Chris Blattman

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Why am I an anti-Chapterite?

The most common comment on yesterday’s advice post for assistant professors: “I agree with everything except the tirade against book chapters.”

Let me say why I’m surprised, and ask for clarification.

  • Many people said “book chapters benefit me”. This is true. So does anything we do in our workday. The right question is “as opposed to what?” There is an opportunity cost to a book chapter. If you feel your scarcest resource is time, then shouldn’t you spend time on the projects that have the most net impact on your career and discipline?
  • If the answer is “I do! The marginal cost of a book chapter is lower than sending the same article to a peer reviewed journal, and the marginal benefit is about the same,” then (a) fair enough, but (b) I’m surprised, and (c) I suspect that times are changing. One reason being…
  • Unless you’re willing to buck copyright and post the chapter on your website (few people do) then a book chapter banishes most people from ever reading what you write–even other scholars. This is 2014. If your work isn’t accessible through a click or two on Google, it’s passed by more often than not.
  • Ergo, even if tenure practices in your department means that the private marginal benefit of a book chapter is high, the public one is low.

In sum: I fail to understand how edited volumes are a 21st century venue for knowledge.

On reflection, perhaps the solution is to make edited volumes more like online journals. Once again, however, we bash up against the fact that the academic publishers are still wallowing in 1965.

As an aside, it’s amazing to me that in just a year or two most academic blog conversations have shifted to Twitter. It’s more amazing to me that reasonable discourse actually happens in 140 characters. Of course, anything that stops academics from using 500 words where 30 will do might be a good thing.

23 Responses

  1. Not all fields are the same either. My most cited work was published in a mid-level journal, then anthologized in an essay collection, and now is widely taught. My second most cited work is an essay solicited for what is now a widely taught book–but which was not intended primarily for teaching. No one reads–so far as I can tell anyway–what I consider to be my best work, published in top tier journals.

  2. Didn’t you contribute a chapter to The Lord’s Resistance Army: Myth and Reality?

  3. I’m with Kim on this one (and please Chris don’t sent the academic publishers my way!). I totally bypass everything and post my stuff online. This is 2014. Any book publisher that banishes me from publishing a book chapter is not a book publisher I want to publish my book on.

    And yes to edited volumes being a HUGE time suck. I can vouch for this one. But the one I’m editing is totally worth it (or so I tell myself).

  4. FYI, the notion that book chapters don’t appear online is also changing. There are a growing number of edited volumes that (in addition to being published in hard copy) can be seen online via an institution’s web site. My intuition is that book chapters will increasingly become available online, like journal articles.

  5. “(3) edited volume “lock” knowledge, but so do articles in walled academic journals”

    developmentdata, for anyone who matters (i.e. other scholars who might cite my work and undergrads who might read it for class, IF we even count them), a journal article is dramatically easier to access than an edited volume.

    At best other scholars have a pdf of my article with one click. Second best is they log in through their library VPN or the like. Absolute worst case is that they go to the library and look at the physical copy of the journal or email me for a copy.

    The best case for an edited volume is basically the same as the worst case for the journal–go to the library and look at a copy. Very few edited volumes will be on google books. A few are available as eBooks for SOME libraries. And the worst case is that your library doesn’t even carry that book, and then the person who desperately wanted to read my work is screwed.

  6. But…

    (1) good edited volumes are as much about the process to get there as the volume itself – meetings and collaborations, which have a value too, and should be taken into account in your opportunity cost analysis.
    (2) writing for books give a bit more freedom to explore thoughts without the rigor of an academic journal
    (3) edited volume “lock” knowledge, but so do articles in walled academic journals
    (4) opportunity cost: yes a chapter in an edited volume is not worth your time v. a peer-reviewed top tier journal, but frankly when I write a chapter, it is that or some other non-productive activity :-)
    (5) interesting point on twitter – opportunity cost of twitter v. academic journal publication? Depends on your goals.

    By the way, really enjoyed writing a chapter for
    “The Human Rights Paradox: Universality and Its Discontents”

    And thankful to authors who contributed to the World Disasters Report I edited : (free access, and, ok, not academic, it won’t get me tenured, but so interesting)

  7. Twitter is for twits. Ok it isn’t. But count up how many “replies’ are actually just posting up the blog on their site without comment usually. I just look at the latest comments section because at least they are trying to say something. It is a waste of time going through the twits to find a real comment amongst them. Endless tweeting without added value.
    Twitter is creating a lot of junk twits. Bit like receiving an email and forwarding it without comment to someone you know. It is too easy. Junk mail; junk email; junk twits.
    Sorry but you need a filter.

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