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  • Articles vs. Books:An Editor Divides the Laurels
  • William W. Savage Jr. (bio)

The journal article is currently the ne plus ultra of scholarly publishing, the academic acme, the pedagogical apex. Forget about that 300-page case-bound monstrosity printed on acid-free paper and commonly known as 'the book,' because university presses will not publish very many books, and they won't keep in print the few they do publish, or at least not for very long. The article is also where it's at, academically speaking, because journals are electronically archived (think JSTOR) and thus are widely available (unlike books) to any and all who may be looking for something to read. Consequently, the scholar who wishes his or her work to be read would be well advised to abandon the obsolete book and embrace the fashionable article.

So says Robert Schneider, editor of the American Historical Review, who doesn't stop there but goes on to assert that journals are the best place to effect change in one's discipline. The article, therefore, has become the new book; and Schneider hopes tenure committees soon will learn to view it that way, too.1

What Schneider suggests, in so many words, is a complete transformation of contemporary academic culture, which will involve persuading faculties that less is more - not only in tenure cases but also in the matter of granting graduate degrees. Are we likely to see the PhD return to its Teutonic roots, so that the dissertation will become again a brief exercise intended for oral presentation? Some will have serious reservations.

I once had a colleague who had written many more books than articles - about twenty more. He was wont to claim, especially in the presence of graduate students, that writing a book was not [End Page 249] appreciably more difficult than writing an article. So (he'd say), if one were going to the trouble of writing an article, one might, by going to a bit more trouble, write a book instead. And (he'd add) books are the best way to advance your career. Some believed that his views on publishing (despite his possession of a curriculum vitae to support them) were merely further manifestations of his pomposity and pretentiousness, as if he were really saying, 'I did it, and I know you can't, so while I watch you sweat blood trying to write an article, I'm going to tell you how simple it is to write a book.' Perhaps his critics were right; but, I have come to think, so was he.

Shortly after I read Robert Schneider's remarks, I picked up a copy of a thoroughly dated primer on academic publishing, just to see how the uninitiated were initiated two decades ago. This beginner's guide had a chapter on journal articles and another on books. The one on journal articles occupied twenty-four pages, while the one on books ran to a mere fifteen pages. The chapter on journal articles contained two flowcharts outlining the steps from submission to publication for two different journals. One chart contained sixteen steps, the other twenty-one. In the chapter on books, there were no charts, but there was this: 'Writing a book is not unlike publishing an article in a professional journal … The difference between articles and books is merely a matter of degree of coverage.'2 And this: 'Publication of a book is the pinnacle of the publishing pyramid; it represents the highest career attainment for most academicians.'3 So, the neophyte dreaming of a place in an ivory tower might have asked, if you can write a book almost as readily as you can write an article, why wouldn't you?

Alas for the coming of Schneider's brave new academic world, things are even worse than that. I was reminded of another colleague - a recent retiree, in fact - who once said this during a discussion of the inflated claims sometimes made on behalf of professorial influence in the wider world: 'It is through our books that we achieve our immortality.' Note that he said 'our books,' not 'our articles.' Having published some of both, he'd had his...


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pp. 249-254
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