Rob Freeman raised an interesting topic on Oracle-L a couple of weeks ago with the following:
My question is, what constitutes Oracle Book Writing mal-practice (and I pray I’ve never committed it). Certainly mistakes crop up in books all the time, I’m as guilty as any writer of this. This chapter I’m reading though, in an effort to get the reader to doing something quickly, does not lay any foundation, skips critical steps and actually prompts them to do what I consider some very dangerous things.
The posting didn’t really generate a lot of discussion – which is a shame – and my privileges to write to Oracle-L lapsed some time ago, so I’m writing my response to Rob’s observations here.
Mark Powell made the following comment, which I thought was an important one:
It is one thing to make a mistake and another to write something without giving proper thought to related facts which could impact someone following the information given.
Like Mark, I think you have to go just a little further than “without attention to detail” to be accused of “Oracle Book Writing malpractice”; but when you’re writing about topics like backup and recovery you’re immediately on the boundary and should take extreme care with investigating and justifying your claims.
Surprisingly, though, the commonest form of response was along the lines of “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware), “always check before you do anything”, and even one comment about it being “good to learn from mistakes”.
First: “let the buyer beware” is not an acceptable response. The buyer presumably bought the book to learn – so how can they be in a position to judge that what they’re being taught is bad. Note, particularly, that Rob said the chapter he was concerned with “skips critical steps” – so if the available instructions appear to work how is the learner supposed to know that something critical is missing ? By the time he finds out it may be far too late.
Secondly: if people like Rob won’t stand up in public and say “this is wrong” who will ? How will anything get better if no-one is prepared to point out the errors and omissions and explain what’s wrong ? I hope that some day, when I’m browsing Amazon perhaps, I’ll see a review from Rob on some recent Oracle book that says: “Chapter NN should be treated with extreme caution and here are a few of the reasons….”. He’s probably too nice to be that blunt, but he maybe he could start with “Chapters A, B and C were good because … but …”.
In passing, I’ve had a couple of people tell me in the past that “the best way to deal with rubbish is to write good stuff instead”.
It’s hard to write good material, but it’s easy to write rubbish and rubbish propagates quickly (especially with “cut and paste” authors around). Look at the comments from Amar Kumar Padhi:
I recollect one incident related to RAID selection for disk storage. Different people produced different published sources that had different conclusion resulting in utter confusion.
If some of those published sources had been critical appraisals of other sources then Amar Kumar’s juniors might have been in a better position to assess the quality and relevance of the information and avoid confusion.
Don’t be satisfied with rubbish – there’s too much of it about and it’s not going to go away by itself.
Finally, for those of you suffering from authors who think that “caveat emptor” is a reasonable attitude to take, here’s a guideline that might help you avoid getting burned too often.
Update Dec 2010: At the time I wrote this note I forgot to say anything in response to the comments – but in my random browsing of my own blog (see the “random page” option in the “special links” near the top of the right hand panel) I rediscovered this blog entry and thought I’d update it.
In the original note I expressed the hope that I would see Rob Freeman’s concerns appear in an Amazon review. They haven’t appeared for an Oracle book, but there is at least one review where he’s voiced an opinion that expresses his concerns. And on the other side of the coin – here’s an example where he demonstrates how it’s possible to respond to some negative comments presented in a rational fashion.
Rob is clearly far more diplomatic than I am when it comes to pointing the finger - but he has pointed the finger, and more of us should do it – especially in the field where we have most experience.
My opinion on the rubbish that permeates the Oracle arena is still this: if someone publishes rubbish, don’t be afraid to call it rubbish - but make sure you explain why it’s rubbish. If you want an idea on how to write good reviews for books – whether good books or bad books – here are a couple of examples:
I would say that the aim of a good review (for technical books) is: show that you’ve read the book, display your understanding of the content, and then explain why you found the book to be good, bad or indifferent. Your display of understanding is important – if it’s clear that you understand the content then the reader can trust your review; if it’s clear that you don’t have a clue about what the book says then the reader can discount your review; if you say nothing to indicate your level of understanding the reader has a good reason to ignore your review.
Finally, on a lighter note, here’s a little gem I came across on Dilbert recently on the topic of book content.