Return of the book? New challenges to the dominance of peer-reviewed journals

Searching Scopus earlier today I noticed that this key database of academic publications and citations now lists book chapters and books alongside journal articles in its search results. Scopus began doing this around a year ago, in August 2013. Their coverage still seems to be very patchy but once a database like this includes a new resource its coverage tends to expand relentlessly. Last month Scopus announced that the database now includes 50,000 books from thirty major publishers, albeit only a quarter of them from the social sciences and humanities. It seems possible that within a few years time books and book chapters, and the citations they attract, will be almost as well covered as journal articles currently are – not least because book publishers will be under pressure from their authors to make sure they are included. And it is not just Scopus; the Web of Science’s Book Citation Index has also been expanding rapidly since it was launched in 2012 and now includes 60,000 titles.

A book chapter in Scopus search results

A book chapter in Scopus search results

The implications for academic work practices are profound. Citation databases help to shape the arcane incentive structure that influences academic agendas, research programmes and hiring practices in powerful ways. This is a bit of a mystery to those outside academia but its effects within universities are very direct and powerful and shape the pursuit of knowledge in the most fundamental way. One curious effect of the system is that academics have been forced to move away from writing book chapters and books in recent years because of the much higher value attached to publication in journals. One of the most serious and damaging consequences of this in the social sciences and humanities is that academics have been incentivised to write for each other rather than for a wider imagined audience, and their scholarship has been locked away in expensive subscription services that the public can’t access. There are some good reasons why journals are more highly valued than books and book chapters, and a lot of bad ones. The top journals set very high standards and enforce them rigorously through peer review and strong editorial intervention. But one can say exactly the same thing about the top university presses. And while there may be a lot of weak edited books there are also an awful lot of weak journal articles out there. Many universities define inclusion of a journal in Scopus or Web of Science (formerly ISI) as a baseline for taking it seriously and including it in research assessments, but the quality of these journals is extremely variable and inclusion in the databases was never intended to certify that a journal was of high quality.

Books and book chapters have been devalued in recent years partly because they were all but invisible in the big databases. Citations are the convertible currency of the international academic economy and citations of books and book chapters simply weren’t recorded, except in the most obscure way by Web of Science (their method of dealing with them hid them almost completely from view). More importantly still, the references that books made to other publications, including references to journal articles, counted for nothing; they were entirely invisible. The elevated status of journals is sustained in part by the databases and explained by the path of development the citation databases followed in the early years of the Internet. Journals went online well in advance of books and were much more easily catalogued and searched by the databases. The inclusion of books in Scopus and Web of Science allows us for the first time to set books and chapters alongside journal articles and compare their citation rates, as well as excavating for the first time the citations that books make to other publications. If it turns out that many books are just as highly-cited, or even more highly cited, than key journal articles it could begin to effect the calculations of funding agencies and thus of academics and their institutions. It is also likely to increase citations to books and book chapters as they become more visible and accessible. It might make it a little easier for academics to justify spending time on writing a big book. The current incentive structure pushes academics towards writing journal articles for other academics to read but this small technical change could have a powerful long-term impact on what we research, on where we publish it and on the audiences that we address. The current mantra is ‘journals, journals, journals’. This fairly obscure technical change in the citation databases may bring us one step closer to the day when that mantra is replaced, perhaps even with a phrase like: ‘Journals are fine, but if you really want to make an impact, write a book.’

Niall O Dochartaigh is a senior lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway and the author of Internet Research Skills. Sage 2011 (3rd edn). https://niallodoc.wordpress.com

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About niallodoc

Senior Lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway
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