Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Web of Science killed Book Chapters

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 The reference tomes are pretty recently published for obvious reasons (don't want to reference outdated information, afterall).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 comments:

Nat Blair said...

That's a good observation PC. Unfortunately it's been so long since I even bothered to buy a book of edited volumes other than methods (Yuste and Konnerth's Imaging in Neuroscience and Development). Beyond that, full book chapters are just too slow to be a truly meaningful part of the conversation today, and that coupled with the lack of real incentives for promotion and tenure has killed them. This is one reason why more blogging scientists would be very cool, as those kinds of conversations move real real fast.

I can only see the methodsy volumes more as self preservation for those labs on the cutting edge of a technique, so they don't have to field so many questions from other people. They can say, "read the book!"

River Tam said...

I totally forgot about the time to publication issue with book chapters, which is SO true. The more I think about it, the more I'm surprised that the book chapter is not a dead publication unit in the sciences. I gave my bookshelves another glance and the only "useful" recent edited volume is an overview of a particular ecosystem, which is useful to me in that reference sort of way.

I completely agree, BTW, about the potential for blogging for carrying on contemporary scientific discourse. I'm always stunned at how fast conversations grow and spread in the blogosphere. How great would it be if someday we could be discussing the latest and greatest breakthroughs on the blogosphere and not just the lastest and greatest absurdities in academia!

Nat Blair said...

I completely agree, BTW, about the potential for blogging for carrying on contemporary scientific discourse. I'm always stunned at how fast conversations grow and spread in the blogosphere.

Definitely, this being one of the main reasons I started blogging. Of course, I still have yet to do any blogging on real research topics. But there's plenty of ideas kicking around.

How great would it be if someday we could be discussing the latest and greatest breakthroughs on the blogosphere and not just the lastest and greatest absurdities in academia!

I think it'll come, but it's going to take some time for the old guard to move along before it becomes more accepted. These types of people will never think that blogging is useful. But these are the same people who can barely type, and who move the mouse painfully slowly.