What’s the Point of the Academic Book? Part One: Rebecca Lyons

The Project was invited to speak at the BSECS 45th Annual Conference, which took place on Thursday 7th January 2016 at the University of Oxford. The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS) is soon to launch its own book series, in association with Boydell & Brewer, and wanted to consult with its community on the form that this new series should take. Chaired by Professor Matthew Grenby (Newcastle), the provocatively-titled round table ‘What’s the Point of the Academic Book?’ included views from Project Research Associate Rebecca Lyons, Professor Tim Hitchcock (Sussex), and Mari Shullaw (Boydell & Brewer). The three views from each speaker will be posted in three parts – each perspective being published in its own blog post. The first, given here, is from Rebecca Lyons.


I work as the Research Associate on The Academic Book of the Future Project, but I’ve also worked as an editor in academic publishing, in a university library, and I am an academic researcher myself. So I’m talking to you with an almost holistic awareness of the different roles, approaches, and perspectives involved with academic books and their authoring, editing, production, distribution, and consumption by various groups and individuals. Besides this, The Academic Book of the Future Project used its first year to go out and talk to several of the different communities and stakeholders involved with the academic book – including booksellers, publishers, academics, librarians, funders, and policy-makers. We harvested views, opinions, concerns, questions and thoughts from all of these groups, offered funding and support for discrete events, activities, or pieces of research into areas of particular interest to them and the academic book more broadly, such as peer review, the role of the editor, and audio-visual resources in research outputs. The Project also edited a book of twelve essays offering views on the academic book by contributors across publishing, academia, bookselling, and libraries, which was published by Palgrave in November as a short-form monograph, a Palgrave Pivot. The book is called The Academic Book of the Future and is available to download free as an Open Access ebook, as well as being available to order in hard copy here: http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137595768. So as well as offering my own opinion on what the point of the academic book is (which is actually quite a refreshing thing for me to do after listening to so many views!) I’ll also be referring to some of the pertinent or recurring points that have arisen during our first year of research and collaboration with our stakeholder communities involved with academic books.

So for starters, what do we mean when we say ‘academic book’? Right at the Project’s outset I gave a talk to the staff at the British Library, and this was one of the questions asked by the audience. I threw it back to them, and in the ensuing discussion no consensus was reached. If the staff at the BL can’t agree on what an academic book is, this already points to an interesting issue in the ways in which academic books are considered and categorised. For the purposes of the Project we have been inclusive, rather than exclusive, and count critical editions, textbooks, edited collections, and of course the academic monograph as academic books, as well as the whole gamut of formats in which academic books might be found – from hard copy to PDF to ebook to other new digital iterations, such as book apps – as well as more performative formats such as video essays or media-rich resources. This too – the proliferation of forms and formats that academic books are increasingly available in – surely indicates something about the value, and uses, and perceptions around the academic book. They are enduring, yet mutable. Fixed, yet fluid. They are evolving. I wonder if this would be the case, if there was no point to them?

I will honestly state my position here: I believe there IS a point to the academic book. In fact, I think there are several. Arguably, when I need a quick fact check or to check a date, I might turn to Wikipedia. But I might doubt the veracity and trustworthiness of a Wikipedia entry. Former British Library Wikimedian-in-Residence Andrew Gray, speaking at an event called ‘Should we trust Wikipedia?’ during the inaugural Academic Book Week in November, cited various studies on the factual quality of Wikipedia, which have shown that the average Wikipedia article has 4 mistakes. He pointed out that this varies quite considerably across subjects and languages (for instance the pages in German on pharmaceutical subjects are 99.7% factually correct, reassuringly). The full video of the event, including Andrew’s talk, is available to view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwSYcLHOf-E&app=desktop. So as a medievalist, not a pharmacologist, for peace of mind I might instead check my date in an historical timeline in the front of a peer-reviewed academic monograph on the Wars of the Roses, or flick to the index to find a reference to a specific historical individual discussed in that volume, or I might hop to a page on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online. Why? Because academic resources published by respected publishers – whether hard copy or digital – carry a certain assurance of academic quality. Already one of the keys to defining an academic book, as well as why we need them, is coming through here, and that is the value added by academic publishers and reviewers during peer review and the editorial process. A good, respected academic publisher is like a stamp of quality upon a publication. Not to mention the fact that they usually make the books aesthetically appealing too, which helps when you’re trawling through them all day for research!

‘Ok, that’s true,’ you might say, ‘but you can have all that in an article. Why do you need an academic book? Why not an article or a series of articles, or a special issue of a journal on a particular topic?’ And I would answer that yes, all of these resources are valid, necessary, and useful. However, when I want to sink my teeth into a topic – when I require a considered, in-depth treatment of a research subject – academic monographs are where I turn. They have a form and structure to them that makes them familiar, and (usually!) eminently usable. I own scores of them in hard copy format, and revisit them often in my research. From previous readings I also have an idea of the type of content that each one contains, and even whereabouts in the book that content can be located. There’s a real geography to the physical academic book, which for me has a powerful mnemonic function. They are treasured possessions, and I look at them fondly on my bookshelves.

