Monday, July 23, 2018

Should I do an edited collection? Advice to Authors

Credit: British Library Flickr
Group publications can be challenging in many ways. We asked legal historians for their advice on doing edited volumes or special issues (h/t: LSA Law and History CRN). Our questions:
  • What works and what doesn’t?
  • What did you learn the hard way or wish you had known from the start?
  • Was it worth it in the end?
  • Were there any unexpected benefits?
We received a ton of responses. In the first post of this series, we share advice on contributing a chapter as an author. The second post will be about putting together such collections as an editor of the volume or special issue. The third will cover advice from scholars who have been editors of journals that produce special issues.

Our title borrows from Karen Kelsky’s post on the same topic (h/t: The Professor is in).

On the problem of delay:
  • “It's fun to work with/get feedback from people you know and trust, and I've had good experiences. In my experience, they are held hostage by the slowest author, so they tend to come out a few years later than initial (pessimistic) estimates. (I assume this blog post will be full of synonyms for ‘herding cats.’) I've been relatively fortunate that I haven't needed things to come out by a certain deadline for tenure/promotion, but I'd definitely warn junior scholars away from them if that was a concern.”
  • “My thoughts on contributing, particularly for untenured folks, is to be very careful about committing to something highly specialized or getting too much ‘in the weeds’ on a project, because a publisher can and will pull the plug, even on a finished volume. If you can't easily repurpose the chapter for another project, this can really impair your publishing agenda.”
  • “Here is my edited volume horror story: Workshop in 2011, I committed to publish piece (pre-tenure), book still languishing with [the publisher], although I corrected proofs about 2 (maybe 3) years ago (after tenure decision made without publication). AND I signed publication agreement that embargoes piece for 5 years after publication, which means that every year not published extends that embargo. AND I am now deeply embarrassed for the piece to appear with a current…date, when I wrote it using the literature of 2011. I will look like I completely ignored years of relevant work. No idea what is going on, but makes my last experience with an edited volume (5 years from conference to book) look speedy.”
  • “I had a mixed experience with an edited volume…I was very flattered to be asked and spent a decent chunk of my pre-tenure time writing an original contribution. But then years passed in which nothing happened, publication-wise, and I worried about the chapter getting stale. During that time, I received zero credit for this piece of scholarship within my own institution. The piece did not make it into my tenure file. But there were positives, too. I learned some valuable things from writing the chapter, and participating in the volume put me in scholarly and real-life conversation with some people I really admire.”
  • “One bandaid remedy to the staleness problem is to say in footnote 1: ‘This article was written in 2013.’ Obviously it’s still not great if your piece doesn’t come out until 5+ years after you wrote it (I’m in this situation with an article right now), but at least this tells the reader: ‘here is why you’re not seeing post-2013 literature in this piece, even though it has a 2019 publication date.’ I don’t usually post drafts on SSRN,, or elsewhere, because I try to have only one version out there—the final one. But with the chapter I wrote several years ago whose edited volume shows no signs of coming out soon, I have asked the editors if I may post a draft of my chapter online, just to get it out there in some form.”
  • Jim Jaffe: “As a contributor, I’ve been fortunate enough to have excellent editors, but the entire process is a long one and can take much longer than publishing an article in a journal. Of course, some or most edited volumes are not peer reviewed, so the quality of the finished product varies. One might want to be aware of these things.”
  • Dan Klerman: “I have contributed chapters to several edited volumes and special issues recently. I have found the process to be very easy.  The editors had a very light touch, and everything went smoothly.  The only sticking point is that the slowest contributor (or editor) determines the publication date.  So for one of these books, I think the delay between submitting my final draft and publication was about 4 years.”
  • Intisar Rabb reports some good experiences as an author. However, as an author, “my main complaint is the time it takes to go from submission to publication, and the lack of communication from the editors sometimes in that process. I have often submitted materials, and 5 years later have waited on news of review or publication. I wish editors would be more timely and follow a schedule of publication that is reasonable (2 years is fine; 5 years is excessive). My other main complaint is the time it takes to go from solicitation [by the editors] to submission [by me], and the lack of communication from me sometimes in that process!”
  • Julie Novkov: “Meet your deadlines, for the love of whatever deity you worship!”
On the tenure & promotions process:
  • “It is important to ask yourself: how does this count for tenure or promotion? My view is that if you are counting on an edited volume to get you tenured or promoted you either shouldn’t do it or should not be promoted. I think it is important for individuals to have their own, independent pedigree and to use edited volumes as a way to advance an argument or to build something good for a field. Otherwise, do something else.”
