Book chapters and edited collections have long been central to the humanities and social sciences, but are they still a worthwhile format? Below we have compiled three reflections each defending the value of edited collections for contemporary academic practice. Drawing on citation patterns in his discipline Peter Webster identifies the comparative longevity of edited collections. Pat Thomson affirms the creativity involved in the process of writing book chapters. Finally, Mark Carrigan looks at the opportunities offered for the early career researcher and concludes with a helpful look at how best to overcome the organisational challenges involved in the editing of a collection.
On the invisibility of edited collections
by Peter Webster
Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) last year argued that (in neuropsychology) ‘if you write a chapter for an edited book, you might as well write the paper and then bury it in a hole in the ground’. The issue is accessibility: (to paraphrase a little) most books aren’t available online as journals are, and no-one goes to libraries any more. (Read the post on Bishop Blog or as republished in the LSE Impact blog.)
Bishop admitted that things might be different in the humanities and social sciences, and her argument didn’t quite ring true with my own experience in history. Opinion on Twitter and amongst colleagues was divided: one refuses to contribute to edited volumes, so fast do they disappear from view; another colleague thought that publishers were in collective flight from a format that had previously been fundamental. Others thought history one of the exceptions to an otherwise useful rule.
We are rather short of useful data on this. But my impression is that the format works in a different way to the (mostly online) journal. Granted, few of them are available digitally, and so no-one will find them by search. However, for as long as at least one article in the volume remains current, readers will be picking the volume from a shelf; and so the other articles in theory at least remain visible – more so than in a journal issue. I’ve heard it often said that if a piece of work isn’t online, it may as well not exist at all; I think historians do still spend a good deal of time in libraries, picking books off shelves. I certainly do.
And then, as @tjowens pointed out, a coherent volume may after a while become a textbook, standing as a recent summary of the state of a particular field. I can certainly remember such volumes as an undergraduate; and my memory is that I read more of these than the weighty monographs listed alongside them. And although it isn’t properly recognised and rewarded, editing a text that influences a whole generation of younger scholars should be an important part of what scholars do.
“But they’re not peer-reviewed!” Well, yes, if one accepts only one mode of peer review as legitimate – blind peer review, brokered by a journal. I would argue that some edited collections go through a process that is at least as creative of better work than the traditional system. Two years ago I was an invited plenary speaker at a tightly themed conference, leading to an edited volume. I responded to the theme as proposed; the paper was discussed at the conference. A revised draft then went through two series of revisions with the two editors, influenced by an exchange of drafts between the contributors. It is now improved far more than as a result of two or three vague paragraphs from an anonymous journal reviewer. Does such a system place too much power in the hands of the editors ? Possibly; but it is at least open and transparent.
But so far these were only my impressions; and so I decided to create some data of my own. I looked at all the works that I have cited in the past six years: data from ten article-length pieces published since 2006, including two unpublished items at the copy-edit stage. The field is the recent religious history of Britain, including writings on the sociology of religion, musicology and the history of the plastic arts and drama.
Three interesting patterns came from the data:
- Citations of chapters in edited volumes formed a surprisingly high proportion of the whole, some 23%.
- These papers have a decent longevity. I looked at the time elapsed between the date of publication and the date at which I was making the final revisions to my own paper (ie. when I was actually citing it). Far from it being the case that a two or three year old paper is outdated, the median time was ten years.
- I looked at the overall age profile of the volumes, the mean average of which was 14.9 years; and there were few that I would not cite again if I were writing today.
All this would suggest that the edited volume continues to play a role for history, or at least for the kind of history that I write; and that Bishop’s observation doesn’t always hold true. And what of the future ? The timescale of the data didn’t allow me to see change over time; that is, whether we are indeed seeing the beginnings of a flight by authors and readers from edited collections. Without data from publishers on the number of approaches they receive, that would be hard to establish. However, data like mine would start to show that effect in a few years’ time. For now, rumours of the demise of the edited collection seem a little premature.
This was originally posted on Peter Webster’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Why write book chapters?
By Pat Thomson
The reason I like writing chapters is because they (generally) offer different opportunities for academic writing from the stock-in-trade journal article. For a start, you can assume with a book chapter that you don’t have to convince readers that the topic you’re writing about is important. The editors are going to do that in the foreword. They are also likely to do a pretty thorough survey of the field, and to cover its history. So you don’t have to do that kind of literature work in a chapter, unless it is one about the literature ( see below). You just have to situate your own position and indicate the literatures that you draw on and to which you are talking/contributing.
And I reckon you can often be more creative as a writer in a chapter. Not all book chapters are the same of course. There are different kinds of edited books which require different kinds of writing and different kinds of creativity. There are for example overtly pedagogical texts written for under- and post- graduate courses. The writing challenge here is quite different from a journal article – the reader is a learner, and the job of the chapter writer is to teach them about something. The writing must therefore be clear, engaging, the content well scaffolded; there may also be a need for examples, exercises and annotated bibliographies – perhaps even online links. It takes imagination and innovation in order to present instructional material so that it anticipates questions and answers them.
Then there are the chapters in international handbooks which set out to provide a state-of-the-art review of the field. The challenge here is not only to present a survey which identifies key debates, challenges and trends, but also to construct and argue for a future agenda – all the while not sending the reader to sleep with an excess of authors and titles and dates.
And there are topic based edited collections which aim to deliberately offer a variety of perspectives, to explore and to debate important questions. This is where the writer is most likely to be able to negotiate with the editor/s about a creative response. This is because topic-based edited collections often benefit from having variations as they keep readers moving through the text. So there is room for writerly manoeuvre. I have for example contributed chapters which are photo essays, multi-voiced accounts, auto-ethnographic words and images, heavily edited interview transcripts and variously structured narratives.
