On My Way Out – Advice to Young Scholars III: Edited Book

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I have most certainly reached the final phase of my academic and professional career and as I look back I want to offer, for what it is worth, some dos and don’ts on different topics to younger scholars in the early phases of theirs. This is the third instalment and it is one in which, even more than my earlier instalments, I look back ruefully and in St Augustine fashion offer a ‘don’t do what I did…’ set of suggestions.

A more appropriate title would have been Unedited Books and the crux of my advice is – proceed with caution, avoid if at all possible.

The routine is well-known and well-practised. You receive an invitation to present a paper at some conference. You accept (see below). You may adapt something you have already written or something that you are working on which is in some way connected. It is often not exactly what the conveners had asked for or had in mind, but perhaps close enough so as not to have to reject the invitation. The conveners are often accomplices in this little approximation. They are committed to the conference; it is often part of some grant they have received. Almost always you are pressed for time – after all it is not as if these invitations arrive when you are sitting back, twiddling your thumbs and looking for things to do. In general they are disruptive of your flow of work. So the result is not as good as it might have been. Sounds familiar?

You attend the conference. It shows. The papers presented are of very variable quality and relevance. There is the usual conference overload so that the habitual 10-15 minute ‘commentator’ input may be interesting but of limited value to your paper. The general (‘unfortunately we only have xx minutes for questions’) discussion is even less so – how many actually read the papers (which not infrequently arrive two days before the conference)? Still sounds familiar?

At the end of the conference the conveners remind participants of the publication plans. More often than not they already have an agreement, even a contract, with the publishers. Typically one is given a deadline for the final version of the paper. How much work is done on the draft presented at the conference? It varies, of course, but in general not much. Crossing T’s and dotting I’s. One is already busy preparing the next paper for the next conference. Now we arrive at the crux of the problem. How often does one receive detailed editorial comments from the ‘Editors’ on one’s final submission? The sad answer is – rarely. And even when one does they are all too often of a tentative and even perfunctory nature. How often have you, as editor – hand on your heart – sent out such? The fiction is that the conference, with the commentators and discussion, would have served that editorial function. It is a fiction.

The publisher is meant to act as a quality brake. Even those who have a referee system usually end up with an overall quality assessment, but not with serious editorial input to the individual papers. Occasionally a paper or two are nixed, but that too is more an exception than a rule. There is copyediting of variable (very variable) quality. This is true even for many of the most illustrious publishers in the Anglo-American world and certainly true for the European continental publishers who rely entirely on the book editors.

The editors will typically write an Introduction that, more often than not, is a reworking of the Mission Statement of the conference, with the addition of a road map giving a synoptic capsule of the contributions. The classical Introduction, which uses the papers in the book for the purposes of writing a serious Introduction, pulling threads together and producing a major contribution that enhances the overall added value of the contribution, is a rarity. Still sounds familiar?

The book is then published with an enticing title and on occasion wonderful artwork. More often there is ‘programmatic artwork’: flags, a globe, whatever. The publishers assess the captive market and act accordingly. The print runs are small, the price typically exorbitant and in any event unattractive for individual purchase. It is common that the conveners have budgeted a subsidy to the publishers. An expensive cemetery – rightly so. If you are lucky, the book may be reviewed. And if you are even luckier, the review will be more than, well, a rehashed version of the ‘Introduction’ and road map.

Am I exaggerating? Yes, I am. Am I that far from the truth? No, I do not think so. And sure, there are exceptions – sure, the book you edited, the book to which you contributed. But these are exceptions.

To judge from the I.CON and EJIL mailbags, far more ‘edited books’ are published in our field than single or double-authored monographs. It’s a bit of a mystery, since so many of them are hardly ever read, certainly not cover to cover. Do a reality check with your own reading habits over, say, the last year. I am reasonably confident that you have bought hardly any, and read, if any, not many more. Even if I were to allow reading just a handful of papers rather than the whole edited book, I am sure the results would not be appreciably different.

In preparing this instalment of my Advice to Young Scholars I recently conducted a little wholly unscientific survey. In relation to the six edited books I surveyed even some of the contributors to the book had not read all the contributions of their fellow authors. And I harbour the suspicion that in some cases, especially with those heavy tomes such as Festschriften, where everybody since the author’s Bar Mitzvah has been invited to contribute (and the honoree supposedly does not know of this wonderful surprise being prepared by his or her faithful assistants), not only do the authors not read the other contributions, even the editors, and I suspect the honoree him or herself, don’t get much beyond the table of contents.

I can understand the publishers – their business plan calls for loads of these tomes that each produce a modest profit, and which all adds up at the end of the year. But what about us? Why do we continue to engage in this scholarly farce, which is all the more mysterious since as far as prestige or kudos is concerned, rarely does one enjoy much of either of these, not by being the ‘Editor’ of a book nor for publishing therein.

I can think of many explanations, some of which are not mutually exclusive and which I present in no particular order.

So why do people contribute?

