Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why are so many edited volumes worthless?

Anyone who follows publishing in archaeology (and probably in academia in general) knows that there has been a great increase in the number of edited collections in the past decade or so. In my humble opinion, many—perhaps most—of these are close to worthless. I’ll spout off about this for a bit, and then provide some suggestions for graduate students and young professionals who are thinking of editing a collection of essays (since these tend to be the worst offenders in producing books of dubious value).

Why the profusion of edited volumes? Here are some of the reasons I see.

1. For the book editors:

  • It’s easier to assemble a bunch of contributed essays than to write an entire book.
  • It’s nice to have one’s name on the cover of a book. It looks good on a CV and sometimes people confuse the nature of the book and think that one has written a book. Your mom will be proud that you have produced a book with your name on it.
  • It provides an opportunity to help shape the nature of scholarship within a field. Unfortunately this potential is seldom realized, for reasons discussed below.

2. For the chapter contributors:

  • It’s a quick and easy way to convert a conference presentation into a publication.
  • Book chapters are rarely subject to the kinds of rigorous review and critique that journal articles go through.
  • It’s nice to have a paper in a volume that has some prominent scholars as contributors.

What’s wrong with most edited volumes?

  • The quality of the chapters is uneven. One rarely sees a book review of an edited volume that does not point this out.
  • More importantly, most books simply are not integrated intellectual contributions. They are too disparate, chapters are all over the map, they don’t cite one another, and there is no central message that the book communicates. Scholarship is thus not advanced by the volume beyond what a few of the better chapters may say.
  • The central indications of this problem are: (1) there is no strong position paper; and/or (2) individual chapters do not cite the central concepts or ideas of the editors.

What can be done?

The most important thing is for the editor to have a vision that he/she carries out through the medium of the chapters in the book. There should be a central model or approach or some major idea ties together the chapters. Editors need to be strong and assertive to enforce their vision on the contributors. When the editors are graduate students or young professionals, they are often unwilling to exercise the necessary control over more senior scholars, resulting in disparate and low-quality edited collections.

  • Write, or commission, at least one major chapter that sets the theoretical/ topical/ methodological setting of the work. This should be a significant intellectual contribution.
  • Circulate that chapter well in advance. If one is thinking of publishing essays from a symposium, this should be done BEFORE the symposium.
  • Insist that contributors respond to the position paper. Insist that they cite it, that they use the concepts or terms that are promoted, that they provide the information called for in the position paper, etc.
  • If authors are unwilling to play along, drop their chapter from the book.
  • Reject poor quality chapters (even if they are from a prominent scholar). Insist that poorly written chapters be rewritten. Insist on high graphics standards.
  • Avoid chapters (introductory or final) that summarize the other chapters in the book. These are incredibly lame papers that contribute little.

Here are a few examples from my own experience. In the late 1990s I attended two international comparative conferences that were ultimately published as edited volumes. One, organized by Mogens Hansen in Copenhagen, was on city-state cultures. The other, organized by four archaeologists and held in a wonderful setting in Mijas, Spain, was on empires. Both were interesting and valuable sessions at which many scholars learned a lot. Both of the published volumes (Alcock et al. 2001; Hansen 2000) are valuable contributions with many very good chapters.

But only one—Hansen’s city-states book—makes a true advance and really moves scholarship forward in a significant way. The reason is that Hansen started with a tight definition of his key concept (“city-state culture”) and insisted that authors respond to that concept and use his terms and structure. Some participants objected to the concept, or argued that it did not apply in particular cases, and their voices were heard and discussed. But most of us employed Hansen’s concept usefully and thus our case study chapters contribute to a larger intellectual edifice (in my case, the fact that Hansen’s model coincided quite closely with my own understanding of Aztec city-states didn’t hurt). Hansen provided both an introductory chapter and a concluding chapter that defined key concepts, provided a historical review of key concepts, placed the theme within current debates, etc. Mogens Hansen was quite a fanatic about his notion (this is a compliment), and later published an addendum with additional city-state cultures (Hansen 2002).

The empires book has some good chapters, but it does not have a central, sustained argument. The field of scholarship on early imperialism is not advanced beyond what would have happened had most of the chapters been published as journal articles. Contrary to the statements of the editors, this was not truly a comparative study; as Richard Blanton pointed out in a review of the book, simply juxtaposing a bunch of case studies does not constitute comparative analysis (for my views of comparisons in archaeology, see Smith 2006). The book is valuable because it contains a number of excellent papers; in fact in terms of the quality of the chapters, it is head and shoulders above most of the edited volumes in archaeology today. But because the editors did not promote a central vision and enforce it on the participants, this book makes less of a contribution to scholarship than Hansen’s city-states book. I should note that the lack of central vision was in large part enforced by the funding agency—the Wenner-Gren Foundation—which had some kind of strange rule against enforcing a strong intellectual focus at its conferences.

