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.

Boundaries, dangers and ways ahead: Anglican evangelicals and the edited collection

In the first chapter of my forthcoming little book on a neglected aspect of British academic life, I examine the recent history of British theology through an unaccustomed lens: the role of the edited collection of essays. These have worked in several ways: as a means to take stock of the state of a discipline (for example, Lux Mundi, or Soundings) or to address the nation on matters of social and political import (such as the essays from William Temple’s now famous Malvern conference of 1941.) There were also a plethora of volumes on very specific issues of doctrine and practice. But there is another purpose that such volumes played (which I don’t pursue in the book for reasons of space): of both policing the boundaries and assessing the health of the different parties that are a constant feature of Anglican history. In this post, I look at Anglican evangelicals in particular.

Within the groupings or parties in the Church of England, and the networks of theologians in both universities and theological colleges that tended to speak to and for them, the edited collection has often provided an opportunity to take stock at times of particular opportunity or danger. Though I’m particularly interested here in evangelicals, the late 1960s were just such a time for the Anglo-Catholic constituency, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and concrete moves towards reunion of the churches in England. The party had in the nineteenth century been a ‘a militant minority, feared, vilified’; now, instead it had been accepted – had enjoyed, indeed, a period of some dominance between the wars – but as a result Anglo-Catholics ‘lost their definition as a party’. Catholic Anglicans Today (edited by John Wilkinson in 1968) was an attempt to articulate that distinctiveness afresh.

In Anglican evangelical history, one particularly tenacious interpretation of the fortunes of the party has been one of inter-war obscurity, followed by gradual revival from the Sixties (centred around John Stott) ending in simultaneous dominance and diversification by the late 1980s. The recent collection of essays edited by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden did much to revise and qualify that narrative, and I don’t intend to defend it in fact. But it is possible to see that story both articulated and made normative in the several edited collections of the period, some of which I examine here.

Take for instance, the volume Evangelicals Today (Lutterworth Press, 1973). Where Catholic Anglicans Today was defensive, Evangelicals Today was bullish, a sign that Anglican evangelicals saw the balance of power within the English church shifting in their direction. The editor John C. King placed particular importance on the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1967, the event that became universally known by its venue, Keele University; the Keele conference came to be seen as the moment at which the evangelical constituency decided to engage positively with the wider Anglican church. (The conference itself was prepared by a set of essays, published under the title Guidelines.) King took as his point of comparison another volume, published in 1925 with the title Evangelicalism: ‘a vintage expression of a type of evangelicalism which has all but passed away’: narrow in concern where Keele had been wide-ranging; defensive where King’s contributors were open to new directions of thought. Though King had a normative point to make, the 1925 volume was indeed defensive in character, a response to a general ‘theological unsettlement’ made yet more acute by the effect of the First World War. In its turn some of its contributors engaged directly with two other collections of essays, as representatives of the theological modernism against a defence was required (the two were Foundations (1912), and – from within the evangelical stable – Liberal Evangelicalism: an interpretation (1923).

Twenty years later, the balance of power had shifted even further, such that Michael Saward could declare in 1987 that evangelicals were ‘very firmly in the driving seat of the Church of England.’ Energetic and outward-looking, the future for the party was bright since more than half of the new clergy in training were in evangelical theological colleges. Even though a sense of crisis could be detected in the wider Church of England, Gavin Reid (later a bishop) could in 1986 assemble a group with the common conviction that the answer to the question Hope for the Church of England? (published by Kingsway) was a positive and an evangelical one. And in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a slew of volumes that attempted to make sense of the new state of affairs. Evangelical Anglicans: their role and influence in the Church today (SPCK, 1993) was the product of one of those busy theological colleges – Wycliffe Hall in Oxford – many of the staff of which were also members of the university’s theology faculty. Their mood was one of ‘a settled confidence, reflecting a sense of belonging and purpose which is becoming increasingly typical of evangelical Anglicanism today.’

Not all Anglican evangelicals were so sanguine, however. Restoring the Vision: Anglican evangelicals speak out appeared in 1990 (MARC/Monarch), edited by Melvin Tinker. ‘Many fear’ argued Tinker, ‘that evangelicalism in the Church of England has become so broad that it has become thin, compromise has replaced conviction and the once crusading spirit has been tamed into a conforming spirit.’ It was under Tinker’s guidance that The Anglican Evangelical Crisis appeared in 1995 (Christian Focus), addressing many of the same themes.

The confidence of the Wycliffe authors was misplaced, Tinker argued in the later volume; just as had been the sense of the editor of Catholic Anglicans Today in 1968, the evangelical movement out of isolation after the Keele conference had come at the cost of a loss of identity and theological distinctiveness. The contributors to The Anglican Evangelical Crisis, all linked to the newly formed conservative organisation Reform, were a more mixed group than the Wycliffe authors, with stronger links to theological colleges and seminaries in the USA and Australia. Its final chapter, by Don Carson, takes the form of a review article on the divergences between the two volumes, works that were ‘so divergent that a complete outsider would find it hard to believe that they emerge from what is widely assumed to be more or less the same camp’. The two ‘camps’ were distinct enough to bring representatives of both together to debate the issues in general, and the existence of Reform in particular. The question was asked: Has Keele Failed?, a volume edited by Charles Yeats, chaplain to University College, Durham, and published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton.

It is not a straightforward task to assess the precise impact of these books, especially when sales figures are hard to obtain, and when the culture is not one in which there are citations to be counted. But Anglican evangelicals, like others in the Church of England and the other churches, were often to be found coming together in collections of essays to assess the state of the party, to check its boundary markers, to warn of looming dangers and to suggest ways ahead. The impact these collections had was of a particular kind, distinct from books by individual authors. Historians of evangelicalism have much to gain from a fresh look at its publication culture.

