My rejected Princeton Monographs proposal, or what makes a good scientific book?

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.

8 thoughts on “My rejected Princeton Monographs proposal, or what makes a good scientific book?

  1. May I return the question. What do you have on your frying pan that you simply cannot make to fit into the format of peer reviewed paper or a blog post? I have nothing of that sort and even if I was established in academia, I’d probably not have. Reading a big chunk of Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy completely turned me off of big syntheses (I used to love them). If you are not the guy for big syntheses, take a look at Monograph in Population Biology #8 – no big tent or umbrella or synthesis – just an iching anomaly of a paradox. Raise issues, summon Zombie!-) Er -well- at least I’d read it then.

    • Surely you shouldn’t let Spencer turn you off to big syntheses in general!

      No, I’m not one for grand syntheses, and any future book I might write would not necessarily, or even likely, be a Princeton Monograph. It could be lots of things. It’s been suggested to me that I write a textbook, that I write a “how to do ecology” book…And now I can add your suggestion to the list–thanks! There’s actually a “zombie ideas” book in economics, by an economist named John Quiggin (Zombie Economics), so perhaps I should think about something similar for ecology… đŸ˜‰

  2. This sounds like a nice idea and it would certainly fill a gap in the literature. I have to admit though that, on the first glance, the sole focus on microcosm doesn’t seem specially appealing to me. You say you want to write the book for community ecologists, but I think those would not only be interested in the insights from microcosm experiments, but also in how those results compare to other data, i.e at which point and for which reasons microcosms breaks down as an appropriate model system. This is already mentioned to some extent, but I would make it much more explicit.

    So, I’m not sure whether this can be done, but what about a title like

    Community assembly and dynamics across scales: from microcosms experiments to biogeographical patterns

    and a text that could have exactly the same structure as it has now, around ecological processes / phenomena, but might focus more on comparing results from different scales, with some emphasis on microcosm at the lower end.

    • I agree that the proposal doesn’t emphasize comparisons with other systems to the extent that it should have. One way to alleviate that would be, as you say, to drop any special focus on microcosms and just make it a book about community dynamics. Whether that would fill a niche that needs filling, I’m not sure. Dropping the microcosm focus means the book risks being too similar to Peter Morin’s Community Ecology textbook, Gary Mittelbach’s textbook on the same subject, and probably some other books I’m forgetting.

      • I think the book could still be sufficiently different by having a strong emphasis on microcosms while relating those to results at other scales, but it’s true of course, the more general, the more crowded it becomes in terms of existing literature.

    • Because if I’m going to commit the time and effort required to write a book (*far* more time and effort than required to write this blog!), I want the credit that comes from writing a book.

      Sorry, but even as a tenured prof I still am faced with externally-imposed incentives. There are no strong incentives for me to commit a year of full-time work to writing a book (and therefore not writing papers, applying for grants, etc.) and then self-publish it online under a creative commons license. For better or worse, the effort is only worth it if the book is published by a widely-respected academic publisher that charges money for it.

      f the incentives facing me were to change, I’d probably change my mind. But until then, sorry, no.

  3. Pingback: Are scientific books on their way out? | Dynamic Ecology

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.