Why I prioritise writing books over articles, even in an era of research assessment

There is a widespread perception that the UK higher education system emphasises quantity over quality in terms of publications, and that there is a constant need to write and submit journal articles. Yet in a six or seven-year research cycle, academics have – until now – needed to submit just their best four pieces. Only four pieces, which for most people is a fraction of what they have actually produced. It is worth noting that there is a possibility, following the Stern review, that the number will change, possibly downwards and perhaps to an average number, which may require some people to submit less, and some more. While there is, and will continue to be, a need to get that right number of pieces, the question of the perceived quality of those pieces is much more significant. Pressure to publish more often comes because of a perception that what has been published is not of sufficient quality.

The pressures of quality have tended to mean that conference proceedings, book chapters, review essays, etc. have not been deemed to be suitable submissions, and so the journal article has become, by default, the ‘gold standard’. This is in part reinforced by the way things are counted – articles are ‘one’, so too are books. The complete insanity of this is supposedly mediated by the idea that a ‘big book’ could, potentially, be submitted as a double-weight piece, counting for two. In any sensible system, a research book would be counted as some multiple of an article by default, and a ‘big book’ a greater multiple. But the current system is stacked against books in this way, and even though I’ve made the case some of my books are suitable for this double-weighting, this was never accepted. Even The Birth of Territory – 500 pages, 200k words, to my mind the best thing I have done in my career, with a major university press and recipient of a couple of prizes – was not deemed to be suitable. To which my reply was: if not this, what would be? It’s even worse with book editing – collections of colleagues’ work are a non-starter, and even the co-edited and co-translated State, Space, World collection of Lefebvre’s work, with a long co-authored introduction, notes etc. was not deemed suitable as a submission at all. Early in my career I was told that the department I was in thought a book was equivalent to an article: my response was to laugh, and say they had clearly never written a book. They hadn’t.

So, by these criteria, it is not surprising that the pressure or incentive is to write articles, and well-meaning advice is given to say these should be the priority. Early career scholars are encouraged to see their PhD thesis as a resource which can be cut up and positioned in multiple journals, rather than as an early draft of a book manuscript; some departments have a strict requirement of one article in a ‘top’ journal per year; career prospects are heavily weighted to these kinds of publications. I am well aware of those kinds of pressures and constraints. Earlier in my career I largely followed this advice, making sure there was a constant stream of articles being written, submitted, revised and published. The books I wrote were alongside these, as parallel projects, or ones that developed out of articles.

But I’ve reached a point in my career where I don’t feel a need or accept the pressure to write articles as a default position. I’m much more interested in writing books, and tend to think much more in terms of book-length projects. So, for a while now, this had been my number one priority. This doesn’t mean that I’ve given up writing articles, just that I don’t see this as the key thing I need to be doing. In the next research assessment, whenever it is, whatever it is called, and whatever the rules are, I see that books will form the bulk of my submission, even if each is counted as ‘one’, and that the balance will be made up of articles. I have enough faith that there will be articles along the way – either a piece I give as a lecture which is committed to the journal or institution which invited it, a side project that doesn’t fit in a book, a chapter cut from a book manuscript, or, in odd occasions, an early version of a part of a book. (Though for the UK research assessment you can’t submit an article if it forms part of a book you intend to submit.)

I am fully aware that this attitude of prioritising books over articles is made possible by the privileged position I am in, in terms of academic role, seniority, institution and so on. I am not looking for promotion, to move institution, or any other advancement. The research assessment is one of the things on my mind, but only one, and other factors, such as what I want to say, the format in which I want to say it, and the contribution I want to make are, for me, much more important. My experience is that books travel between disciplines much more readily, and are much more widely read, as well as being the kinds of research statements that I want to make. I have no wish to chase journal publications in the way that I used to, and in the way I and others are advised to, when the bulk of them are barely read and largely forgotten, as well as not being used for research assessment. I’m certainly not saying that I’ll never write articles again, and I don’t want to suggest that books are objectively better than articles. In some disciplines or sub-disciplines, for certain kinds of work, or certain kinds of people, articles are better or preferred outlets. I edited and then co-edited a journal for several years, and serve on the boards of several journals. This is nothing against journals, those who edit them, write for them or read them. It’s against the constant pressure to turn every thought into an article, every conference presentation into an article, and then move on to the next.

Books are not quick options. Certainly not the kinds of books I write. Perhaps some people look at the frequency of my books and think they must be. I work hard, certainly, but I’m not sure more quickly or effectively than others. I do think I am good at making the most of opportunities which are given to me, which I acknowledge and for which I am grateful. I make writing part of my daily routine, and I make book-writing the priority within that time. It seems to me to be essential to do that – otherwise it is the first thing that gets squeezed out of a busy schedule. Sometimes I might move right from one discrete book to another, completing one before beginning the next. But more often, book projects figure in the background while I am doing something else; projects overlap, with manuscripts being worked on in parallel instead of in sequence; things lie dormant for some time before being picked up and developed further. Often I am constrained by availability of materials, access to texts, archives or libraries; other things get in the way.

I should also say that there are important decisions about where I publish books. I signed my first contract with Athlone, who were bought by Continuum before the book came out. My second book was also with them. When my editor at Continuum left, I felt there were good reasons to go elsewhere. They are now part of Bloomsbury. Other authored books have either been with university presses, or more recently with Polity. I chose these presses, in part, because their books are affordable, and I usually insist on immediate paperback or one within a specified timeframe. I’ve said before about the regret about not insisting on this being in the contract for one book – it was agreed verbally, and then changed. With edited books, I’ve worked with either small publishers like Ashgate (now unfortunately swallowed by a behemoth), Continuum, Polity or University Presses. (The only book I lead-edited with a different remit and pricing was a major-reference work, not intended for an audience beyond a small number of research libraries.) I’ve so far declined working with the major trade publishers, as author or editor, though I do have some chapters in books with them. This was often when I was committed to a project, and its editors, before the press was agreed.

