On the invisibility of edited collections

[Update: my book on The Edited Collection: Pasts, Present and Futures (inspired by this post) was published by CUP in 2020.]

Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) last year argued that (at least 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 something about her argument didn’t quite ring true with my own experience in history. Opinion on Twitter and amongst colleagues was divided: one eminent colleague had reached the point of refusing to contribute to edited volumes, so fast did they disappear from view; another 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, then 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 stands a good chance after a few years of becoming in effect 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 minds 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“But they’re not peer-reviewed!”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 different 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, not least with one of the protagonists who happened to be living in retirement not far from the conference venue (the joys of contemporary history). A revised draft then went through two series of revisions with the two editors who organised the conference, influenced by an exchange of drafts between the contributors. It is now inproved far more than as a result of two or three vague paragraphs from a journal review. 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 myself 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. (I’d be happy to expand on methodology if anyone is interested.)

Three interesting patterns came from the data.
(i) Citations of chapters in edited volumes formed a (to me) surprisingly high proportion of the whole, some 23%. (More later in another post on the humanities monograph and the invisibility of the journal article.)

(ii) 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.

(iii) I looked at the overall age profile of the volumes, the mean average of which was 14.9 years (to 2013); 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 hold true. I should admit that my field is thinly documented –  several of my own pieces broke almost completely virgin soil – and so it may be that for scholarship on areas such as (say) Nazi Germany that are rather more densely overlaid with written work, the picture may be different.

Finally, what of the future ? The timescale of the data didn’t allow me to see whether we are indeed seeing the beginnings of a flight by authors from edited collections. Without data from publishers on the number of approaches they receive, that would be hard to establish empirically. 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.

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9 thoughts on “On the invisibility of edited collections

  1. Ciara Meehan June 18, 2013 / 5:29 pm

    This post has been in the back of my mind since I read it earlier today — mostly because I’m currently co-editing an edited volume. I absolutely agree with your arguments in favour of writing book chapters, and I think there are benefits to be gained from a teaching & learning perspective, also. As you said yourself, students are more likely to read edited collections rather than the more dense monographs. If anything, edited volumes can be a great way to introduce students to the historiography of a certain period / area. They expose students to a range of topics and – perhaps more importantly – a diversity of authors, and all in the one place thus cutting down on the cost of buying books.

  2. Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) January 15, 2013 / 2:13 pm

    Thanks for picking up this issue, Peter. I’m intrigued by the possibility that some of the difference could relate just to *where* people work. I used to love libraries but seldom venture near one now. I’m glued to my computer all day, and as I read a paper I’m always wanting to check out other articles it cites, or at least download them for later reading. I realise this style of working is very different to most of the humanities. I think many scientists have got to the point where if you can’t get it online you don’t bother to read it.
    I was interested in your analysis of your own citing behaviour. I just looked at a review paper I’m currently writing and found I’d cited 84 journal articles, 3 chapters, and one book. One of the chapters was a classic golden oldie, but the other two were available online. And I even start to feel guilty if I cite a work that isn’t available on the internet, as I assume others won’t be able to get it.
    I’d be interested to see what happened if you do the analysis the other way around, as I did – i.e. look at citations to your own works – or to another scholar in the field – in relation to where they appeared.
    Overall, I really don’t want to knock books – i have some chapters I am very fond of – some by others and some I wrote. But I think, in science at least, junior people need warning of the dangers of putting a lot of effort into a volume that may not be accessible. I hope that a more positive outcome of this debate is that chapters, just like journal articles, may start to also become more widely available on the web. I had a contact from one publisher to say there were starting to think they should do this.

    • peterwebster January 16, 2013 / 1:46 pm

      Many thanks Dorothy. I would certainly welcome greater online publication of books, although the business model for that is not yet clear (or at least not Open Access, although that is slightly different.)
      I would have liked to approached the analysis the way you suggest – but, because many of those citations are in works that are themselves not online, they’re harder to find (and most of the pieces are too recently published to have fully registered.)
      In general, it’s pleasing that the blog/Twitter way of having these debates is making it easier to have these kinds of cross-disciplinary conversations, which were harder to broker before.

  3. midgardarts January 14, 2013 / 9:32 pm

    Thank you for this. I have heard the dire warnings against contributing to collected volumes as well and while most, if not all of that comes from writers outside the dicipline of history, it’s hard to make a counter-argument that has more to it than anecdote. Some subjects like material history or the history of the book seem to use edited collections as a supplement to peer-review journals for the reasons you mention. I know one collection of essays published in 1989 on late medieval book production in England is essentially ‘the’ difinitive text on the subject and I have seenevery single essay in that collection appear in citations, often in the same monograph or article.

    This is particularly nice to see since I’m on the hook for a contribution myself and I’m glad to see someone defend the medium for historians.