Book chapters can allow freedom to think about your work in line with broader theoretical issues, but if you’re tempted to write a book chapter for an edited collection, it might be best to reconsider. Dorothy Bishop finds that researchers who write book chapters might as well bury the paper in a hole in their garden.
Inappropriate use of journal impact factors has been much in the spotlight. The impact factor is not only a poor indicator of research quality but it is also blamed for delaying publication of good science, and even encouraging dishonesty. My own experience is in line with this: some of my most highly-cited work has appeared in relatively humble journals. In the age of the internet, there are three things that determine if a paper gets noticed: it needs to be tagged so that it will be found on a computer search, it needs to be accessible and not locked behind a paywall, and it needs to be well-written and interesting.
While I’m not a slave to metrics, I am, like all academics these days, fascinated by the citation data provided by sources such as Google Scholar, and pleased when I see that something I have written has been cited by others. The other side of the coin is the depression that ensues when I find that a paper into which I have distilled my deepest wisdom has been ignored by the world. Often, it’s hard to say why one article is popular and another is not. The papers I’m proudest of tend to be those that required the greatest intellectual effort, but these are seldom the most cited. Typically, they are the more technical or mathematical articles; others find them as hard to read as I found them to write. Google Scholar reveals, however, one factor that exerts a massive impact on whether a paper is cited or not: whether it appears in a journal or an edited book.
I’ve had my suspicions about this for some time, and it has made me very reluctant to write book chapters. This can be difficult. Quite often, a chapter for the proceedings is the price one is expected to pay for an expenses-paid invitation to a conference. And many of my friends and colleagues get overtaken by enthusiasm for editing a book and are keen for me to write something. But statistical analysis of citation data confirms my misgivings.
Google Scholar is surprisingly coy in terms of what it allows you to download. It will show you citations of your papers on the screen, but I have not found a way to download these data. (I’m a recent convert to data-scraping in R, but you get a firm rap over the knuckles for improper behaviour if you attempt to use this approach to probe Google Scholar too closely). So in what follows I treated rank order of citations, rather than absolute citation level as my dependent variable. I downloaded a listing of my papers, ranked by citations, and coded them according to whether the article appeared in a journal or as a book chapter. Book chapters tend not to be empirical – they are more often review papers, or conceptual pieces – so to control for that I subdivided the journal articles into empirical and theoretical/review pieces. I also excluded papers published after 2007, to allow for the fact that recent papers haven’t had a chance to get cited much, as well as any odd items such as book reviews. To make interpretation more intuitive, I inverted the rank order, so that a high score meant lots of citations, and the boxplots showing the results are in the Figure below.
Because I’m nerdy about these things, I did some stats, but you don’t really need them. The trend is very clear in the boxplot: book chapters don’t get cited. Well, you might say, maybe this is because they aren’t so good; after all, book chapters aren’t usually peer reviewed. It could be true, but I doubt it. My own appraisal is that these chapters contain some of my best writing, because they allowed me to think about broader theoretical issues and integrate ideas from different perspectives in a way that is not so easy in an empirical article. Perhaps, then, it’s because these papers are theoretical that they aren’t cited. But no: look at the non-empirical pieces published in journals. Their citation level is just as high as papers reporting empirical data. Could publication year play a part? As mentioned above, I excluded papers from the past five years; after doing this, there was no overall correlation between citation level and publication year.
Things may be different for other disciplines, especially in humanities, where publication in books is much more common. But if you publish in a field where most publications are in journals, then I suspect the trend I see in my own work will apply to you too. Quite simply, 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.
Accessibility is the problem. However good your chapter is, if readers don’t have access to the book, they won’t find it. In the past, there was at least a faint hope that they may happen upon the book in a library, but these days, most of us don’t bother with any articles that we can’t download from the Internet.
I’m curious as to whether publishers have any plans to tackle this issue. Are they still producing edited collections? I still get asked to contribute to these from time to time, but perhaps not so often as in the past. An obvious solution would be to put edited books online, just like journals, but there would need to be a radical rethink of access costs if so. Nobody is going to want to pay $30 to download a single chapter. Maybe publishers could make book chapters freely available one or two years after publication – I see no purpose in locking this material away from the public, and it seems unlikely this would damage book sales. If publishers don’t want to be responsible for putting material online, they could simply return copyright to authors, who would be free to do so.
My own solution would be for editors of such collections to take matters into their own hands, bypass publishers altogether, and produce freely downloadable, web-based copy. But until that happens, my advice to any academic who is tempted to write a chapter for an edited collection is don’t.
Eve Mardera, Helmut Kettenmann, & Sten Grillner (2010). Impacting our young Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016516107
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
This article was originally posted by Dorothy on her personal blog, BishopBlog, where the discussion is continuing.
This is an interesting argument. But I wonder whether it places too much value on receiving citations. Although no academic wishes to bury her work, and all of us would like to receive more citations, citations themselves are ambiguous. As you suggest in the course of your argument, some of your best pieces are not the most highly cited. The implication is that citations alone do not capture the value of a piece of academic writing. So the conclusion of your argument should have been: if your aim is to maximize citations of a piece of your work, then do not publish it as a book chapter. On the other hand, if you want a bit of latitude to explore more wide-ranging theory, a book chapter may be just what the doctor ordered.
One final point. I suspect that book chapters may be read more by a group that is less prone to cite things in published journal articles — that is, students. A book chapter may have a great impact on them if it is assigned reading for a class. Citations simply don’t capture that sort of impact.
Great article. You should write a book chapter about it.
Book chapters in some fields are published electronically. So for instance, in search terms, there’s no difference between publishing in a journal and Lecture Notes in Computer Science. The world of Developmental Neuropsychology (which I see in your bio) may be different.
I just published a book chapter on knowledge mobilization and social media in an open access book, deposited that chapter in my institutional repository, blogged and tweeted about the publication and it is getting traffic.
Like the comment above from Jodi about electronic publishing, the role of open access should be considered as part of this discussion.
Obsessing on impact is turning academics into media gigolos.There is something heroically futile about writing book chapters that no one will read.
With a sample size of 9 book chapters, it is impossible to make any conclusions about this data. Especially considering that all of the entries came from the same author. It could very well be the case that your writing style contributes more to citation in journals vs. book chapters. I would at least be entertained if you used data from a wide range of authors over a wide range of disciplines. But to shun book chapters to everyone regardless of field, (which you even concede makes up your best work!), is absolutely absurd. After reading this article it is clear why you are a neuropsychologist (still quite a noble profession requiring an incredible intellect) and not a statistician 🙂
Open access book chapters are the obvious answer if you want people to be able to read (and cite) your work. We’ve negotiated this with book editors/publishers and it’s worked in the same way that open access journal articles do (i.e. it involves transferring money, so you need to have access to dedicated funding). For example, our chapter here is the ONLY open access online chapter in this edited book:
Even with equal access, though, book chapters seem to get less traffic – perhaps reflecting the differential academic status attached (in social sciences anyway) to books chapters v articles.
Blogging and tweeting also draws people’s attention to it of course. I think the comment that you might as well bury your work in a hole in the ground applies equally to publishing behind a paywall!
I agree wholeheartedly — book chapters are not worth it. I co-wrote a book chapter and didn’t even receive a copy of the book! That work is really hard to recommend to colleagues who may not have access unless their library bought the electronic version of the book. My rights to re-distribute copies is also much more restrictive than the main journals in our field. I will NEVER write a book chapter again. BTW, my experience in my (natural science) field is that book chapters are generally peer-reviewed. Other chapters by colleagues in the social sciences that I know of also went through peer-review.