Liberty and community, risk and trust: a plea for the edited collection

Edited collections of essays are widely supposed to contain lesser work than scholarly journals; to be incoherent as volumes, no more than the sum of their parts; and to be less visible once published. It is also often assumed that those who make decisions in relation to hiring, promotion, tenure and funding think the same. To publish in or edit an essay collection is thought to risk being penalised for the format before even a word is read.

In my forthcoming short book on the edited collection, I examine each component part of this critique, showing that each objection either is largely unfounded or could be met. While edited collection chapters have been less visible than journal articles, the problem is one of information systems rather than anything fundamental to the format; the situation has improved and is likely to continue to improve. In spite of scholars’ perceptions, it is not clear that there has been a generalised loss of confidence in the format amongst publishers. Without much more further research, it is also hard to say that there is any universal citation deficit when chapters are compared to journal articles. And though the systems of quality control commonly used for collections may be different to those for journals, it is not clear that they are any less robust. Much depends on the editor(s).

Despite the lack of empirical evidence, however, this suspicion of the format remains strong, both in the perceptions of scholars and in the way those perceptions are tacitly or openly embedded in systems of research assessment. There is a persistent misalignment between (on the one hand) what scholars believe is in the best interest of their discipline and (on the other) their sense of the professional incentives under which they must work. And such perceptions tend to be self-fulfilling, since a maligned publishing format will attract lesser work from scholars less committed to the task, and thus suffer in terms of quality, significance and impact.

The story of the edited collection in the last three decades is a story of the interplay of technological change, economics, public policy and the changing nature of the scholarly enterprise, where none is wholly cause or wholly effect. But unease with the format predates the disruptions of the last few years; fundamental factors of motivation and personality are in play, as is the relation of individual and collective in academic life. I want to explore these here.

The idea of academic freedom generally comes into view only when it is threatened in a direct way: by the compulsion, whether by governments or indeed universities, to publish certain things and not others, in certain venues and not in others, and at a certain rate. To transpose Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between two kinds of liberty out of its original context, the freedom from direction or constraint in this way is a form of negative liberty.

The second of Berlin’s two ideas, is that of positive liberty: the freedom not so much from direct constraint as ‘to be a subject, not an object; to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside.’ One critic of the edited collection used a highly revealing phrase. To publish one’s work in a edited collection, he argued, is to allow oneself to be distracted by the thematic priorities of others: to divert time and effort into publishing work that, left to one’s own devices, one might not have pursued. Instead, scholars should pursue their own ‘sovereignly set research agenda’. Positive academic liberty, in this sense, is the freedom to take sole control of one’s work, to pursue one’s fundamental intellectual purpose solely in accordance with its own logic.

In an earlier essay Berlin made another distinction, between two kinds of intellectual personality, the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing whereas the fox knows something about many things; the hedgehog’s instinct is to relate all things to a single, coherent vision; the fox’s thought is centrifugal, operating on many levels, ‘scattered or diffused.’ The scholarly hedgehog, then, is likely to value his or her academic sovereignty – or, his positive liberty – to a greater extent than does the fox; better to pursue one’s singular vision than to be waylaid by contributing to a project conceived by others.

Berlin published both essays long before many of the contemporary pressures of publishing culture and academic assessment came to bear. However, it may be that, for some scholars, the edited collection will always remain uncongenial for the constraints it must involve and for the distraction it may prove to be from their sovereign research agenda: an infringement of their positive academic liberty.

But the state of the edited collection is an indication of the health of a certain idea of scholarly community, which persists still, though in inhospitable conditions. It may be that the internalisation (in universities) of an imperative of competitiveness that Kathleen Fitzpatrick has outlined – connected to a wider stress on the ‘creative’ marketing of the self – has dulled the inclination to co-operate. Be that as it may, I suspect (although I could not prove) that most scholars, though both ambitious and rightly proud of their work, would aspire to a more generous mode of academic relationship, if the conditions allowed it. The edited collection at its best offers a model of that community.

One’s life in any community involves the acceptance of some mutual obligation, and a realisation that the interests of the whole are sometimes best served by the constraint of one’s own. As a contributor, I may have to accept some shaping of my work as I collaborate with an editor to turn my contribution into something that is in dialogue with the other chapters, and helps the whole collection amount to more than the sum of its parts. This may sometimes be an agreeable intrusion, and one that in fact improves my work in ways in which I did not expect; at other times it may be less welcome, but still necessary. Though perhaps not all would accept it, I would argue that as a contributor I have also an obligation to the other contributors to the book to commit the time and energy required to produce work of the required standard at the times laid down, or to withdraw in good time if I cannot so commit.

At the same time, these obligations are mutual, or ought to be, but without some level of trust between those involved, such a system is bound to fail. As I recognise my obligation to the other contributors, I am required to take a risk: to trust the other contributors similarly to commit themselves. Just as the editor takes a risk to his or her reputation in trusting me to contribute, so I must trust the editor to complete their work in a similar fashion. I trust them also to intervene to create the most coherent and impactful work that there can be, even if it involves rejecting the work of others (or even mine).

And it is here that the misalignment of academic and institutional interests is most obvious. For a university with one eye on its finances and the other on the capriciousness of government policy, to seek to minimise any perceived risk when dealing with centrally-administered research assessment is a rational response. Scholars, competing to secure an academic job, or promotion, or tenure, may also be forgiven for trimming their sails to the wind: for aligning their published work with what are thought to be the criteria on which it will be judged. Again, the attempt to mitigate risk is entirely rational. The suspicion of the edited collection is surely due in part to this risk-averseness. Even if individual works are ostensibly assessed on their own merits, and scholars continue to regard these works as among their best, an ill-defined perception of risk attachs to the format as a whole. The irony is that to dispel that perception, scholars and editors will need to embrace that risk and commit, together, to making the unsuccessful edited collection a thing of the past.

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