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.