routinely send unsolicited books on ecology for review. After entering all the books I have to offer into a bibliographic database, I advertise and invite reviewers to review books, leaving the list open for two weeks. One book may be requested by up to 10 people, so selecting the reviewer can be difficult. The perception is that only Professors or high level managers will be offered a book, however, this is not the case. More often than not, high level ecologists are too busy to review a book or have a conflict of interest. Honours students, PhD candidates, Post-doctoral fellows, government and non-government organisations, even politicians have reviewed a book. Each review is between 800-1000 words and each reviewer is asked to complete their review within 8 weeks. The majority of my time is spent editing, updating the database, finding books, sending books, and reminding people that I would really like to receive their review!
There have been many book reviews. A few of note would include: William Bond’s review of Flammable Australia. Fire Regimes, Biodiversity and Ecosystems in a Changing World; Harry Recher’s review of The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited; Sinclair and Leavesley’s separate reviews of The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines made Australia; Dick Williams’ review of Burning Issues Sustainability and Management of Australia’s Southern Forests; Paul Adams’ review of Mosquito Eradication. The Story of Killing Campto; and Sam Lake’s review of The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress. An Environmental History.
There are also many great books that have passed over my desk including: Grumpy Scientists: the ecological conscience of the nation (a sobering read); Desert Lake. Art, Science and Stories from Paruku (a great insight); The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History (a must read for anyone working in this area); and Australia’s War against Rabbits. The Story of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease.
In all reviews I aim to keep the text true to the author. After all, they have read the book and are writing the critique. Writing styles vary widely and I only give guidance where it is asked for or I feel it is required; those with few publications under their belt often need the most assistance. I don’t immediately reject a poorly constructed review. A supervisor and peer group are always amenable to editing and offering comment and I encourage this avenue first, my input comes second. I applaud PhD supervisors who suggest to their ‘budding protonema’ a book to review. The international journal peer review process can be daunting and demeaning. What better way to boost writing skills and confidence, than by reviewing a book upon which whose topic you have based your career? And why should you write a book review? What book should you choose? How do you write a review?
Well, let’s leave that for another blog…