Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Don't Hate the Book Chapter

Chris Blattman is an anti-chapterite (his words); that is, he argues that the effort it takes to put together a chapter for an edited volume would be better spent putting together an article for a peer-reviewed journal because the impact on one’s career is much greater. This is especially so for junior scholars.

All other things being equal, that’s probably true. But everything is not always equal all of the time.

I’m tempted to affirm that book chapters can be valuable even at R1 universities, but I don’t have any direct experience there so I would only be extrapolating. But here are some arguments for why they are valuable. These aren’t ranked according to importance.

First, they can be an efficient use of both available research and of time. Getting several journal articles out is a very lengthy process. If you have some work lying around that doesn’t fit anywhere else, and that might require only a little extra work to tighten up or add to, it might make sense to participate in an edited volume. It’s a quick and “easy” publication, which adds to your cv. Some are even genuinely peer-reviewed.

Second, in many departments, the publication expectations are less stringent; you don’t need 10 articles in the top three journals of the field. Where there is a range of the minimum number of publications needed (say, six to eight) and the specific nature of those publications is kept vague, then a book chapter or two can carry you over the minimum number of publications needed for tenure or promotion. This is especially helpful if you’ve already got several peer-review journal articles out and are working on a longer-term project that needs time to develop—per the first point.

Third, an edited volume is a form of social network that has long-term benefits. While getting good work published should be the core method by which you expand your network, many edited volumes develop out of workshops or conference panels. These are ideal vehicles for networking—developing relationships with colleagues who will then read your work and provide feedback, collaborate on research, co-write op-eds and public commentary, introduce you to other colleagues and interested parties, invite you to other workshops and conferences, and so on.

Fourth, some edited volumes are considered foundational or key sources for a given subject matter or approach—including in old-fashioned hardcover form. This makes them an important go-to place for researchers and analysts interested in that topic. For example, Duncan Bell’s edited Memory, Trauma and World Politics brought together scholars working on the then-emerging literature of traumatic memories and their effects. The volume as a whole and individual chapters are, eight years after publication, still regularly cited by other books and articles on the subject. For example, Karin Fierke’s focus on the “performative” element of social memory is often used as the theoretical scaffolding for arguments about memory-making, public apologies, and more. Getting a chapter in such a book, then, can provide considerable exposure. (The volume is also available as an eBook.)

Obviously, none of this is to say that scholars should focus on book chapters; a university press book and several articles in good journals remain the primacy currency for recognition and promotion. But that doesn’t automatically lead to a conclusion that book chapters are a waste of time or effort. 

Update: Tom Pepinsky almost simultaneously wrote his own defense of book chapters for assistant professors. Read it; and he's funnier than I am.

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