In Defense of the Edited Book

In his post “3 simple distinctions your government should eliminate from its research financing system“, Curt Rice recently wrote about the merits of publishing essays in anthologies and called for their equal recognition by funding instruments vis-a-vis those published in journals. He writes:

I still think it’s a lot harder to get published in a good journal than in a good book. But I’m far less certain that it’s just as hard to get published in a bad journal as in a good book, even if the weighting system the government has adopted would make you think so.

The gist of the post lies, as the title suggests, not in the nature of the anthology or edited volume, but in the counting policies for research output that funding bodies devise. However, it is uncommon to find such clear support for a genre that has become somewhat of a step-child in the family of academic writings.

The situation of the edited volume is grim: As Rice shows, funding bodies, in their recently found penchant for accountability, don’t treat the academic input into making such books very favourably. Furthermore, the submission policies of many traditional trade publishers and prestigious UPs clearly signal: we don’t even look at edited volumes. Harvard is the first example that comes to mind. Even academics themselves who frequently publish in such collections or edit them are often dismissive of these products. As one high-profile professor once put it to me as I showed him a couple of newly printed examples: “no one reads these things anyway.”

Over time, such negative attitudes will inevitably be reflected in the quality of the books themselves.That is a great shame because a well-edited volume is ideally suited to thoroughly investigate a subject from a variety of viewpoints, be they disciplinary, methodological or theoretical. This can be a great enrichment to any field or a discussion across academic disciplines. But, as Rice rightly points out, if funding bodies and other instruments of academic score-keeping do not appreciate the work that is needed to make such a book “good”, why should anybody bother?

Take, for example, introductions. Rice writes:

Contributions to anthologies earn points. Unless they’re entitled “Introduction.”

It is common for editors to write introductory chapters to their volumes. These introductions position the subsequent chapters and argue for a conceptual perspective motivating the book. Introductions are works of scholarship and they convey research results.

As the system currently stands, an introduction that is actually entitled “Introduction” does not get points. By now, most of us have learned to give our introductions different titles, and we thereby collect points.

How could it come to this?  How can it be that the collection of “points” determines the direction of academic work? Moreover, how can it be that in this “game” that allots “points” the writing of “introductions” is not deemed score-worthy? The heart and soul of any “good” edited volume is the introduction: it provides the conceptual framework, the methodological parameters, and demonstrates the congruence of the contributions. An introduction is to the edited volume what a conductor is to an orchestra – it unifies the contributors and shapes the output of the ensemble.

Academic communication is often likened to an ongoing conversation. The edited volume is an excellent forum where scholars can conduct such a conversation on a specific topic. The question is how it can be rehabilitated?

As an unwanted step-child of the publishing industry, it is relatively unencumbered by the ubiquitous and persistent craving for some prestigious UP stamp on the front cover. That makes it a perfect genre to explore the possibilities of open access book-publishing. And since it is not a monological but inherently dialogical form, it would lend it self readily to new forms of open review and composition. We already know that much of the needed yet often neglected exchange among contributors and editors can happen online – Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Gary Hall are boldly showing the way. What needs to happen now is – as usual – the necessary persuading  a wider editor- and authorship to invest their time and writing in Open Access edited volumes . Oh and we must remind the score-keeping purse-holders that this genre is not just worth their “points” but a crucial part of the communicative landscape in the academy.