Oxygen stable isotopes (δ18O) are among the most useful tools in palaeoclimatology/palaeoceanography. Simulation of oxygen stable isotopes allows testing how the past variability of these isotopes in water can be interpreted. By modelling the proxy directly in the model, the results can also be directly compared with the data. Water isotopes have been implemented in the global three-dimensional model of intermediate complexity LOVECLIM, allowing fully coupled atmosphere-ocean simulations. In this study, we present the validation of the model results for present-day climate against the global database for oxygen stable isotopes in carbonates. The limitation of the model together with the processes operating in the natural environment reveal the complexity of use the continental calcite-δ18O signal of speleothems for a global quantitative data-model comparison exercise. On the contrary, the reconstructed surface ocean calcite-δ18O signal in LOVECLIM does show a very good agreement with the late Holocene database (foraminifers) at the global and regional scales. Our results indicate that temperature and the isotopic composition of the seawater are the main control on the fossil-δ18O signal recorded in foraminifer shells when all species are grouped together. Depth habitat, seasonality and other ecological effects play a more significant role when individual species are considered. We argue that a data-model comparison for surface ocean calcite δ18O in past climates, such as the Last Glacial Maximum (≈ 21 000 yr), could constitute an interesting tool for mapping the potential shifts of the frontal systems and circulation changes throughout time. Similarly, the potential changes in intermediate oceanic circulation systems in the past could be documented by a data (benthic foraminifers)-model comparison exercise whereas future investigations are necessary in order to quantitatively compare the results with data for the deep ocean. © 2013 Author(s).