Back in 2010 I was invited to submit a proposal for a Princeton Monograph in Population Biology. I was surprised and flattered, though I have reason to believe a prominent colleague nudged Princeton University Press to make the invitation. I was also caught a bit unprepared, in that I’d never really thought about writing a book and so didn’t have any ideas for one. But the invitation was well-timed, in that I had a sabbatical coming up, during which I could write a book were my proposal to be accepted. So I thought about what I like about the Princeton Monographs I like best, and whether I had any ideas for a book with the same virtues.
I decided that my favorite monographs were those that included a significant amount of new work, rather than just functioning as compilations of the author’s published papers. Don’t get me wrong, there can be value in pulling together a substantial body of one’s own work in one place and spelling out how it all fits together, especially for student readers who haven’t followed the author’s work over the years in the primary literature. It’s just that I see more value, or at least potential value, in saying something new. And something that can’t be said in a single paper, obviously.
So I proposed to review everything ecologists had learned about community dynamics from laboratory microcosms (any lab-grown species, not just protists), and to show how that information compared to, and complemented, information gained from field studies of macroorganisms. I liked this idea for several reasons:
- It would review a lot of work that had never been reviewed, including a lot of work by people other than me. Nobody who’d read the literature would feel like they’d read the book already.
- Because so many people have used microcosms to investigate so many different topics, the book would actually cover a reasonably comprehensive range of interlinked topics in community dynamics. The chapters would hang together conceptually; the book wouldn’t just be a list of “random things we’ve learned from microcosms.”
- It would function as an extended case for the way I like to do science, with a strong emphasis on the use of model systems and on linking theory and data.
- By putting what we’ve learned from microcosms in a comparative, field ecology context, the book would effectively put an end to debate about the value of microcosms in ecology, in a way that no single paper could.
As is usual, the proposal was sent out for external review. It was declined. The reviews weren’t bad, and they were perfectly fair. Basically, the reviewers said that they look for something different from Princeton Monographs than I was proposing to provide. They wanted to see big theoretical syntheses, which certainly is a fair description of the typical Princeton Monograph, and certainly not what I was proposing. They didn’t really seem to care if those syntheses comprised new work or not. They also questioned whether the topic coverage was really as comprehensive as I claimed.
I decided to post on this for two reasons. First, to ask you all: what do you look for in a scientific book, such as a Princeton Monograph? I mean, presumably you’re looking for something that you couldn’t get from published papers, right? So do you look for new work, or compilations or “syntheses” of published work? Edited volumes addressing various angles or perspectives on the same topic, or works in which the voice and vision of a single author shines through? Etc.
Second, to get any feedback you care to offer on my rejected proposal. Here it is. I don’t have another sabbatical for five years, so I’m not thinking of writing a book any time soon. But I am thinking about it. And while I’m not at all committed to pursuing my first idea, I haven’t given up on it either. Any feedback you have (on the proposal, on other ideas for books you’d like to see me write, on books in general) would be most welcome. Go ahead and answer in the comments (even if you think my proposal was terrible), although you can email me privately if you prefer.