Let’s say you’re a book review editor for a large circulation science periodical. You receive books from publishers and you look for scientists with the relevant expertise to write reviews that really engage the content of the books they are reviewing.
The thing with having the relevant expertise, though, is that it may put you right in the middle of a controversy that the book you’ve been asked to review is probing or advancing.
In other words, it may be tricky to find a reviewer who is conversant in the scientific issues the book raises and simultaneously reasonably objective about those issues. If you know enough to grok the horse race, you may actually have a horse in that race.
The question, however, is whether large circulation science periodicals are offering book reviews with the tacit promise that they are objective (or as objective as an individual’s own assessment of a book can be).
To get a quick sense of your expectations on this, here’s a poll:
With your intuitions reasonably fresh in your mind, you might be interested in considering a specific case, in which Jared Diamond published a review in Nature of the book Questioning Collapse — a book which, as it happens, “directly and specifically critiques his own work”. According to Molika Ashford at Stinkyjournalism.org, this fact was not disclosed in the (negative) review of the book Diamond wrote, nor was it disclosed by the Nature editors. Indeed, the Nature book review editor who responded to Stinkyjournalism.org’s charge pretty much blew it off.
So, did Nature fall down on its ethical duties to its readers in failing to disclose the conflict of interest (real or perceived)?
If not, is it because Nature readers assume a duty to do their own legwork in uncovering the conflicts of interests of authors published in Nature? Or is it because Nature readers are not expecting anything like objectivity from book reviews?