is writing a book chapter a waste of time?

A couple of weeks ago a colleague suggested that I might want to offer some advice on whether it was better to write a book, a journal article or a book chapter.

Coincidentally, just this week @deevybee published a blog post which suggested that writing book chapters was a recipe for ‘burying your work’. Through an examination of her own work on googlescholar, she had ascertained that it was her refereed journal papers that were most cited. This was not because her chapters were not as rigorous or scholarly, she suggested, but rather it was/is a problem of access. Getting at a chapter is just much more difficult that getting to journal articles, particularly as these appear more and more in various open access repositories. @deevybee is a professor of developmental neuropsychology and was clear that this was a problem in her field. She did speculate that it might be a problem that also applied to other disciplines.

The discipline specificity of the what-to-publish-problem is why it is so difficult to offer generic advice. So I want to preface my two pennies worth on the question by acknowledging that what I say here applies to my own field of education and some other social sciences and humanities disciplines.

I’m happy to write book chapters. I’ll of course only write chapters for books where there is a decent publisher and someone I know to be a credible editor. And sometimes I just don’t have time or the interest in the project. But I don’t have a rule which says no book chapters.

In my field, edited books do different work than refereed journal articles, books and less formal writing, like blogs and reviews. These various forms of writing don’t necessarily substitute for each other.

In my field, edited books are often used by under and post graduate students to get a feel for a topic and something of its scope and debates. Handbooks in particular lay out a field and its various permutations. As a supervisor, if I want to help someone get on top of a topic like identity or visual culture or policy sociology, I may well point them to a handbook to start with.

Other edited books gather together perspectives on something which perhaps has hitherto been scattered. They provide focus on a topic or approach. They lay down a marker in an area. Again, these kinds of texts are often used by students, but in my field, these kinds of texts also get used by practitioners.

Chapters from edited books also often get used for teaching purposes as, of course, do journal articles. But unless the writer belongs to the Society of Authors, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society or something similar – a body which can collect copyright payments on behalf of authors – they won’t necessarily know this to be the case. Use of chapters for teaching purposes doesn’t always (or perhaps even often) result in citations in googlescholar and other citation indices, even though the material may well be used extensively in essays and dissertations.

Finally, in my field, edited books often end up in libraries in countries which cannot afford a lot of English language journals. A handbook or a seminal edited text is cheaper than a set of ongoing journal subscriptions. It provides a base level resource which can then support internet searches for open access sources, working outwards from the chapter authors and their own citations.

So having said all of this, would I advise an early career or doctoral scholar in my field to write book chapters?

Well, probably not as the main genre that they try to publish. One or two book chapters, maybe, if the book looks like it will have a readership. It’s not a case of do-as-I-do. The sad fact is that for employment, promotion and those elusive bids, books and refereed journal articles count more than chapters. However, one or two chapters in a good edited collection can signify to an employment panel or bid referee that your work has been sought out by a senior scholar, that you are in a key network or two, and that you can produce something to a deadline and word length.

So in my field then, and some others like it, book chapters are not (yet) a waste of time although they are to be handled with caution. Invitations to contribute a book chapter to an edited collection must ALWAYS be scrutinised for their potential benefits such as – use for teaching purposes, influence in a wider field of practice, co-location with key scholars in the area and potential for opening up further opportunities. If these are important to you at this time in your career, then a chapter may well be worth doing.

And there’s nothing really to stop chapters being put up on some kind of academic publication repository in some kind of penultimate version.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic book, chapter, citation, publishing, teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to is writing a book chapter a waste of time?

  1. John Field says:

    I completely agree with the advice that Pat has given in this blog entry. While refereed journal articles in high impact journals are becoming the ‘gold standard’, there are still very good practical reasons for publishing book chapters. Edited collections are a particularly good way of assembling the findings from a collaborative group project, such as a European study, for example. And for an early careers researcher, a book chapter can also be used to ‘put a marker down’.

    However, I’d like to make two points. First, a book chapter might still be ‘silver standard’, while publishing in a low impact journal might send some very negative messages indeed. Second, academic publishing is not static, and I guess we can expect the shift to digital publishing to change some of the rules of the game.

    And as an afterthought, Pat mentioned the Society of Authors. Once you start publishing, then if you work or publish in the UK, I recommend that you join the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (http://www.alcs.co.uk/). They will collect your payments for material that is photocopied or digitised for teaching purposes. While you are unlikely to get rich as a result, in my experience, book chapters can generate very respectable returns.

  2. Accessibility issues with book chapters in my field (musicology) is compounded by the some of the main publishers that countenance publishing multi-author volumes (particularly OUP, NY and Brepols in my experience) not allowing authors to put post-print pdfs on personal websites. Your point about poorer libraries not being able to afford journal subscriptions is a good one but if a journal article is allowed on my personal website and a chapter isn’t, it’s still more accessible. With this in mind, the key issue for me becomes simply one of whether I can post the paper on my website, regardless of whether it’s a journal article or a chapter.

  3. Pingback: is writing a book chapter a waste of time? | Translation Studies, Corpus Linguistics, Academia | Scoop.it

  4. I would be cautious relying upon Google Scholar to tell the whole story of the impact of your outputs. Each of the major tools available for capturing such information (GS, Incites, Scopus) have different biases, and so GS may not be the best indicator of what is being read out there. Ideally, there should be some way to have your work published as a chapter, and to also be allowed to submit them to your institution’s repository. If the publisher won’t allow that, I would question whether they are worth working with at all. If your concern is to have an impact beyond the scholarly community, well (as much as I feel like a cliché 2.0 in suggesting it) tools such as Twitter can actually be of real use, ditto a blog such as this!

  5. Pingback: six differences between thesis and book chapters | patter

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