With a few special exceptions, I have stopped contributing chapters to edited collections that do not have a strong position paper and some level of enforced adherence to the position paper by authors. In other words, I don’t publish too many book chapters these days. I’m tempted to list recent edited volumes that I have declined to contribute to, but I don’t want to embarrass the editors. But what is a young scholar to do? I think that it is more valuable—both the profession and to one’s reputation—to publish a couple of high-quality journal articles than to edited a low-quality collection of papers. But publishers are always looking for edited volumes (why this is the case is somewhat of a mystery to me), and people always want their names on books, so I suspect that we will continue to see a steady flow of poor edited collections in archaeology. If you are thinking of editing a volume, please at least think about my suggestions above.


Alcock, Susan E., Terence N. D'Altroy, Kathleen D. Morrison, and Carla M. Sinopoli (editors)
2001 Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hansen, Mogens Herman (editor)
2000 A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen.

2002 A Comparative Study of Six City-State Cultures. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen.

Smith, Michael E.
2006 How do Archaeologists Compare Early States? Book Review Essay on Bruce Trigger and Adam T. Smith. Reviews in Anthropology 35:5-35.


Anonymous said...

As a PhD student in archaeology who is organizing a conference with two other fellow PhDs, I have to say that I really value your advice on this topic. We are going to publish the proceeding of the conference and have asked some big names to contribute articles. Regarding you conclusion, however, I must say that for the sake of one's reputation as a scholar and for employment purposes, an edited volume looks a lot better on a CV than an article. If you only consider citation, one would get many more citings for an edited volume than a simple article, not to mention future grants and other perks.

Michael E. Smith said...

The relative value of a journal article and an edited book depends on the specifics. On a CV, a very good journal article impresses me more than editorship of a low-quality book. Journal articles are much more visible and available through the internet, giving a potentially much wider audience (often beyond one's narrow disciplinary context). I can't imagine how an edited volume would generate more citations than a good article in a top journal; that just doesn't make sense.

I'm not arguing that no one should edit books. If you have a good collection of papers and are willing to do what it takes to coordinate them and produce a good volume, that's great. Then write a good journal article that summarizes much of the book to generate more interest.

Anonymous said...

With Google Scholar, most edited works will be available to the wider public just like journal articles are.
Your points are well taken, do not misunderstand me. I agree that a well written article that has a clear argument is much better than an edited volume where the papers are all over tha place. However, let's suppose that you have an edited volume with 12 articles, written by both scholars of considerable reputation and younger, unknown ones. As you said, if the reviews of this volume are positive and if you can get a big publishing company to publish the edited volume, chances are that this book will get more citations than your article in a journal.
For young scholars, it is much more of an ego boost to have a book under your name than a paper.

Michael E. Smith said...

Well, here is a quick experiment. I compared the sloppy book that I blogged about "Sloppy Editing of Edited Volumes" to a journal paper by one of the editors. The 2 works were published several years ago, and within 2 years of one another. The book has 4 hits on Google Scholar and the journal article (which is a rather narrow technical study) has 11 hits.

Now maybe you are referring to the glory than an editor may bask in when people cite articles by other authors in a book one has edited. Personally I don't think such citations contribute much to the reputation of a scholar (and they certainly don't count for institutional bean counters looking for quantitative citation data). This same anonymous author mentioned above has several book chapters listed on Google Scholar, all with 1 or 2 citations. Journal articles are far more visible, far more accessible (all over the world), and cited far more widely than edited books, other things being approximately equal.

Anonymous said...

Hi there! Just two points:

1. I like to find "chapters (introductory or final) that summarize the other chapters" in an edited book! I'm not lazy, just a human being with lots on my daily plate work and home-wise, so chapters like these help me get an idea what the volume is about. If I am more interested, I'll read the papers I want in detail.

2. I like to have an open mind as to what would be considered an "advance to scholarship / science" etc. I prefer it when people make efforts to publish things than keep their thoughts in drawers, because they don't fit this or that requirement of a peer or a publisher.

Example 1: How much "nonsense" information was distributed during the middle ages about the cosmos? Still, this "nonsense", published in a sense through the meticulous copying by the monks, has had a tremendous contribution in our understanding of those times.

Example 2: edited volumes give the opportunity to non native anglophone scholars from around the world to come together and share their findings and thoughts. The edited volume may not be up to standards for an anglophone researcher, but science is not just anglophone and knowledge in this world does not have to always follow the writing style and methodology or theory format required by US or UK Universities. I have reviewed an edited volume where the editors were Bulgarian and I was very disappointed by the bad English used. However, although the papers were unequal in quality and style, some of the information found in them, from foreign excavations, was great and helped me to further my research!

So, in my opinion, edited volumes should be published with the editors giving flexibility to the authors. However, the editors should take the kudos or the onus for the proofreading and linguistic correction of the papers, as well as for providing peer-review and help the papers to get to a certain standard.

Anonymous said...

Hello, and thank you for a fascinating read. I agree with everything that is said on this page! In fact, in my field, all forms of publication are important. So I would recommend my students to have one or two edited volumes and lots of journal articles. They all increase visibility and contribute to different readerships. Ultimately are all good for the CV.