Critical angles

July 4, 2013

I am sure that lots of academics are asked to comment on book proposals for publishers from time to time – but what are the ethics of this process? For me, naturally one hates to do somebody else’s work down, and yet…there are some pretty awful books being proposed out there. Publishers and readers “have rights”, too, you know.

By now I’ve seen enough of these reports to be able to fit expert readers into various types. There are the “celebrity dons” who are simply too busy to read the manuscript. They deliver one-paragraph reports that bizarrely highlight one or two errors, rather like a lazy lecturer trying to prove that they have really looked at an essay.

For example: “There is an error on page 132. The Michelson-Morley experiment was made by timing a flash of light travelling between mirrors, it did not really clarify the nature of light.”

I had a report about a book I proposed neatly typed on A4 – just the one learned point was made, which was (fortunately) counted by the publishers as an endorsement. Indeed, I recall they were very grateful that the good professor had found the time to respond.

Much longer reports come from a type that we might call the “embittered expert” and take the form of what we certainly should call “hatchet jobs”.

They can run like this: “After a cursory reading I found some glaring factual mistakes that could have been easily corrected by the author IF they knew a bit of history or cared about accuracies. One error found on the section on Thomas Aquinas, page 61 reads: ‘In 1569, at the Council of Trent…it was Thomas’ writings that they turned to…’ The Council of Trent took place between 13 December 1545 and ended on 4 December 1563. I fail to see how the council could turn to any writings when it was no longer in existence. Another error on page 61…”

These reviewers become, they imagine, acerbically witty in their zeal to discredit a proposal.

And then there is the “nice” report, which warmly endorses the project, quotes some of the “best bits” and earnestly hopes that the publisher will go ahead. I don’t know why anyone bothers writing these, because publishers distrust positive reports and instead fall dismally on the negative ones. In a sense, academics are hoist by their own petard: the whole culture of academia and peer review is about finding errors and penalising them.

I think there is too much of an emphasis on spotting “mistakes”. The exercise often comes at the expense of thinking about the issues or following the argument. In fact, errors and creativity can go hand in hand. Indeed, I wrote a book on this, showing how Galileo’s facts were wrong (for example, about stellar parallax) and how Louis Pasteur cheated on the results of experiments to prove that life could not “spontaneously generate”.

The book argued that the culture of “right/ wrong”, “true/false” is an enemy not only of democracy and toleration but also of knowledge and discovery.

The text may never see the light of day though – not only because of errors but also because the whole concept enraged the expert readers!

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