In my own research I look at marginalia – notes and doodles in the margins of medieval manuscripts. As well as their aesthetic appeal (which should not be undervalued) I love physical, hard-copy books for this type of embedded history, contained within their pages. I am also a scribbler in the margins of my own academic books, and it has been both a joy and an embarrassment upon re-use of a book to rediscover some of the notes I scrawled earlier on in my academic career. However, I am also a web editor and blogger, and a fan of the flexibility offered by digital formats that I can call up remotely and read on my laptop or iPad on the go, wherever I am, and use search functions to find specific words or phrases quickly and easily within that content. When it comes to academic books I want to have the choice of both digital and hard copy, and the different possibilities and uses that each has to offer me as a researcher.

And in terms of my status as an Early Career Researcher, I have found the best academic monographs to be instructive – I’ve learned more from them than from any module or supervisor about how to phrase my academic voice, how to construct an argument, and how to lead a set of thoughts and ideas based upon evidence to a conclusion. Here I am concentrating on the monograph, but other academic books are incredibly valuable too in terms of arts and humanities research – the importance and usefulness of a good scholarly edition cannot be overemphasised, and edited collections of essays can illuminate a particular topic from a plethora of angles. The long-form argument that the academic monograph allows is an important one in our disciplines of literature and history. The space and word count enabled by academic monographs to pursue complex and interlinking ideas to their conclusions is vital, and although other disciplines such as the social sciences may argue that the thesis-as-articles academic book works better for them, for me as a medievalist, the academic monograph has been key. Again, the availability of choice here for each individual and each discipline to use the type of research output best suited to them is hugely important.

‘But academic books are too expensive’, you might also say. ‘No one buys them, library budgets are too stretched by journal subscriptions and everything else, so no one reads them.’ It’s true that print runs for academic monographs now tend to be quite low – in the few hundreds. So you might argue that the research is in them is pointless, because it isn’t reaching anyone. Researchers are shouting into the void. But are they? Personally I’ve never had problems sourcing a book via my academic library or interlending, although I’m aware that the availability and cost of these services can vary across institutions. As I said, I’ve also bought plenty of academic books for myself, even when, as a poor student, paying the rent has sometimes been an issue. But that’s me. What about everyone else with more common sense, who buys food instead of books? The issue of research distribution and availability has prompted some very useful and interesting innovations of late. Digitisation and Open Access are the ones that are on everyone’s lips at the moment, for various reasons, and I won’t go into those too much here because I’m sure they will be covered in the discussion later, except to say that they have brought new possibilities (and challenges) for readers and publishers. Digital books arguably cut production costs involved with hard copy books, and print-on-demand technology has enabled publishers to offer the choice of hard copy format as well as digital to their readers. Shifts in funding have also brought new possibilities and challenges, with academic institutions footing some or all of the bill for Open Access publication, and in some cases even becoming their own publishers, as we have seen with the burgeoning increase in University Presses in the UK (and here I include another quick plug for the first UK University Presses Conference on the 16th and 17th March 2016).

But another innovation in a bid to reach a greater audience has been the crossover book. The REF’s impact agenda (perhaps combined with publishers’ enthusiasm for books that sell!) has encouraged researcher-authors to write books that are academic in content, but also appeal to a wider audience of reader in terms of style, tone, and approach. Perhaps there are fewer footnotes, or even none at all (gasp!). There have been some real successes here, such as Oxford’s very own Professor Carolyne Larrington, a medievalist who has written some wonderful crossover books. Her most recent publication considers the medieval basis for the book and TV series Game of Thrones. The general popularity of such a topic, combined with radio appearances and other publicity, has ensured that her research on the Middle Ages has reached an audience that it otherwise probably would not have.

Publishers and researcher-authors will continue to find ways to make the academic book relevant in terms of format, approach, accessibility, and funding. It’s an exciting and challenging time for the academic book: lots of factors are shifting and many new possibilities are opening up. I’d like to finish by quoting one of our wonderful Pivot contributors, Jaki Hawker, the Academic Manager at Blackwell’s Edinburgh. Jaki views the future of the academic book as “inclusive, collaborative, available across multiple platforms and in a number of formats” (p. 92). Given innovations such as I’ve discussed, it seems that the academic book of the future has infinite possibilities. And maybe it does. But Hawker argues that they will be “created, enabled and shaped by the market” (p. 92). The academic book, in essence, will continue to be what people want or need it to be – and for me, I think that means it will offer more and more choice in terms of price, format, and access.

A Storify of live tweets from the panel is available here: https://storify.com/AcBookFuture/what-is-the-point-of-the-academic-book

Note: Views are Rebecca’s own and are not necessarily representative of the Project.


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