  • You get a trip to somewhere – hopefully beautiful, sometimes exotic – where your paper will be presented as part of a workshop/conference. Sometimes these conferences are even interesting. One learns.
  • There may be some interesting people to meet.
  • There is not always a workshop or conference involved. Sometimes you do it because a good colleague or friend has asked you, pleaded with you and you do it as a favour. Other times it is someone ‘important’ who does the asking and you are ‘honoured’ at having been asked.
  • Sometimes you look at the other contributors (or would-be contributors) and think ‘if they are there, how can I not be there?) or some variant on this theme. In these cases it is even less likely you will read with attention the other contributions – the book typically arrives a year or more after the deadline for submission – your agenda has moved on.
  • Oftentimes it is just so easy to say yes because you already have a readymade paper that you have already posted on SSRN and that will just require some cosmetic retouching – so the whole thing becomes a boondoggle.
  • Alternatively, it is easy to say yes because the deadline is a very long time ahead. If the deadline were, say, two months from the time of request you would probably say no, but lo and behold, even in the first instance, you actually get to the writing not more than two months before the deadline.
  • Occasionally it is a serious project with serious people, which actually interests you – and maybe the book and your piece will draw attention, be read, discussed and add to the conversation.

What about the editors of such books? Why do they go down this road, the results of which are so often of so little gravity at all?

Oftentimes the edited book is the result of a workshop, conference or some such event, which is part of some funded ‘research project’ – yet another instance of the corrupting effect that money has wrought on the academic vocation. All too often these ‘research projects’ are nothing much more than a good, or not so good, idea or theme that is more or less worth exploring, and on which a bunch of scholars are invited to contribute papers which are then presented at the conference for the results of which, see above.

Indeed, the ‘barriers to entry’ of such publishing venture is usually quite low. Once the theme is set, the planning consists of trying to think of the persons who will be invited and ensure their participation. The mission statement is often cursory and generic – most times a contribution to a subtheme within the general framework. The result is a potpourri of pieces of different lengths and quality and only tenuous connectivity.

So what is my advice for young scholars in the face of this rather demoralizing phenomenon?

Invitations to participate are often tempting: the company your piece will be in; the prestige of the editors, the flattery of being invited, the general excitement (for what it is) of travelling to a conference or workshop somewhere with the attendant accoutrements (the dinner, etc). There are several costs, the most important being the opportunity cost. It will distract you from your own sovereignly set research agenda. You pay here a double price: pieces written for these events and the ensuing books are often hurried and recycled and hence unsatisfying, adding little to the field (and to your reputation). The saving grace is that they are, as mentioned above, hardly ever read. But then, why bother? More painfully, since research, thinking and writing time as well as mental energy are our most precious and scarce resource, it is not only the forgettable paper you prepare that suffers, but the more important piece of work you are working on.

I know how difficult it can be to say No. I also know how easy it is to rationalize this oftentimes irrational behaviour. The obvious solution is Aristotelian or Maimonidean – exercise good measure; ration yourself; be rigorous about it.

When it comes to editing a book, the best advice is to avoid the dubious honour and work. Still, I want to offer some advice as regards successful edited books, which should and often do get read. If you are to edit a book try and follow good practice in this respect.

  • Aim for a focused overall theme and a tight and ordered table of contents. This will make the resulting book not only interesting but indispensable in its systematic coverage of the theme.
  • Invest in the invitation. Not simply the overall mission and the subject you wish the author to contribute, but provide an individualized description of what you expect the author to cover. There can be some overall reflection pieces but this must be part of your plan.
  • ‘Big names’ are far more difficult to control, far less likely to pay attention to your requests and suggestions and far more difficult to nix if their contribution is not up to scratch. Keep this in mind.
  • Workshops are better than conferences if you have an edited book in mind. But make sure it is a veritable Workshop – with real time to ‘workshop’ the contributions, with commentary on content and form. Make sure that commentators do not use the occasion simply to present their ideas, but take their task with the seriousness of a good journal referee. Insist that they provide the author with a detailed written comment on their paper.
  • Manage the expectations of your contributors, starting with the letter of invitation. Describe the planned editorial process and prepare them to expect detailed commentary and to be ready to respond to such – just as they would when submitting a piece to a journal.
  • It is bad form to edit a book and not to include within it your own contribution. But consider the Introduction as your principal intellectual contribution, in some ways, the raison d’être, the justification for the entire project. It should not be just, or above all, a summary of the contributions but the proof that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Unlike your contributors, you are the one who has the opportunity to deal with the whole, to benefit intellectually from the range of individual contributions. A good introduction should be able to stand – with somewhat different framing – as a major contribution in its own right.

All this sounds like hard work. It is. It is rarely done, but that is your opportunity. If you do it, do it right.

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Isdore Ozuo says

October 6, 2016

Thank you for this invaluable advice. As you said,
It's really a hard work.

Monica Garcia-Salmones Rovira says

October 9, 2016

Dear Professor Weiler,

many thanks for this series of posts that are helpful and interesting. They are demanding as well as the previous post suggests; specially demanding of pause and reflection which in real life (I suppose deceivingly) appear sometimes the most difficult things.

My experience is partly also about the art & balance of saying "no" to third party requests. But I also wanted to add to that some comment on the rewards of saying "yes". One might received an invitation with dismay: because one does not know anything about a topic (or at least one feels like that), and it would need a huge investment of time, or because the issue is politically compromising, apparently not in fashion, etc. In answering positively to the request and putting oneself to work, however, the miracle of science & knowledge might occcur. One visits, in the beginning with fear and apprehension unknown territories, walks through never before trotten paths, needs to study new things and in short one is enlightened and thus able to contribute. My point here is that many times colleagues see in one the potential of research that one does not see. Perhaps because we tend to prefer to work in that in which we feel safe or because different perspectives simply enrich our research project. Now, why sometimes it works and why on other occasions it does not is difficult to tell. To term it random or providential, does not add much to clarify about when to say no and stick to one's plan or instead decide to start a new adventure. I wonder also how much this differs in different stages of one's academic life as well.