  • Kelly Kennington: “I have not yet participated in an edited volume as either an author or an editor, largely because my university does not count such publications or work toward tenure and promotion unless it is peer reviewed.  Even if it is peer reviewed, edited collections count less than journal articles or, of course, monographs.  I was asked to be an author in a couple of edited collections and said no both times to focus on my book and articles that will count toward my promotion file.  I wish that the administration valued edited volume contributions, but until they do, I don't think I will get involved in one.  My time for research and writing is so limited…that I have to be careful with how I choose to spend it.”
On the coherence of the collection:
  • “As an author, I have contributed to several…volumes. The stinkers are those that just throw stuff together. For me, the process is often indicative of the result. I have twice been asked last-minute to contribute to something in order to ‘round out’ a volume. In both cases, the urgency was mere pretense (the volumes only appeared years later) and the resulting volumes were [a hodge-podge]. I regret doing those, but was trying to help someone in both cases. The best volumes as an author, for me, have been those that resulted from a coherent project (often including a preceding meeting/conference) in which contributors get a good sense of what the larger aim is…Moral? Don’t contribute to volumes where the point/purpose is not clear. Edited volumes, like everything, should have an argument, say something new. If they don’t, skip. If they do, and you like the direction, embrace the goal and make your contribution an integral part of the overarching effort."
  • Sally Gordon: “In terms of being an author, the difficulty that I have found is figuring out how best to craft my piece given [the parameters of the group publication].”
  • Julie Novkov: “As an author, it’s great if you can read the other chapters as they are in progress, or at least the ones in the same section of the volume as yours. If you can get either the introduction or a sense of the broad themes the editors are emphasizing, that really helps too.”
  • Jim Pfander: “I just published a chapter in a historical collection…It was on balance a worthwhile experience although the volume took a very long time to appear. The editors did a lovely job writing intros and other narrative material to stitch the various chapters together. Whether the end result has a genuine coherence and whether the chapters add to one another I cannot really say. But there’s more coherence than in some collections, partly because the editors encouraged the contributors to think in terms of historical periods.”
On edited collections that start with a conference:
  • Laura Edwards: “it seems like my best experiences with edited collections have come as a contributor, when the volume was connected to a conference, organized around the theme of the volume, where we presented papers and discussed them before revising.  I suspect there are a lot of reasons why that seemed to work so well.  For one, we all had an initial deadline for the conference, where we were all presenting.  Then the discussion of the papers was really helpful in thinking through revisions and also making a cohesive volume."
On the importance of edited volumes in certain sub-fields:
  • “In some sub-fields, people do book chapters, not law review articles (in part because it's hard to get published in a top law review coming from this sub-field). I wonder if people who do comparative legal history feel similarly? [A friend] felt that there was just no way to get around these volumes [in her field]. And she perceived a big risk in saying ‘no’ to participating in a volume that included big names in her field.”
On accessibility:
  • John Wertheimer: “As an author, a down side can be that sometimes scholarly indexes don’t include book chapters as they do journal articles and book titles. Consequently, the edited collection chapter can sort of fall off the edge of the earth, not to be heard from again. Folks working in your field might not ever find your piece if you publish it in an edited collection. It’s a line on your CV, but might not move the needle in the scholarly conversation.”
  • Sally Gordon: “[One] difficulty with such projects is that so few of them are available digitally, and I have generally advised early career scholars that participating in a symposium issue of a journal is likely to yield more readership than a traditional edited volume."
  • Dan Klerman: “Another issue is that book chapters seem to be hard for researchers to find.  Anything you can do to increase visibility and citations (e.g. get the chapters indexed in the standard services, into Google Scholar, or somehow into Westlaw or Lexis) would be really helpful. Sometimes I feel like these chapters seldom get read (or cited).”
When it is worth it:
  • Julie Novkov: “Every volume I’ve ever worked on, as a chapter author or as an editor, has been worth it!”
  • Sally Gordon: “there are occasions where a new field emerges that can be productively defined and explained in an edited volume as nowhere else, because it includes multiple perspectives and examples of scholarship.”
  • "There is apparently a new phenomenon called ‘pop up’ books. The idea is to do a volume on a super-expedited basis. Since everyone knows that's the deal in advance, I guess it solves some of the ‘herding cats’ issues that tend to arise later in the process.”
A very big thank you to contributors!