Books are not for everyone – either as readers, or as writers. But they suit me. If I read a good article I go looking for the books the author has written. Most of my ideas seem to take on a book-like shape. Where I am able, I devote other research time to editing a book series, to bringing works into English, either as editor, occasional co-translator, or as advocate with presses.

These are some the reasons why I prioritise writing books over articles, even in an era of research assessment.


Update: as well as the comments and replies below; there are some follow-up responses here.

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12 Responses to Why I prioritise writing books over articles, even in an era of research assessment

  1. Jeremy says:

    Reblogged this on Open Geography and commented:
    Good pushback by Stuart on the value of books in a REF world. Obviously this is not for everyone, nor is everyone able to make this choice. But books are undervalued (until it comes time to read one). Maybe for every x books you read, you could write one? Unfortunately, edited books are not favored by publishers. One thing to add are good open source outlets (eg ACME books), like the move toward open source articles (though there is still bias against self-published books).

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks for sharing Jeremy. Edited books are a tough sell – too many potential readers are interested in a fraction of the content, and so read a chapter or two in a library. So editors are finding it hard to persuade press editors who are struggling to persuade marketing and sales of their viability. I should probably have mentioned open access books, though you are surely correct about the bias.

  2. > Only four pieces, which for most people is a fraction of what they have actually produced.

    Minor quibble – This varies between areas but I’m not sure a ‘fraction’ is right? It’s hard to pin down numbers but one of the most systematic studies from the last few years ‘The European research elite: a cross-national study of highly productive academics in 11 countries’ (Kwiek, M. High Educ (2016) 71: 379. doi:10.1007/s10734-015-9910-x) seems to suggest that about 10% of academics in the studied countries turn out about half of the outputs.

    I would think that one of the challenges to the production of books is not simply that the REF system pushes people towards papers but for a good number of academics, that for various reasons (time likely in a post-92) getting to four papers is more of a challenge than people might think when we concentrate mainly on the habits of the productive.

    • stuartelden says:

      That might well be true, and you are surely right to highlight the difficulties in different institutions. Though a fraction can be quite large – i.e. four pieces from five is still a fraction of what they’ve published. What I was trying to stress was that the metric was not just quantity of articles, but perceptions of their quality.
      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Thanks – just before I am due to give a talk on the political economy of journal publishing, and why it is that critical social scientists don’t get more involved in the ethics of where their work is published. The REF in the UK, or the ERA in Australia, seem to be part of the problem. While you may be discouraged from submitting a book, you will certainly be discouraged from submitting an article in a progressive OA journal, unless it has the right impact factor. The REF really is restrictive. Colleague Joe Deville has addressed the issue on books, here. http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/social-futures/2016/06/open-futures-the-politics-of-academic-book-publishing . I will find out what the thinking is at Lancaster about REF and books, since it is a university led by social science/humanities in many respects.

    • stuartelden says:

      I don’t think people are necessarily discouraged from writing books, but that counting a book as equivalent to an article for REF means that the strategic thinking often suggests that. Thanks for the comment Simon.

  4. Like yourself, if left to my own devices I would write books, and often do. I also agree re. your sentiments vis-a-vis their value with respect to REF, impact, etc. There are other considerations that need to be borne in mind as well though. For example, if you have co-authors. Then how the work is published becomes a negotiated decision, which to some degree is influenced by wider considerations. For example, I would really like to write a book at present. My postdocs, however, could really do with some papers to help them get onto the next rung – a multi-authored book is probably going to be of marginal use to them in the short term. It would be a useful supplement, but not in lieu of articles. Also, grant agencies funding research can have preferences and expectations, and in our case as part of the application we said what the projected outputs would be and we kind of need to follow them since they check regularly what we’re up to. So, it’s always a bit of a balancing act and trying to take into account the needs of the team and others. But I know myself, that my books are by far my most cited works and whatever reputation I have is built upon them. They are also the most enjoyable writing experience – working with a big canvas.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Rob – that’s a useful additional perspective. I’ve co-written some articles, and co-edited books, but never tried to write a book with someone else. There have been a few articles as a result of funding, but I mostly apply for fellowships to write books. Useful to get a different take – so thanks.

  5. Like Rob whatever reputation I have rests largely on books (to the extent I am qualified to judge). They are much more read than articles and they remain relevant for longer. Books have the capacity to shape the landscape, while articles are more likely to rework it and detail it. Your Birth of Territory or Rob’s Code/Space (with Martin Dodge) are good examples of this.
    But the career pressures are very real, particularly for junior scholars. As far back as 2001 my head of department in my first tenure-track post openly ridiculed the book I was working on. I’m glad I ignored him!
    The department I am in highly values ‘the book’ over the article, but we have really needed to recalibrate that position for the sake of our graduate students in an era so dominated by articles. A book contract and a couple of odds and ends rarely beats four articles from the chapters of a dissertation in the starter job market.
    It’s very much a matter of taste and temperament, but like others, I enjoy writing in book form more than in articles – so much more space for ideas to breathe and develop!

    • stuartelden says:

      I do agree with this, and I’m sure you’re right that there are different calculations for graduate students. I tried to talk a bit about this, and about how my attitude is made possible by my (privileged) position, in the original post. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  6. Pingback: Some responses to the post about ‘Why I prioritise writing books over articles, even in an era of research assessment’ | Progressive Geographies

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