Books are sublime. I’ve loved them ever since I was a little child. They represent new, exciting, and previously unexplored ideas and a crowning sense of achievement (both for the writer and for the reader on finishing the manuscript). They are the personification of the author. On the whiteboard in my office, I display one of my favorite Walt Whitman quotes from Leaves of Grass:
“Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms”
I love the idea that a book is a metaphor for a man (or a woman), and that, as reader and author, we are holding each other. There is something romantic about this notion.
Books are so attractive, especially to academics, that many of us have piles and piles of them that called out irresistibly to us, despite the fact that we don’t have enough hours in the day to read them all.
But, alas, books are also becoming increasingly marginalized in academia. In the natural sciences, they are almost unheard of. In the social sciences, they are a dying breed and count little (if at all) toward promotion. Even in the arts and humanities—once a stronghold for long-form scholarship—books are playing second fiddle to journal articles.
We are constantly told by university leaders and our own mentors to focus on quality over quantity, but the exponential explosion of journal articles over the years, and the slow death of the book, fly in the face of that advice. The system of incentives is all wrong.
“We are constantly told by university leaders and our own mentors to focus on quality over quantity, but the exponential explosion of journal articles over the years, and the slow death of the book, fly in the face of that advice.”
With very few exceptions, the maximum word count of journal articles (in the social sciences, this is typically between 8,000 and 10,000 words; in the natural sciences, it is far, far less) means that we can only make, at best, incremental contributions to the literature. There simply isn’t enough space to properly situate a study within the wider literature.
A book, on the other hand, affords the author the freedom to make a significant contribution. You can propose ideas, test them, and even consider empirically and conceptually alternative models and frameworks. You are liberated, allowing you to explore avenues that would otherwise be blocked off in a succinct journal article.
Not only that, but books are a pleasure to write. My first book allowed me to make an argument that was too controversial to survive peer review. My second book, which is a forthcoming statistics textbook, helped to improve my own knowledge of data science. Neither will contribute much, if anything at all, to my research metrics, but both enabled me to write unshackled, as it were.
In short, we need more books and fewer articles. We need to pay more than lip service to the “quality over quantity” debate. A book is much greater than the sum of its parts. It is also much more likely to be read by laymen than a paywalled journal article. A return to long-form scholarship is good for the author, good for the reader, and good for science.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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