As the era of the electronic book dawns, perhaps hastened by Apple's much-touted iPad, researchers should prime themselves to take advantage of the spacious book format. Unlike a tweet, blog or research paper, a good book offers space to breathe, to contemplate complex ideas and to convey a mode of thinking. But most scientists don't think of writing one, and, if they do, they do it in secret.
In the hope that this might change, this week we kick off a series of weekly interviews with science book authors in Nature's Books & Arts section. Peter Atkins reveals the hard work behind a successful textbook (see page 612); Carl Zimmer will highlight how passion is essential for popular science; David Brin will reveal that criticism improves fiction writing; Georgina Ferry will share research tips for biographies; and Joanna Cole will explain how to convey science to children.
Such advice is timely. The role of textbooks in handing down the tenets of disciplines is changing as online components take over from printed text. Atkins acknowledges that the extra effort of producing layers of educational material for the web today makes writing a textbook daunting. Most researchers, he admits, would not be able to devote so much time to translating their work for students. Covering broad core subjects such as general chemistry would be nigh on impossible to do in snatched moments. He is lucky that, following his publishing success, his department supported his shift to full-time writing and teaching. Many would see their careers set back if their research was displaced.
Textbook workloads could be eased in the online environment by being written in modules by conglomerates, in a 'wiki' model of education. Such accumulations of knowledge are extensive, valuable and democratic. But they move away from the classic idea of a textbook as one person's view of a field, accumulated through personal experience, years of research and face-to-face interactions with students.
Beyond textbooks, the human side of research deserves exposure as much as it ever has, through popular science accounts, biography and fiction. Although the publishing markets today apply a narrow filter, future readers can expect to enjoy access to a wider range of topics through e-books, which are easier to distribute and lack the overheads of print. As a specialist area, science stands to benefit.
Rather than limit scientific discourse to curt journal papers, researchers should embrace the book as another means of expressing not only their insights but also their visions. Through the various styles of writing, all aspects of science can be explored and laid out for posterity and learning. The expansiveness of a book allows sophisticated arguments to be put forward and widely debated; new ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries can more readily be shared and worked through.
But if this exhortation is to have any traction, the effort and skill required to write a book needs to be rewarded in the career recognition of scientists who devote time to mastering the art to good effect — a recognition that is commonplace in the social sciences and humanities. It is time to bring the book back into the science mainstream. This needn't be a mass movement: just a dedicated few, but more of them, could fulfil the reasonable hope that their books will inspire a new generation. And they should be encouraged to do so.
An analytic or critical review of a book or article is not primarily a summary; rather, it comments on and evaluates the work in the light of specific issues and theoretical concerns in a course. (To help sharpen your analytical reading skills, see our file on Critical Reading.) The literature review puts together a set of such commentaries to map out the current range of positions on a topic; then the writer can define his or her own position in the rest of the paper. Keep questions like these in mind as you read, make notes, and write the review
What is the specific topic of the book or article? What overall purpose does it seem to have? For what readership is it written? (The preface, acknowledgements, bibliography and index can be helpful in answering these questions. Don't overlook facts about the author's background and the circumstances of the book's creation and publication.)
Does the author state an explicit thesis? Does he or she noticeably have an axe to grind? What are the theoretical assumptions? Are they discussed explicitly? (Again, look for statements in the preface, etc. and follow them up in the rest of the work.)
What exactly does the work contribute to the overall topic of your course? What general problems and concepts in your discipline and course does it engage with?
What kinds of material does the work present (e.g. primary documents or secondary material, literary analysis, personal observation, quantitative data, biographical or historical accounts)?
How is this material used to demonstrate and argue the thesis? (As well as indicating the overall structure of the work, your review could quote or summarize specific passages to show the characteristics of the author's presentation, including writing style and tone.)
Are there alternative ways of arguing from the same material? Does the author show awareness of them? In what respects does the author agree or disagree?
What theoretical issues and topics for further discussion does the work raise?
What are your own reactions and considered opinions regarding the work?