Valuing the edited volume

2015-02-12

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing on several articles. Two will be published in edited collections and one has been submitted to a journal.

Edited books are a bread-and-butter way of publishing work in the humanities. Yet I have seen that edited volumes are consistently devalued as a publication outlet in Scandinavia. For example, the application template for university lecturer positions at both KTH and Luleå Tekniska Universitet put publications in international journals first, then books, then all other publications including edited volumes. In fact, there is an implicit assumption in both cases that edited volumes are equivalent to “conference proceedings”. They are not, at least not in the humanities. In the Norwegian publishing point system, an article in an edited volume is worth much less than a journal article: 1 point max versus 3 points. This would imply that an article in a journal is three times as good/important–a contention I take issue with.

I believe that the status of edited volume articles needs to be raised for three reasons.

1. Edited books are the most common form of research collaboration in the humanities. Instead of writing articles with 10 or 20 authors like in the natural sciences, we write edited volumes. Ideally edited collections are given shape by the editors, who set the parameters of the volume, the key questions being asked, and the approaches that will be included. Many edited volumes grow out of an in-person workshop in which each participant presents a paper. This gives all of the participants a chance to hear and comment on the other papers, which carries over to the edits the participants make afterward. Good volumes bring individual scholarship into conversation and built toward a common goal. This is collaboration at its best.

2. Many humanities edited collections receive the same standard of peer-review as a top-notch international journal. I edited two volumes that came out in 2013, one with University of Pittsburgh Press and the other with University of British Columbia Press. In both cases, we had three blind reviewers for the entire set of articles—comments were provided on each article, as well as the volume as a whole. As editors, we passed the comments along to contributors who then modified their essays, which we re-read and confirmed addressed the criticisms. The editors prepared a detailed response to the reviews when the new complete manuscript was submitted. This process meant that our articles received just as much (if not more!) review than they would have at a journal. In fact, this review process can lead to rejection: when the reviewers had very negative feelings about one of the essays, we dropped it from the volume.

3. Articles in edited volumes take just as much effort to research and write as journal articles. I spend months researching the material for each of my articles, regardless of where they are going. Writing an article for a collection is not an easy way out for getting sloppy work published. I have found that the research process for an edited volume actually requires more outside reading than a journal article because the editor and/or other author contributions reveal new theoretical, methodological, or comparative insights that should be addressed in my paper to fit in the volume. I will also point out that most articles in humanities volumes are based on primary research, so they are equivalent to research articles in a journal. Our edited books are not typically summaries of prior research.

I want to make it clear that I am not saying all edited collections are top-quality research—but then again, neither are journal articles. What I am saying is that there is no inherent difference in the quality of the two publication channels. I think the contributions in most edited volumes published by university presses (I stress here university presses, so commercial publishers like Springer and Routledge are not in this category) are as good as upper-tier journal publications. On top of that, the total worth of a well-edited volume is greater than the sum of the parts because of the big picture it creates. While the vast majority of humanities articles in edited volumes will not be indexed in Web of Science, that exclusion doesn’t make them lesser science.

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