Book Chapters for R1 Assistant Professors

I can’t resist weighing in on Chris Blattman’s discussion of book chapters. I think that Chris is right that assistant professors should only focus on things that increase the probability of tenure, and that book chapters have real opportunity costs. I also agree that given the choice of placing one nugget of research output in a book chapter and a journal, the journal is better if you want to increase (1) visibility of that piece of research and (2) citations. But book chapters can have indirect benefits that far outweigh these costs.

Here are some principles to keep in mind.

Principle 1: Some book chapters imply immediate non-academic benefits.
In my corners of the discipline, an invitation to contribute to a book chapter is usually not an invitation to sit in my office and write. It is also an invitation to a conference, usually someplace interesting, always on someone else’s dime, and sometimes with an honorarium. In my case, book chapters have (1) paid for part of my honeymoon, (2) introduced me to the single best bowl of noodles that I have ever eaten, and (3) helped to keep my United FF status at high levels, among many others. Each of those things has value.

Principle 2: Some book chapters have non-immediate academic benefits.
The folk wisdom within my household is that the connections that I have made at edited book conferences have been among the most enduring and valuable professional connections that I have ever made. These are people who certainly wrote tenure letters for me, they are people who have helped me to get jobs, they are people who review my manuscripts. They are also, in many cases, my friends. Would we have become friends otherwise? Maybe. Would they have written tenure letters for me otherwise? Again, maybe. But I am confident that I am on better footing because we spent two days working together on a common intellectual project, where they got to know me and see what I do. If you insist on thinking of opportunity costs, think of the real benefit of the book chapter as the experience that comes with working on it, and the effort devoted to writing the chapter as the price of having that experience.

Principle 3: Some research outputs don’t belong in journals.
Sometimes my research projects have not panned out the way that I had wanted them to. It happens to all of us. Given that, it is often possible to create a book chapter out of a piece that would not survive peer review at a good journal but that could survive peer review as a piece of a broader multi-author project at a good press. So long as the effort required to convert the research is low enough, it may be worthwhile to do this. Chris’s implicit belief that a piece of research is better as an article than as a chapter is true as a ceteris paribus statement. But ceteris is not always paribus, and there is a “citations-networking” tradeoff.

Principle 4: Signaling games have many equilibria
Perhaps the most insidious belief about book chapters is that you work on them if you don’t have anything else to do. This means that book chapters reveal information about your type—“high types” write articles because they can, “low types” write book chapters because they can’t write articles. This is the standard “beer-quiche” game. But when our choices are supposed to be signals, and then what we rationally learn from them depends on the information structure of the game, prior beliefs, etc. It’s not hard to work up a pooling equilibrium in which low types write chapters because they write can’t write articles, and high types write chapters and articles because writing a chapter signals that you are a high enough type to be able to afford to write chapters. (Presumably “write articles and chapters” is observable, but just allow for a continuum of types and some unobservables, and the point stands.)

So if I didn’t know anything about you, your position in the discipline(s) or field(s) in which you work, the nature of the edited volume, the other participants, or the “extras” that come along with it, I would advise against writing a book chapter. The generic advice against book chapters is right. Or if the book chapter came with no opportunity for networking, no non-academic benefits, and required you to devote effort that could be better devoted to journal articles or books. In that case, again, don’t write that book chapter.

But it’s not hard to work up a good argument that given the right circumstances, a particular project writing a chapter for an edited book is worthwhile. Don’t rule them out. I regret nothing about the chapters that I wrote as an assistant professor, and I am completely confident that I have done better professionally for it. Your mileage may vary, but I don’t know, and no one else does either, not in the abstract.

I will say, this, though. Do not, under any circumstances, edit a book as an assistant professor. This advice is unconditional.

Comments 2

  1. Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) April 16, 2014

    I will plead guilty to violating your and Chris’ unconditional advice: I am editing a volume. That is, of course, coming AFTER two single-authored books, and a slew of journal articles. I can’t NOT edit this volume. Co-editing with one of my favorite senior colleagues, who is sharing the weight of co-editorship, and in a field where if we don’t get the book out, there is a missed opportunity. Otherwise, I’m 100% down with your and Chris’ advice.

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