Last week, the Junction Potential asked what the "bibles" of people's scientific fields were. That question got me thinking about the books I regularly pull off my shelf. Many of them are reference tomes on statistics or my favorite organism. Others are conceptual foundations for major areas of research by a single author. Others are edited volumes, where people in an area of research contribute a chapter on the theme of the book. The reference tomes are pretty recently published for obvious reasons (don't want to reference outdated information, afterall). The single author books span the range of really old (i.e., Darwin) to published a year or so ago. The interesting pattern is in the edited volumes. They are all pre-late 1990s. These older volumes are classics, with chapter after chapter of useful and novel analyses and ideas. I HAVE post-late 1990s edited volumes, but they do not move off my shelf and typically elicit shudders when I accidentally make eye contact with them. They are BORING. They are rehashs of already published information. They are often horribly written. Maybe I'm just buying bad edited volumes and I'm missing the innovative gems, but I think there is more to this than just my buying habits. I think book chapters are no longer as valued as they once were.
Why do I think this? Because I know they are less valuable to me. They are not indexed in Web of Science, so there is no easy way for me to track their impact for the bean-counters. They do not show up in the nice graph produced by Web of Science showing how many papers a person published each year, so if you published 5 book chapters and no journal articles it looks like you didn't publish squat that year. They are also harder to find than journal articles, so I think many chapters just get lost unless the books happens to be high profile for some reason. Finally, my Promotion and Tenure committee has made it clear that a first authored book chapter doesn't count in the "published a first-authored paper"column in the tenure checklist. (The checklist doesn't physically exist, but it's clear that column exists in their heads, so I guess it exists for me too). When I was a graduate student, book chapters were considered a big deal. (oooh, post-doc X wrote a book chapter, wow maybe someday someone will ask me to write a book chapter). It was a mark of your standing in a field that someone asked you to write a chapter for an edited volume, just like being invited to speak in a symposium at a conference. It was also an opportunity to say things that were too bold/crazy/innovative/speculative to get out in more conservative journals. Now I feel like it is not nearly as prestigious and, from my perspective, is a "lost publication".
So why write a book chapter at all? Well, sometimes there are social reasons for doing so. Sometimes workshops will require a book chapter from everyone and since they're paying your expenses it's a quid pro quo situation. Sometimes those symposium invites come with the same expectation (though without the benefit of the paid expenses). Sometimes the expectation of a book chapter doesn't get popped on you until you're AT the event. That one really annoys me. I've started employing "bullet time" when the word book chapter emerges - you know, like Neo in the Matrix? I dodge and I wiggle and I flail my arms around trying desperately to avoid being committed to writing a chapter. When I do get trapped, I have to admit I don't send my best stuff, for the reasons referenced above. I get no credit for it and I feel like there's a high probability that most people won't find it, so why "waste" my good stuff on a black hole.
The last edited volume I bought caused a revolt in my reading group where we were plodding through ridiculously awful chapters week after week. (Does it count as a revolt if you are both the head of the reading group and the leader of the revolt?) Since then I have stopped buying edited volumes without multiple letters of reference from trusted sources. I have wondered if the edited volume will eventually die or spawn a Web of Science-like database (Chapters of Science?). I suspect, to my dismay, that the edited volume is an albatross we are destined to bear for a while.
3 days ago