what’s the answer to “would you like to write for this book/journal”?

I was recently asked by an early career researcher whether it was better to say yes to an invitation to write a chapter for a book, or to say no and write a refereed journal article instead. It wasn’t just the question of book or journal but also writing about something that someone else had chosen, versus something that she wanted to write herself. I’m not sure I had a great answer at the time, but her question did make me think about the criteria that I use in these circumstances.

Book chapter or journal article, their choice or my choice, is not an unusual quandary. It’s not uncommon for any of us – doctoral researcher to prof – to be asked to contribute to a special issue or edited book. You get asked to write because either the editor has heard you speak on the topic, someone’s told them about your work or it’s something that you’ve written about before. You get asked because of your expertise. So it’s easy to be flattered and agree and then regret it afterwards.

I don’t always say yes, but I do often enough. However this is because I’ve learnt to think about whether the invitation is one I want – or can – take up. My criteria for saying yes are usually around the answers to these questions:

(1) Am I interested? Have I got anything new to say? Does the invitation give me the opportunity to write something I’d like to do?
I have written a lot about a few particular topics and I’ve run out of steam on them. Quite frankly I’m bored with them now and if I was to write more, that would show in the writing. I need to be interested in a topic to write well about it. I’ve tried in the past to drum up enthusiasm for something that I’ve done a lot before, and I don’t want a repeat of the resulting struggles to produce something vaguely worthy of publication. Writing as groundhog day is no longer for me.

(2) Am I able to do this? Is this too far out of my comfort zone? Will I have to do a mammoth amount of work in order not to be exposed as a half-baked imposter on the topic?
I don’t mind having a bit of a go at something that isn’t directly in my area. I like learning new things and I really like reading new stuff. However there is new and there is something just too far out of my comfort zone and my expertise. So I am pretty wary of writing something for public consumption about contemporary art practice for example, unless I’m writing with someone else who knows a lot more than I do! Judging the degree of exposure and effort in accepting an invitation to write are important.

(3) Is the issue/book is one I want to support, does it have a worthwhile aim?
There are some books and special issues that I think are Good Things to do. They are about something that needs to be said or they bring together a set of perspectives that are new, or much needed. If so, I’m in. My Good Things won’t be the same as everyone else’s and my judgments will be based in my own reading of the field and it’s contexts, values and politics. However, the ‘worth’ criteria often matters to me – and it’s worth thinking about whether it matters to you too.

(4) Does the proposal look coherent and credible? If it is speculative, is it likely to happen?
Some special issues and book editors do ask for abstracts before they put their proposal in for a decision. The potential problem with this is that your abstract then becomes a promise and you have to save that piece for that particular publication. Because there is always a time-lag between a proposal going in and the decision, this does mean that you can’t put the piece anywhere else until you know what’s happening. So I always make a judgment about whether I think the book or special issue has got a good chance of success before I decide to tie up a potentially decent idea for a while.

(5) Are the editors and the people in the collection those that I want to be positioned with?
So let’s face it, there are some people in my field that I don’t want to be next to in a book/journal unless it is deliberately structured around contrasting views. This is not because these are people I don’t personally get on with, it’s because I see my work set apart from theirs. Being in a collection can signal a common cause. So there might be instances where I’d rather be absent than present. I wouldn’t want to appear in a collection about privatizing schools for example, unless the text was deliberately structured as a debate. That’s a different proposition than just being lumped together as if everyone agreed.

(6) Does the editor have a track record in getting things done and out there?
Like most people I’ve had the experience of writing chapters and not having them come out. I’ve also been in the situation, early in my career, when an edited book didn’t come together and didn’t appear. In most cases when books/issues don’t happen it’s not the fault of the editors, it’s because contributors don’t do as they’ve promised.
A book I recently co-edited just didn’t seem coherent when we got all of the contributions in and that was because we had conceptualized the book differently to how it turned out. So we had to negotiate for some chapters to become a special journal issue and get new chapters written! Quite anxiety-making for everyone, but in the end we editors kept faith with the publisher and the authors and everyone got a publication. So it is worth thinking about whether the book editor or journal is likely to have some kind of back-up plan if the initial plan goes astray.

(7) Is the issue/book with a reputable publisher? Am I confident that it will get the readers it aspires to?
I don’t write for obscure publishers who can’t publicise a book, who don’t get out to conferences, who don’t have decent online marketing. There’s no point in doing all that work if it’s not going to get out there. I also won’t write for shonky journals but I’m quite happy to write for OA publications. So DO check for the capacity of the publisher to get readers for your work.

