In defence of book chapters

Writing book chapters is often discouraged in academia. Generally speaking, book chapters are less accessible for readers and do not generate as many citations. In quantified academia, they ‘count’ less. In a 2012 blog post, Dorothy Bishop analysed her publications and found her book chapters received a third the citations of her journal articles. Her decision was simple:

Quite simply, if you write a chapter for an edited book, you might as well write the paper and then bury it in a hole in the ground … My advice to any academic who is tempted to write a chapter for an edited collection is don’t.

At the time Pat Thomson gave a thoughtful response that highlights that career stage and job security are important factors:

I’m happy to write book chapters. I will, of course, only write chapters for books where there is a decent publisher and someone I know to be a credible editor … I don’t have a rule which says no book chapters … Would I advise an early career or doctoral scholar in my field to write book chapters? Well, probably not as the main genre that they try to publish …

I’ve been rereading these posts in response to Helen Kara’s recent blog post in which she (as an independent scholar) explores the economics of  deciding whether or not to write a chapter:

Writing the chapter was an interesting and enjoyable exercise but economically pointless … I decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and made a belated New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t write another book chapter … [Now] I’m rethinking the whole book chapter thing again …

I have written a handful of book chapters, and currently have a few more in press. Reading through the advice about writing book chapters (always say no, say no sometimes, say no most of the time), prompted me to reflect on why I enjoy book chapters and want to continue writing in the genre.

A couple of years ago, colleagues and I had a journal article rejected with the reviewer comment: “This would be better if it took a more conventional methodological approach to the data analysis.” (For the curious, the article was Redefining Early Career Academia: A collective narrative approach and it was subsequently accepted and published by Higher Education Research & Development). My experience has been that publishing something experimental, fun and adventurous is easier as a book chapter.

Right now, I am eagerly awaiting my author copy of Lived Experiences of Women in Academia: Metaphors, manifestos and memoir edited by Ali Black and Susanne Garvis. (The joy of hard copy books! Building a personal library and reading a collection focussed around a particular topic are other advantages of writing book chapters). My chapter uses Luce Irigaray’s metaphor of mucus to perform a feminist writing of the messy experiences of academic motherhood. I write a series of autoethnographic ‘sticky moments’: giving a lecture about motherhood during the early stages of a precarious pregnancy, breastfeeding at work, and the transition from an academic gown to a hospital gown.

Writing book chapters, both as a sole author and with colleagues, brings me great pleasure. My writing flows differently from journal articles because I am more confident about taking risks with style, structure and method. (Almost every journal article I write has as its plan: Introduction, Lit Review, Method, Findings, Discussion, Conclusion. My book chapters rarely start life like this). I also enjoy working with editors, and have been blessed with those whose care is evident through thoughtful invitations to collaborate, stimulating book proposals, regular updates and challenging formative feedback.

When the basis for decisions about what to write is the currency of the academic machine, then book chapters are out. (I don’t say this lightly: writing outputs matter more when work futures are uncertain). But when I want to write in the company of others, flex my writing muscles in new ways, and find pleasure in the craft of writing, then book chapters are a gift.

4 thoughts on “In defence of book chapters

  1. This was really interesting and useful. I’ve found a few other advantages to writing chapters. Working with other authors for a book has been fun and enlightening, and I have got more and better criticism from them, and from the book editors, than from the anonymous article reviewers and editors. While the citation numbers may be lower than for journal articles, often the quality of interaction has been higher, as experts in the field read the book. Because the book addresses a particular topic, it gets read across disciplines more than an article in a specialized journal. That means one can be “discovered” by people who otherwise would never see one’s work. And as you note, it’s easier to take more chances and experiment. Thanks for a thoughtful article.


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