Obscene Desserts

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Collections in crisis?

I was intrigued to see the announcement last week by the historian Peter Webster that he has a new book under contract that will address the recent history of the edited collection as an academic publishing format.

While this might seem at first glance like a somewhat esoteric or very narrow topic, it goes potentially to the heart of a more general issue: in what ways and in which formats do scientists and scholars present their research findings to their colleagues and (potentially) to a broader public.

As Webster puts it, in what looks like a brief précis of his forthcoming volume:

In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

As I’ve worked in three academic systems (the US, the UK and Germany), I have developed a sensitivity to certain issues that seem to be unique to each of them.

And, indeed, the edited collection seems to have suffered in the last couple of decades in the UK. It’s certainly not that they’ve disappeared, but it does seem (as I’ve at least anecdotally heard via colleagues), that British publishers take far more convincing to publish a collection than they once did.

And I know more directly that when I was involved in the 2000s with my then-institution’s submission to the 2008 “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE, now known as the more buzzwordy “Research Excellence Framework” or REF) that collections and contributions to them were clearly considered  to be less valuable (today, I suppose, “less excellent”) than journal articles.

(There might be an exception here with those various series of mammoth — and mammothly priced — “handbooks” put out by prominent publishers at an increasing rate in recent decades. But that seems like a story for another day.)

I can’t speak for other countries, but I don’t have the sense that there’s been any comparable decline in Germany, where, in fact, the essay collection — or “Sammelband” — seems to be alive and well. (Maybe somebody has statistics on this, but I’m speaking merely subjectively.)

To make a long story short, I think the factors leading to this difference are obvious.

1) German academics are still largely free from systematic research assessments and rankings. (This is one of German academia’s great virtues, whatever other problems it might have.) There are recurrent moves toward a more thorough and comprehensive assessment system, but nothing has emerged that is remotely like the highly centralised and enormously powerful directives and bureaucracies that dominate the British scene. German education systems are highly federalised, which may play a significant role here.

The amount and quality of your work, of course, is taken into account. But this is done more variously and individually by different committees at different times and in different contexts (external grant applications, hiring committees, etc.) rather than in one recurrent assessment that has a significant impact on your career (and the future state funding of your institution).

Moreover, there is a strong — if less tangible — commitment to an ideal of scholarly independence, which most academics can largely take advantage of (except, of course, those who are employed to work on specific projects).

Academics the world over are as susceptible to an incentive system as any other occupation (as one sees maybe most clearly in the UK), but, so far, there’s been no clear message that I can see in Germany that one needs to prioritise articles over chapters in collections.

While the distinction between peer-review and non-peer-review has become more observed in Germany, the obsession with it and with “impact factors” and the like has yet to take hold, at least in comparison, again, with Britain.

Indeed: having a long list of chapters in essay collections (or several of one’s own collections) won’t generally count against you here. On the contrary: it might well be to your advantage, and it seems to be expected that someone will produce at least a few collections in the course of their career. The demonstrated ability to bring fellow scholars together and to synthesise their thoughts into a coherent collection is something that is, overall, valued.

2) Equally important — possibly more so — is the fact that there is a well-established system for funding the publication of Sammelbände. Like in much of academic publishing in Germany (unlike, in my experience in the US and UK), it is pretty standard to pay the publisher in advance to publish your work, once it has been reviewed and accepted. This includes essay collections. So German academic publishers face little pressure to avoid publishing them out of a fear (which seems to be a factor in the UK) that they’ll be “hard to sell”.

The Sammelband or series of them (Reihe) of them can actually be something of a status symbol in Germany. There are many long-extant collection series put out by particular institutions (or particular scholars). Some of them are prominent and respected. And this is all accompanied by an extensive set of grants and funding opportunities to support such publication.

So some combination of economic infrastructure, status incentives and scholarly ideals has led to a situation where, in Germany, the Sammelband seems alive and well or, at least, not “in crisis” as it seems to be in the UK. (Some related issues were addressed, it occurs to me, by Susan Pedersen some years back on British variants of the Festschrift.)

Is the continuing liveliness of the collection format in Germany a good thing? It’s hard to say conclusively, but I would say, on balance, that it is.

One sometimes hears the complaint that there are too many essay collections being created. This might be true, and it is clearly the case that the quality is variable.

However, I doubt that the range of quality is necessarily any worse than that of the articles flooding out of an increasing number of (sometimes questionable) academic journals. Academic overproduction — in many senses of the term — is a genuine issue, but I think it has little to do with publication formats as such.

Another complaint is that essays in collections are harder to access than articles. And there is something to this: yes, it’s far more convenient — if you have institutional access to a journal that is — to sit at your desk and click “download article” than to actually try to get your hands on a printed essay collection. However, with the advent of e-books, there is not, in theory, any reason why this distinction should matter all that much. (And, in any case, since when did going to the library once in a while become seen as such an onerous task?)

Moreover, the tendency to zero in only on individual articles — even when they’re part of a thematic “special issue” — means that something is potentially lost when readers fail to engage with the broader context in which a journal article was meant to be read.

When they’re done well, I think, essay collections can be enormously valuable, even exciting scholarly works. Being “done well” means that they should have a clear purpose, express a coherent set of ideas (or at least a common set of concerns) and manage to become, as a whole, more valuable than the sum of their parts.

My feelings on this might be affected by having put out my own first Sammelband a couple of years ago, Christianity and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Europe: Conflict, Community and the Social Order.

It was a good experience, not least since it was part of a very good series and I had the benefit of some helpful in-house editorial advice and assistance. The collection had its start in a panel I had organised, but I then approached individual scholars with particular interests to supplement this core group. In this way, the result was something that (at least I like to think) has an internal coherence that makes for the best collections. And the reactions have been positive so far, which is encouraging.

When I  look back on my career (or even just sideways at my bookshelves), I can identify several collections that had a great impact on myself and the fields in which I have worked (mainly the histories of crime, media and religion).

Done well, it’s a format that is as good (an in some cases better) than a journal special issue.

It would be a shame for it to disappear.

However, it seems to me that the “crisis of the collection” is a distinctly British (or maybe transatlantic) phenomenon, one that is clearly rooted in the imperatives both of a centralised assessment system and a more market-oriented publishing model.

Though maybe I’m one of those old fashioned types who likes the way that research turns into tangible forms. With stable covers, an image on the front and an ISBN number.

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