On digitisation and the visibility of historic journals

Here follows a tale of two journals, a cautionary tale of the degree to which the historical record is conditioned by the interaction of technology and the economics of publishing.

Firstly, the journal Theology, perhaps the leading general theology journal in the UK. It was founded in 1920, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), already a leading publisher of books with a particular focus on the Church of England. Although its tone and content changed over time, it has always tended to provide a forum for the publication of theological writing of a breadth of concern that would interest both professional theologians and clerical and lay readers. In it one finds work on the perennial themes of the discipline alongside writing that reflected on the issues of the day, as the Anglican Communion encountered radical theological change and the pressing practical issues raised by the ecumenical movement.

Secondly, the Church Quarterly Review. Though it began life in 1875 as a privately published journal for one party within the Church of England, the CQR became a more general journal, and it too was published by SPCK from 1920. It occupied a similar space to Theology, with substantial articles aimed at both professional theologians and the wider church, and on issues old and contemporary. From the Anglican scholar Eric Mascall (one of my particular preoccupations), the CQR carried articles on topics as varied as the Eucharist, the prospects of reunion with the Church of Scotland, and the impact of the Second Vatican Council, along with dozens of book reviews. (His work also appeared regularly in Theology). But where Theology survives to the present, the CQR does not. In 1968, the journal merged with the London Quarterly and Holborn Review (a Methodist title), but the resulting Church Quarterly ran only until 1971 and was not succeeded by another title.

Although Theology is published by SPCK, its online distribution was taken over in 2011 by SAGE Publications, and the entire back run has been digitised and made available via the SAGE site. As such, scholars may now access complete metadata and the full text of the journal back to its inception. By contrast, the CQR has no public online presence whatever. Unsurprisingly, a defunct journal held little attraction for potential buyers in the great consolidation of online journal publishing of the last twenty years. And, although several SAGE journals are included in JSTOR, Theology (and other SPCK titles) are not. As such, the CQR was not swept up in retrospective digitisation as other defunct titles from publishers involved in JSTOR have been. As it is, to read the CQR I must trouble the staff at my nearest university library to walk across to a store in a separate building and fetch the volumes for me.

There is, I think, an issue here that sits in the intersection of other questions of technology and practice which are better known. It is abundantly clear that current (or very recent) issues of journals that are available online have an advantage over those available only in print, and that the advantage is compounded when the journal is available Open Access. There is now also a great deal of stimulating reflection on the impact of digitised historic sources on historical practice. Within that, it has been observed that the digitisation of newspapers such as The Times earlier than other, equally prominent national newspapers risked skewing readers’ attention towards one source at the expense of another. Despite scholars’ best intentions – of leaving no stone unturned to get to the truth, no matter how heavy the stone – it is at least plausible that more easily accessible sources will be privileged. And the cases of Theology and the CQR suggest that the same might be true in certain fields of modern intellectual history, as the back issues of some current journals are digitised as a byproduct of current needs and others are not. That process of digitisation has tended to favour journals that survive over those that do not, and (in the case of JSTOR), defunct titles seem to stand a better chance if they were absorbed by one that survives.

Of course, it may well be that the CQR is in fact a less significant journal for twentieth century religious history than is Theology. But historical matters become perceived as significant partly as a result of the attention they are paid. It is at least possible that the relative ease of access to Theology will in itself (over time) give it a significance greater than the CQR by a kind of default. If this pattern is repeated in other areas of twentieth century intellectual history, then it perhaps deserves more attention than it has received so far.

References

Josef L. Altholz, ‘The Church Quarterly Review, 1875-1900: a marked file and other sources’, Victorian Periodicals Review 17 (1.2), 1984, 52-7.

Adrian Bingham, ‘The digitization of newspaper archives: opportunities and challenges for historians’, Twentieth Century British History 21(2), 2010, 225-31.

Lara Putnam, ‘The trans-national and the text-searchable: digitised sources and the shadows they cast’, American Historical Review 121(2), 2016, 376-402.

SAGE publications, Press release from 2010 on the digitisation of Theology

The edited collection: pasts, present and future

I’m delighted to be able to announce that I now have a book bearing this title under contract with Cambridge University Press. It is part of a new series called Gatherings: short monographs on aspects of contemporary scholarly publishing. It should be published in 2019.

Image from Flickr (GoToVan), CC-BY

In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

This volume sets out to explore the forms that the edited collection has taken in recent decades, the roots and shape of the present crisis (if it is indeed rightly so called), and the possible futures for the form.

It focusses on the humanities, and history in particular, while drawing also on publishing trends in theology and in musicology. It is also focussed particularly on the UK, but in comparitive context with other nations, particularly the United States.

Welcoming the new Journal of Open Humanities Data

After some months in the making, I am delighted to be able to draw attention to the new Journal of Open Humanities Data. I’m particularly pleased to be a member of the editorial board.

Fully peer-reviewed, JOHD carries “publications describing humanities data or techniques with high potential for reuse.”

The journal accepts two kinds of papers:

“1. Metapapers, that describe humanities research objects with high reuse potential. This might include quantitative and qualitative data, software, algorithms, maps, simulations, ontologies etc. These are short (1000 word) highly structured narratives and must conform to the Metapaper template.

“2. Full length research papers that describe different methods used to create, process, evaluate, or curate humanities research objects. These are intended to be longer narratives (3,000 – 5,000 words) which give authors the ability to describe a research object and its creation in greater detail than a traditional publication.

For more detail, see the JOHD at Ubiquity Press.