The question in the title was put to me by a friend recently. Not too long ago, he wrote a chapter for an edited volume on a topic of much current interest in community ecology. The chapter, and the book as a whole, had a lot of new ideas–it wasn’t just people repackaging stuff they’d said before. But the book isn’t much cited, and the new ideas in it probably would’ve been more cited if they’d been published as standalone papers.
I wasn’t really sure how to answer my friend’s question. I suspect it’s always been the case that chapters in edited volumes are less cited on average than the equivalent papers would have been. And much as with papers, I’m sure most scientific books have been little-read and had little influence, while a small minority have been widely-read and highly influential. But not working in the publishing industry, and not being inclined to do a lot of research, I have no idea if books are being purchased and cited less often than used to be the case. Similarly, there definitely are still people who respect and place high value on the scholarly effort that goes into writing or editing a scientific book, effort which is quite different in amount and kind from the effort that goes into writing papers. But I have no idea if people who feel that way are less common than they used to be.
I guess I’ve always thought that the choice between writing a scientific book, or contributing a chapter to an edited volume, isn’t a matter of deciding whether books or papers garner more citations. Books vs. papers is an apples to oranges comparison, I think, especially for single-authored books. I think you write a scientific book because you have a body of ideas that just can’t be fully developed and well-presented in a paper or series of papers. That was my motivation the one time I wrote a book proposal. Steve Hubbell’s idea to apply neutral theory to ecology is another (and better!) example. He first proposed the basic idea in a paper in Coral Reefs in 1997. Similar or closely-related ideas were proposed by others in papers published years earlier (e.g., by Hal Caswell) or shortly thereafter (by Graham Bell). But the idea only really took off when Hubbell wrote an entire book about it.
Authors do vary in their views about what ideas benefit from being put in book form. Many single-authored scientific books pull together an author’s previously-published work. Such books don’t present new results (or at least not many), so the “added value” comes from the way the material is organized and explicitly linked together. How much value one sees in this is very much a matter of taste, I think. For instance, students who are unfamiliar with the author’s papers might find such books very valuable, while others who’ve already read the author’s papers might find such books less valuable. For edited volumes, there’s always the challenge of imposing some integration and organization, so as to ensure that the book is more than just a bunch of papers that might as well have been published separately (or as part of a journal special feature or special issue). But I have no idea if books that pull together an author’s previous work, or edited volumes, generally are seen as having less “added value” than used to be the case.
One factor that could be working against books these days (especially edited volumes on topics of current interest) is timeliness. It is, or can be, quicker to publish papers than it used to be, and I think people care more about speed of publication than they used to. Which could be causing authors and readers to steer away from producing or purchasing edited volumes.
I’ve been wondering about these issues because I have a sabbatical coming up in a couple of years and I’m thinking about how best to spend it. I don’t want to spend it just writing papers. For me, sabbaticals are a unique opportunity to do different scholarship than one can easily do when not on sabbatical (just my personal view about my own sabbatical, I’m not criticizing anyone who chooses to spend their sabbatical just writing papers). One possibility is to write a book, either on the same topic that I proposed in that old book proposal (which I could take to other publishers), or on some other topic. Given my own personality and circumstances, if I’m ever going to write a book, it’s only going to happen while I’m on sabbatical. But I’m having trouble deciding if I should do it. Lots of considerations here, of course, including what I might do instead. But among the considerations are “Do scientists still read books these days, and if so, which scientists, how many, and what sort of books?” Because while I don’t think you write a book in order to reach more people than you could with papers, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of writing a book unless I thought it would be read. That is, if I had ideas that I thought would be best presented in book form, but I didn’t think anybody would buy that book, I’d either just keep those ideas to myself, or else publish them in a less-suitable way.
So what do you think? Do scientific books still have their place? I’d be particularly curious to hear from folks who’ve been involved in workshops, working groups, symposia, or small conferences lately–the sorts of events that tend to lead to edited volumes. Is the published “product” from your event going to be an edited book, or something else, like a journal special feature? Was there any discussion of the pluses and minuses of doing an edited volume? I’d also be interested to hear from folks like me who’ve thought about writing a sole-authored book. Why did you decide to write a book? And did you worry at all that people might be less interested in reading scientific books than they used to be?
p.s. In case it wasn’t clear, I’m thinking here of books aimed at a professional audience. Popular books is a whole ‘nother topic, I think, and one about which I know precisely zip.
p.p.s. It was once suggested to me that I ought to write a book of advice to students on “how to do ecology”. There is of course already one book on that exact topic. So if I was going to write a book on that, I’d want to make sure I had something quite different to say. But even if I had something quite different to say, I’m not sure I’d say it in book form. I think this blog is a good vehicle for offering advice to students. I don’t know that my advice would reach more students, different students, or be more effective (either in the short or long term) if I presented it in book form rather than blog form.