These kinds of chapters are the ones I most enjoy writing. It’s not that you can’t play with the journal structure, you can if you choose your journal carefully, and if you argue your case. But you generally don’t have to work so hard on this with the edited book. Provided the editor is up for some variation in the collection, you can think pretty creatively about how to present your material.
You can of course exercise the same kind of creativity in a whole book – but it is a much more challenging task. A book chapter is a good way in to alternative modes of academic writing. It’s a place where you can think and do much more about the WRITING aspect of academic writing. It’s a place to focus directly on the reader rather than primarily on the referees. It’s a place to practice and develop the craft of authoring.
So, that’s why I like writing book chapters….which I’m now about to get back to.
This was originally posted on Pat Thomson’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Some reflections on editing books and special issues while doing a PhD
By Mark Carrigan
I co-edited an edited book early in my PhD, with an existing project inviting me onboard as a fourth editor – largely, I assume, because my knowledge of the asexuality literature was useful to the project. It was a great experience in many ways. I gained an understanding of the publishing process and I realised how usefully such projects can broaden your grasp of the literature. So that was great. But on the other hand it also left a chapter which I was immensely proud of stuck in a book (which, as my first I was also quite proud of) stuck beyond a price tag that might as well have gone hand-in-hand with a coversheet saying that it was intended for institutional libraries and everyone else should get lost.
Ok, so this is a problem, but surely they’re still worthwhile? So I thought as I set off on a second editing project. This time I put together a CfP for an Asexuality Studies anthology. Largely due to rookie mistakes and the intervention of some pretty major upheavals in my personal life during the time this project soon began to collapse into a bit of a mess. I also started to question my choice of publisher and, after consulting a number of people I trusted, settled on another. But the timescales involved at this stage were such that I had to go back and update all the existing contributors and gain permission to repackage the project. While continually cursing the fact I hadn’t recruited a co-editor who was more organised than me (I’m fantastic at time management but bewilderingly inadequate when it comes to the continued hyper-organisation involved in a process like editing a volume) I attempted to persevere, punctuated by intermittent rounds of guilt ridden procrastination, before finally calling it a day a few months ago and sending profuse apologies to all concerned.
My third experience of editing has been brilliant. I led a team of guest editors for a special asexuality themed issue of psychology and sexuality (some of which is still open access) which came out earlier in the year. Some things went wrong. The aforementioned personal difficulties got in the way a lot, as did my general level of self-organisation. Thankfully my co-editors were wonderful and we eventually pulled it together. The end result is a genuinely groundbreaking text and, if you’re interested in sexuality studies, it’s an interesting one as well. Plus we have a proposed extension of it into a book under review at the moment. So in all this was a good experience. Though it’ll probably be a while before I get involved in editing again.
So here are some things I learnt which might be useful to PhDs/ECRs who are doing this stuff for the first time:
- Don’t underestimate the amount of work involved. Or rather don’t underestimate the consistency of it. It’s not really that onerous in many ways but it does need little and often to succeed. If you are someone (like me) whose level of self-organisation veers between extremes then this is particularly important to address. As I found out to my cost, procrastinating for a month on an edited collection can make the mess you have to clean up afterwards radically more onerous a result.
- Don’t underestimate the potential benefits attached to it. Assuming this is a topic you’re interested in then you’re likely to massively increase your connections with others working in the field, as well as getting a broader review of the field as a whole. I have a vague anxiety that 75% of the world’s asexuality researchers think I’m a complete flake after my behaviour during the editing proceses described above. But on the flip side I’m pretty sure I know 75%+ of the people working in one of my fields.
- Don’t try and do it on your own! Just don’t. I did it largely because, well, I thought it would look better to be a sole co-editor. But it was a disaster. Whereas if I had, so to speak, had a Todd on that project (my very experienced co-editor from the other two projects) then I doubt it would have failed. If anything is a natural focus for collaboration in the contemporary academy, it is edited collections.
So I think editing collections can be a very worthwhile thing to do but it should be approached cautiously for those in the early stages of their careers. I can say with near certainty that I will never agree to edit anything again unless I have a co-editor who I have an existing working relationship with. But what about the broader landscape within which an individual might choose to submit to a project like this? I still think there’s value in them for many of the reasons Pat describes in her article. After internalising the horrible attitude “book chapters are worthless” I’ve started to relent in recent months. I’m writing a chapter with Milena Kremakova for the Paracademics Handbook and I’m writing a chapter giving an overview of the asexuality studies literature for a psychology handbook later this year.
But the price issue still troubles me. Sure, I can post a pre-print on my academia.edu and on my blog. But that’s still an unsatisfying workaround. Edited books no longer have much credentialising function within the audit culture and their communicative function is hampered by the unit costs resulting from the commercial organisations to whom we are choosing to outsource the publishing. So more than any element of the contemporary landscape of scholarly publishing, it seems that the production of edited collections is a practice ripe for revolution. I’ve written a little about this here but it’s something I want to come back to in future.
This was originally posted on Mark Carrigan’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
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Dr Peter Webster is an historian of religion in contemporary Britain.
Pat Thomson is Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham. Her current research focuses on creativity, the arts and change in schools and communities, and postgraduate writing pedagogies. She is currently devoting more time to exploring, reading and thinking about imaginative and inclusive pedagogies which sit at the heart of change. She blogs about her research at Patter.
Mark Carrigan is a sociologist and academic technologist based at the University of Warwick. He edits the Sociological Imagination and co-convenes the BSA Digital Sociology and BSA Realism and Social Research groups. He is a research associate at the LSE’s Public Policy Group and was formerly managing editor of the LSE’s British Politics and Policy Blog. His research interests include sociological theory, methodology, biographical methods, longitudinal qualitative research, asexuality, sexual culture and digital sociology.