Writing an academic book review


A few titles recently sent out for review

For a previous blog, I wrote about what it was like to be a book review editor for two ecological journals. I am constantly asked questions like: What is the process for writing an academic book review?  How does one choose a book to review? Which journal should it be published in? How does one write a book review?

The following three Parts give some answers to these questions. Whilst the reviews I commission and edit have an ecological flavour, the answers below can apply to all academic book reviews.

Part 1. Choosing the book.

Part 2. Selecting the journal.

Part 3. Writing the review.

Because this post is long, I have split it so you can skip sections. Read each Part, or select one to answer your question. Bookmark this blog and come back to it later. Overall, I hope you find what you read useful and/or stimulating for your next book review. Continue reading


The Ecological Book Review Editor

A few titles recently sent out for review

A few titles recently sent out for review

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. Continue reading

Living in the line of fire

“Dense human settlements in eastern Australia are located in perhaps the biggest pile of flammable vegetation fuel on the planet.”

Prof. William Bond wrote this in a review of Flammable Australia. Fire Regimes, Biodiversity and Ecosystems in a Changing World. It was rather poignant that our correspondence regarding his book review was only a week after the Tasman Peninsula fires at Dunalley. The fires were burning 20 kms from our property, as the crow flies. The images below were taken from our house:

The Tasman Peninsula Fire, 4th January 2013. Images a,b,c and d show the progression of the fire with time shown. The arrow (image b) shows the height of the convection column. The height of this column demonstrates the strong winds and the direction the passage of embers which created spotting well in front of the firefront.

The Tasman Peninsula Fire, 4th January 2013. Images a,b,c and d show the progression of the fire with time shown. The arrow (image b) shows the height of the convection column. The height of this column demonstrates the strong winds and the direction the passage of embers which created spotting well in front of the firefront.

Fire wasn’t once the big topic it is now. Bond describes this in his review, citing that the subject, once in the ‘ghettos’ is now mainstream and now global: vegetation modelling; satellite imagery; historical accounts (we can include social media here); paleoecology; weather modelling; and fire behaviour science. Indeed with all these things fire ecology is bigger than it once was. But for me, the crux of the matter is in the words quoted above. Continue reading

The ‘dumbed down’ thesis

When I describe my profession or the title of my PhD dissertation to fellow ecologists, the language I use can be very different from that used with those who are not familiar with the work. It’s not being pretentious or egotistical. It is simply speaking to your audience. Something we fail to do well at though is just that, speak well about our work to an audience who are not familiar with our language or work.

Ecology is not a common profession, and 20 years on when asked ‘what do you do?’ my response is still mistaken for something else; ‘Oncology’ is the most common.  An ecologist is somewhat of a rarity at my children’s school. Parents are familiar with titles such as ‘geologist’, ‘botanist’ and ‘zoologist’. As such, when asked by parents I used to simply state my profession as a ‘botanist’ or ‘scientist’. Given people are not familiar with the ‘ecologist’ title, when launching into a description of ‘what I do’- let alone a description of my PhD thesis – I was conscious of sounding like a ‘know-it-all’.

Without realising it, by not stating ‘I am an ecologist’ and using an alternative title, I was insulting someone’s intelligence, as well as my own. I don’t do this anymore. I now state my profession and, if needed, explain exactly what I do. For the more we explain it, the better informed everyone will be of what an ‘ecologist’ does. I still choose my words carefully; I don’t go over the top and I don’t dumb it down to far.

However, dumbing it down can actually be a great icebreaker and opener, as well as a bit of a laugh. Continue reading

Bryology – are you interested in becoming a ‘budding protonema’?

At the end of my 3rd year BSc. I had no idea that I would be launched into the world of mosses, liverworts and hornworts for my Honours year. I began a project looking at Ecological Vegetation Classes and their ability to be surrogates for other components of biodiversity, i.e. bryophytes. The journey began, and I was hooked.  If you are interested in knowing what that green stuff growing in the pavement cracks is, or curious about the green carpet of cool temperate rainforest, then don’t be scared to find out more. Bryology isn’t as hard as it looks. Consider them as vascular plants at a much smaller scale.

‘Is this a moss, or a liverwort? Or maybe it’s a hornwort?’

These were the words the late Dr George A.M. Scott asked me, after placing what looked like a tiny scrap of green something-or-other on the viewing plate of a dissecting microscope. ‘Liverwort’ I answered. Woohoo! I was right! George named me a ‘budding protonema’ and I am sure he also gave others this name.

If you are used to identifying vascular plants, then you should be used to noting lichens and bryophytes. However, you may/may not be used to separating bryophytes into moss, liverwort and hornwort. So assuming some botanical knowledge follow the diagrams below as a rough guide. For starters, moss and liverwort reproductive structures (sporophytes) are easy to differentiate. But more often than not, these are not present. So look at the stems and leaves, or the absence of them, and look at the roots (rhizoids). You should be able to differentiate your green stuff into moss, liverwort or hornwort using this simple sheet. Continue reading

Dad of Drones

It all started back in 2010, when my husband came home and asked me what did I think of him starting a PhD on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s or drones)?  Well if I am honest, it started way before 2010 with remote control planes, but the drone interest is more recent. It’s pretty awesome for our kids that their dad works with these really cool toys. They even helped our kid’s school get a visit from the Emergency Helicopter. But they are not toys really. And let’s get one thing straight – the correct terminology is not ‘drone’, but ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles ‘(UAVs). But calling him “Dad of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ is too much of a mouthful and isn’t quirky. So, introducing, the ‘Dad of Drones’.

Darren flying an oktokopter over the moss beds at Casey Station, Antarctica.

“Dad of Drones” aka Darren, flying an oktokopter over the moss beds at Casey Station, Antarctica.

Continue reading

The legacies of mentors

I sat with a colleague over lunch at the Australian Antarctic Division one day, and our conversation turned to our respective PhD’s and careers. Our PhD’s and undergraduate degrees were from different universities. We had different supervisors. We discussed who the mentors were in our lives.

This lunchtime conversation happened over 10 years ago and mentors have been a great feature of my career to date. Those I consider as my mentors may not realise the legacies they have left me. So, what are these legacies? Continue reading