I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming book about academic and professional publishing. I’ve also written chapters in the past for other academic books about publishing. Writing a chapter is always a worthwhile experience — I like to write, I like the topics I’m selected to tackle, and I like the editors. But even with the books in hand, these chapters also seem to disappear under the waves like anvils, never to be heard from again.
So, the books sit on shelves, mute testimony to a spate of writing, editing, and aspirations — seemingly unlikely to generate the impact, buzz, reputation, or knowledge transfer I’d once hoped.
It seems I’m not alone.
A recent blog post by Dorothy Bishop (a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford, writing on her blog as Deevybee) explored how citations to academic book chapters fare in Google Scholar compared to citations to journal review articles and journal empirical (scientific) articles. While she expected a difference between scientific articles and book chapters, she was surprised to find a large difference between review articles and book chapters — after all, book chapters are akin to review articles, just published in a thematic book rather than a subject-area journal. Being competent with statistical software, she generated the following graph from her findings.
On average, book chapters generated about 1/3 of the citation rank of journal articles in her sample. Based on these relatively stark and grim findings, Bishop writes:
Quite simply, 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.
Why would this be? What factors would explain a lack of citations to book chapters, despite quality authors, interesting topics, important knowledge distillation, highly qualified editors, broad distribution, and prestigious publishers?
Bishop speculates that books suffer because they don’t have proper support from her three requirements for attention:
. . . there are three things that determine if a paper gets noticed: it needs to be tagged so that it will be found on a computer search, it needs to be accessible and not locked behind a paywall, and it needs to be well-written and interesting.
Bishop then notes that book chapters are often very well-written and interesting. She punts on the metadata issue, which I’ll return to. As for paywalls, we long ago worked out how to have everything discoverable behind paywalls. Nevertheless, for Bishop:
Accessibility is the problem. However good your chapter is, if readers don’t have access to the book, they won’t find it. In the past, there was at least a faint hope that they may happen upon the book in a library, but these days, most of us don’t bother with any articles that we can’t download from the internet.
I think this diagnosis of the relative obscurity of book chapters compared to journal articles comes up short in a number of ways, and with a poor diagnosis, the remedy won’t be quite right. Here are some other factors to consider:
- Books aren’t as available online as journal articles because they are put into different packaging. Journals long ago moved into the “article economy,” shedding the volume/issue shell for searchable articles, in every way except citation construction and print delivery. Books remain in a packaging shell, with chapters trapped therein. There is no “chapter economy.” This limits book metadata and searchability to often the shell components and not the muscle and sinew — aka, the chapters.
- Journals are broadcast on a regular basis, books are not. The common promotion of journal articles through email lists, print publication, aggregators, portals, journal clubs, and so forth creates much greater community awareness. Not only are the journal brands more predictable, constant, and “in your face,” the articles are anticipated on a weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis.
- Regular publication means bigger metadata footprints. Books come out sporadically, with a changing cast of characters — topics, editors, authors, titles, subjects. Journals are more predictable, with editors, editorial features, and topics that repeat themselves regularly, expanding and deepening the property’s metadata with every new issue.
- New information supports awareness of companion content. The novelty contained in most scientific (empirical) articles draws media coverage for many journals, and high interest from the most passionate researchers and practitioners in the field. This magnetic pull also draws these same influential sources of awareness-building into the review articles, increasing reader and community awareness of these.
Bishop has raised a very interesting question for book publishers in this era — how and why are you at such a disadvantage in citation systems? Her request for publishers to address these deficiencies is also spot-on. But her diagnosis of the problem comes us short — as done mine, I’m sure.
Some publishers have modified their books into robust online properties, with regular updates, email lists, and so forth — O’Reilly, McGraw-Hill, and others. Perhaps authors should become more selective, preferring these properties to bounded, sporadically published editions. After all, the impact difference that’s at stake may be sizable.