Just how important is the monograph for history ?

Back in January I posted about the visibility or otherwise of collections of edited essays, suggesting that whilst this form of publication may be as good as invisible in the sciences, we need to view the humanities (or at least history) differently.

In reply Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) gave some intriguing numbers from an analysis of her citation patterns. In a recent review article in neuropsychology, she had cited 84 journal articles, 3 chapters, and one book. What’s more, she finds herself now very reluctant to cite anything that isn’t available online (which includes most books and edited collections.)

By way of a counter-example, I here extend the analysis of my own citation patterns that I began in that post. (For details of the data, read it here.) Here I’m interested in the balance between journal articles, books, and edited collections.

There has been much debate about finding a viable business model for Open Access monograph publishing in the humanities. Anecdotal evidence abounds, which chimes with my experience, that the ‘big book’ remains the Gold Standard for senior scholars; the once-in-a-decade intervention that changes the game. Lower down the food chain, the perception still rules that it is impossible for a young scholar to secure the vital first academic job without the book-of-the-thesis.

So much, so familiar. But there remains a real lack of data to back up this near-universal intuition, and to establish whether readers think as highly of the monograph as authors, publishers and research assessors think they do. And so, I looked at my own citation behaviour over the last few years, to answer the questions: how much do I cite monographs, as opposed to journal articles or papers in edited collections, and how old are those books when I cite them ?

The answer to the first of these even I found surprising. Here are the numbers:

Category Proportion of citations (%)
Books 59.4
Edited collections (and individual articles therein) 23.4
Journal articles 11.7
Theses 2.0
Other 3.5

I had expected the monograph to loom large, but not to the extent revealed in these figures. I was also very surprised that I cited more chapters in edited collections than articles in journals, which were an amazingly low proportion of the total.

It’s also interesting just how old some of these monographs I cite are. The mean age of a monograph (at the time I cited it) was 17.5 years, with a median of 14.5. Some, in specialist areas, are still current after 40 years. This would suggest that any embargo-based scheme of Green OA for monographs would have to include very long embargoes indeed to satisfy publishers, which suggests that Gold would seem the way to go.

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5 thoughts on “Just how important is the monograph for history ?

  1. Many thanks for the post, it is an interesting one. I do have to politely differ with one point you make though:

    “This would suggest that any embargo-based scheme of Green OA for monographs would have to include very long embargoes”

    I disagree!

    Whether monographs or journals, it’s a bit of a fallacy to assume that age of citations / ‘cite-usage’ has anything to do with the viability of self-archiving embargo lengths & subscriptions or purchases.

    As was mentioned recently, at the IHR colloquium *all* CUP journals in HSS & STM currently operate a 0-month embargo for pre-prints & 12-months for the final version. I did not see anyone clamouring that this endangers or imperils all the HSS journals that CUP publishes before RCUK’s policy came out (and CUP have had this policy for many years now). The situation is similar for other publishers. One can easily get data on this from http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/
    Furthermore, this policy is the same for academic books published by CUP. I am a council member of the Systematics Association (http://www.systass.org/) and our main publication is of book-form – themed, collected chapters published as books in the SystAss Special Volumes Series (http://www.systass.org/publications/). Here too there is only a 12-month embargo on self-archiving one’s contribution. Yet our books still sell copies & get cited decades after first publication. So I think citation half-lives or other citation-based measures have very little to do with the economic viability of different publishing models or embargo lengths.

    Further data: many journals in many disciplines also have comparably ‘old’ mean citations
    e.g. in PLOS ONE Paleontology papers I sampled, the mean-age of cited papers was >18 years from the publication date of the citing paper, whilst the median-age of cited papers are >10 years from the publication data of the citing paper. Data here: http://figshare.com/articles/A_simple_analysis_of_Reference_lists_of_10_PLOS_ONE_Paleontology_papers/106815
    And needless to say most non-gold Open Access palaeontology journals have 6 or 12-month embargoes, and operate very successfully with no apparent harm to subscriptions. These ‘short’ embargo lengths are nothing new in academic publishing tbh.

    I would suggest that there are many other much more significant factors such as ‘journal bundling’ that are far more influential in the decision to cancel journals. Journals that are part of bundle could easily operate a 3-month embargo and still remain subscribed to indefinitely (librarians wouldn’t cancel a large bundle on the basis of not needing just one of the titles). Also price, if it’s a comparatively inexpensive well-loved journal, I suspect librarians would keep it on even if it had a short-embargo period. Finally there’s also the issue that some are deeply attached to the printed form – I would think this is particularly significant in History. So even if there are free access copies available online, academics & librarians would still want to subscribe to at least the journal in print form.

    In short, I think bibliometric analyses such as these are fascinating, but they have no demonstrated relation to the viability of self-archiving embargo periods for publishing academic research.

    • I’m grateful to Ross for his comment, and very gratified that this post attracted so much attention yesterday. Ross will, I’m sure, note the element of provisionality in the comment with which he takes issue, which wasn’t the main burden of the post. But, it’s an interesting and important angle to pursue, so here are some thoughts.

      I take the point that some publishers do have a liberal policy in relation to embargoes. But I understand that at the IHR event last week (which I believe Ross attended, but I had to miss), one publisher suggested that if historians actually started to self-archive in repositories (which they have not done much before now) then they would need to lengthen their embargo periods – so at least some publishers think the embargo is important. Also, the recent open letter from editors of historical journals suggests to me that the direction of travel could very well be towards longer embargoes, explicitly because of the impact on business models.

      More broadly, most of the evidence that Ross cites relates to journals, and mostly in the sciences; and the evidence that he gives about books (which I am really concerned with) was from his own field, not in HSS. I have tried elsewhere to suggest that there are variations in publication cultures between disciplines (on, for example, ORCID, and on edited collections). This isn’t to argue that we historians are special; but it does mean we need to have these various discussions with an awareness that these differences may well be there.

      Given this, and an almost complete lack of useful data about citation patterns of monographs and their useful lifespan, I don’t think Ross can yet be so sure that a link between embargoes and business models is a ‘fallacy’. By no means do I argue that a link is proven; but it certainly isn’t disproved either. Over to you, OAPEN UK.

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  4. I enjoyed this post very much as well. I have to say that if “the direction of travel could very well be towards longer embargoes, explicitly because of the impact on business models”, then it means (to me) that all of us in the humanities and social sciences that have been either practicing or advocating rapid publication, open peer review, peer-to-peer review and post-publication peer review, and naturally open access, truly need to do a much better work.

    I fail to see how embargoes getting longer could benefit anyone. I seriously doubt that not having a book accessible online for longer would make people buy more physical books, and/or make publishers print more copies of said [academic] books. The world of academic publishing in which academic monographs are published in runs of 200 copies and sold at £60.00 has limited the reach and impact of important work within and outside academia– and when selling copies is not really the motivation for the publication of such work, establishing longer embargoes so research might be deposited in open access repositories until the research is no longer new and already well known seems like a very poor and frankly counter-productive strategy.

    Unless our real goal is not enabling wider access.

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