(8) Have I got time right now, are there other writing priorities that are more important?
This is a key question for early career researchers as well as more senior profs. We always have to weigh up what is the most important writing to do. There is this big bit of research I need to write about versus this interesting detour… which is the one I actually have to do first of all? Do I really realistically, hand on heart, actually have time to do both? I can’t stress enough how important this is and this is the one I struggle with myself. I always want to do everything. But I’m slowly learning to say no, I don’t have time and space for this right now.

(9) Is there a better place to put this piece of writing?
I always wonder about this in relation to what I’m writing. I’m on record saying that the possibilities in book chapters are different from journal articles and therefore that they’re often worth doing. However I wouldn’t put a very big paper with the major results from a research project into any old book chapter – it’d need to be either an international handbook, or more likely, a book on its own or an article in a key journal with the readership I was after. It is about matching the topic and its significance to the publication and its readers.
The better place question is really, really important for early career researchers who need to balance the need to get published with the need to show that they can manage getting the more highly regarded refereed journal articles. Book chapters ARE getting published, and they do get readers, and chapters are sometimes used a lot in teaching. But it’s a question of priorities and/or whether both can be done without giving anything away. The book chapter can look like an attractive proposition, but the issue is whether you/I ought to be writing the same thing for a journal.
This is why an invite to a a special journal issue is often a great proposition for ECRs because it offers the ‘gold standard’ refereed publication, together with positioning with others in the same field and the opportunity to get the key results from doctoral research out there.

So there isn’t an easy answer to the question. But there are lots of things to think about!!

Postscript: This isn’t a question for everyone. See comment below.

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 writing, chapter, journal, journal provenance, time and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to what’s the answer to “would you like to write for this book/journal”?

  1. Alan Smithee says:

    You have to be carefully with this type of advice because the answer can often differ by fields and also by the performance management system in place – as a mgmt academic, effectively it is career limiting (at least in the RG universities I have worked in) not to publish to the ABS list – so in any cycle, my first priority is to get at least four REFable pieces in ABS ranked journals and everything else is secondary to that. I could publish in OA journals but I would be asked in my appraisal why I ‘wasted’ a publication and during the last REF we got bonuses based on the ranking of the journals we published in.

    So I’d suggest that if an ECR should have an internal conversation first to see if their publishing plan fits with the overall strategy of the department – as to do otherwise could be career limiting – I’ve seen ECR who thought they were doing well disappear because they were publishing in the wrong places.


    • pat thomson says:

      In those circumstances it wouldn’t even be a question would it? I think I’m speaking only to those people who actually have a choice. I’m assuming people have the conversations in their departments and they know enough about their field to know whether they really have to just publish in a particular set of journals. I’m giving too much credit to my readers? Ive added in a postscript.


      • Alan Smithee says:

        You’d think so but I find it is also a problem for post-docs who might have done their PhD at a post-92 and are trying to move to a RG university and aren’t aware of how different the culture can be because their supervisor has never worked in an RG (I’ve worked in both) – so to amend my own advice – I would guess I’d also say “be mindful of not only where you are but where you want to be”.


    • Pat Lese says:

      Doesn’t seem to me like good departments/schools at strong universities care too much about a list made up of 18 random people but rather indeed the shakier places that do. At top ranking Universities people publish where the article will work best in the collective and to aid theorising and discussion not where it will work for some lame Abs bunch.


  2. Paul says:

    What I picked up in (albeit a small number of) conversations with people, in the lead up to the REF, was that at least one discipline (Anthropology) rated chapters alongside articles, but others (including politics) generally didn’t. So, I generally see it as an added bonus rather than part of the instrumentalist plan. The other benefit (for me, recently) has been the other stuff that comes with some chapters – such as the tie-in with a funded invite to a related event (which is good if, unlike me, you like to travel and meet people) and the often-unpredictable spin-offs you get when people take the process seriously – e.g. working with a co-author and editor on a chapter for one book has prompted us to work together on something else, with higher stakes, after we made sure that we could work together on something with lower stakes.


  3. Reblogged this on Thesis Talk / Trácht ar Thráchtais and commented:
    Ceist mhaith…


  4. Wise advice Pat. I’m like you – a million ideas and opportunities and I need to decide what to focus on. It’s important to have some kind of way of prioritising, and your list presents very good considerations to think about.


  5. Well, as a PhD student, I have also come across similar situations, and I have been struggling with an answer as well, as it is the tension between “having a chance to contribute and to get something published” and “sticking with the priority of finishing my thesis”. Some special issues and book chapters do not fall into the exact area of my own research, but I felt I could give it a try. What I am doing now is co-writing a journal article with another lecturer in my faculty, as it is not entirely my field and I felt I really need more help and resources to be able to produce the paper requested by the journal. Fortunately, the person I am collaborating is very supportive. If not, I guess I just have to give it up as this is not something I can achieve by myself.


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