Academic Book Week (#AcBookWeek) is a week-long celebration of the diversity, variety and influence of academic books throughout history run by the Booksellers Association, returning for a fourth year from 4-9 March 2019. This week, we are recognizing the important role of academic books, including how they engage critical audiences such as the media and policy-makers, as well as reflecting on their evolution and what the future might hold for this research format.
We asked Brendan George, Publisher, Philosophy for Palgrave Macmillan (as part of Springer Nature), to give us his thoughts on the value and future of the academic book and the responsibilities of academic book publishers.
The key characteristic of the scholarly book, in contrast to say the research article, is systematization across a wider terrain. The research paper is an excellent vehicle for drilling down in great detail on a specific topic but it is less good at situating new insights within the wider picture. A specific discovery (to borrow the language of science for a moment) when seen in context may seem to conflict with an equally well supported finding elsewhere in a discipline. Interestingly some philosophers of science even go so far as to contend that systematization across a wider terrain is the very essence of scientific thinking. In this sense, book length humanities research is as ‘scientific’ as research in the hard sciences. Of course systematization doesn’t capture the whole value of the scholarly book. After all it is not unknown for pseudo-scientists to write systematically across a wide terrain – there have been a number of celebrated cases of this. So another key value of the academic book is that it is published in the context of a community dedicated to recognized academic standards and to the procedures necessary to safeguard these standards. (These standards and procedures are themselves subject to continual scholarly debate.)
So the scholarly book provides big picture thinking. Wider society is as interested in big picture thinking as it is in specific discoveries. To take a recent example, there have, even in the last 5 years, no doubt been hundreds of scholarly papers published that consider specific periods or episodes in Winston Churchill’s life. But recently a debate in wider society has been sparked about whether Churchill is (taking everything into account) a hero or a villain. Here society is interested in the big picture. Taking a step back from the multitude of individual papers that have been published, are scholars more or less inclined to take a positive view of Churchill? Sometimes scholarly books can seep into public consciousness directly. In philosophy (which is the discipline I acquire books in) an example is John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice which has had an impact well beyond the universities. Sometimes though once a scholar has done the scholarly systematization, another writer can produce a more accessible work. Often these books are also written by scholars but scholars with a talent for writing for a wider readership; Richard Dawkins is an example. But still the original big picture work will always be done in scholarly books containing primary research. Scholarly books rather than individual papers are also the preferred medium for many periodicals and television and radio programmes that seek to bring scholarly debates to a wider audience – for example the New York Review of Books or Start the Week on BBC Radio 4. Another example in a more modern medium is The Conversation website; many of the articles on this site distill research first published in scholarly books.
By best serving the academic community, scholarly publishers also best serve the wider public. For example, by safeguarding academic excellence we ensure that the highest quality research rises to the surface. But scholarly publishers can also meet the needs of the wider public more directly. An example is search engine optimization which ensures that policy-makers looking for scholarly work on a topic can find the books they need as quickly as possible. Facilitating the downloading of individual chapters is another important step forward. Another innovation is the Palgrave Pivot format which offers research longer than a journal article as a lower priced e-book for rapid publication and dissemination. Also important is providing a high quality service for periodicals interested in reviewing scholarly books; here too e-book dissemination has been a real boon.
It seems highly likely that we are beginning a new era of big picture thinking. If I can be allowed to return to my own discipline again for a moment (and at the risk of oversimplifying a little) it seems that post-modernist thought – which perhaps articulates an aversion to big picture thinking – is best suited to times when there is a general background consensus in society. But now it seems that consensus is breaking down. So it is likely that wider society will want more scholars to once again raise their sights a little and indicate how their ideas fit into a wider perspective. If so scholarly books will be more than important than ever. The future of the academic book is bright!
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Brendan has been passionate about philosophy since university where his tutors included James Griffin and Anthony Grayling. A champion of both analytic and continental philosophy, his all-time favourite philosophers include both Strawson and Schelling. Brendan joined Palgrave in 2012 and acquires monographs, edited volumes, Palgrave Pivots, handbooks and textbooks in all areas of philosophy. Brendan has 25 years’ publishing experience and has previously worked for McGraw-Hill and OUP.