Some thoughts on “editing a collection” as scholarship

Last week I discussed in another post why a textbook and writing a textbook should count as scholarship.  Today I will tackle the issue of whether serving as an editor of an edited collection should also count as scholarship.  This is important for, like textbooks, one’s work as an editor of an edited collection is in many legal academic environments not counted as “acceptable” or “countable” scholarship (even if within the specific law faculty the work may be recognized at book launches or in some catch-all category  for “[o]ther ‘research output’ which takes into account the practices of the discipline concerned”).  Just as I was annoyed last week by the negative view of textbooks as I worked on my textbook proofs, so too the negative view of the work of an editor of a collection is annoying as I spend today working on two edited collections (one thankfully at the very last stage before submission, the other a continuing millstone around my neck).

First, let me present some of the arguments why work as an editor of a collection should not be counted as scholarship.  The argument is essentially that the work of the editor is not scholarly, but is instead akin to the work of the research assistant, line-editor, book binder, printer, publisher and others whose contributions are not typically deemed to have added sufficient scholarly input to the final scholarship output.  Rather, the conventional view is that the work of the individual authors of each chapter is what constitutes the collections’ contribution to our knowledge and understanding of a field. The work of the editor of a collection is thought to merely include assertedly non-scholarly tasks as: line-editing; noting where further substantive work needs to be undertaken by the individual authors; fixing the citation form of footnotes and noting where further citation support is needed; interfacing with the publisher (typically providing the excuses why the book is not yet complete – such collections are completed as fast as the slowest two or three of the contributing authors); communicating with authors (either cajoling them to complete their contribution or apologizing for the delay in publication); writing the preface and perhaps a non-substantive introduction; and other logistical tasks.

But, as an editor of three collections that have been published and with two in the pipeline I can see a different side to the work of an editor, a significantly scholarly one.  As an initial matter, putting the book’s concept together, for the best versions of these books have a tight theme, is itself scholarly work.  The research required to draft a successful proposal and respond to the many demands of the publisher at that proposal stage also involves research.  Identification of appropriate contributors and communication with them, conveying the concept, is also scholarly.  Reviewing each chapter’s citations and recommending other support or citations is also a research activity.  But, the largest scholarly input of the editor is the substantive editing of each chapter – the demands of which are beyond even the best research assistants (assuming one has them).  When that substantive editing is done well, the contribution of the substantive editor is akin to the contribution of a junior co-author.  Yet, the editor of a collection does this for all the chapters – resulting in a significant aggregate substantive input to the book.  When I read through my past edited collections I see my thoughts, approaches, research and hard scholarly input throughout the entire work.

Furthermore, for the good collected works, substantive editors bring all the contributions together through the editing process to deliver one tight substantive contribution to the field.  Such substantive editing is very time consuming and includes independent research, not just for verification of author propositions but also for suggesting additional or alternate approaches the individual author should pursue to improve the work and to make it fit more tightly with the theme of the book.  Of course, there are edited collections where the theme is hard to identify or not well constructed, though a good introduction (itself scholarly work) can help.  There are editors of collections that do minimal or no substantive editing and only draft a cursory introduction.  As a contributor to more than a dozen edited collections I have seen the full range of editing.  It is easy to recognize in the final product which editors should have their efforts considered scholarship.  But, that issue speaks to the quality of their work as scholarship, not to whether the type of work is scholarship.  Just as an overly descriptive and unoriginal article in a journal is not an indictment of writing articles for journals as scholarship, so too bad edited collections and bad editing should not serve to undermine the scholarly nature of editing a collection.

In addition, at a policy level, by not sufficiently counting such work as scholarship there is a strong disincentive to work on such projects.  But, collections of work are valuable forms of scholarship.  They bring together different perspectives into one volume which is of tremendous value to their fields.  They provide authors an opportunity to work on an issue within a structured environment under substantive parameters which leads to valuable work that might not otherwise have been undertaken.  It is also another very good outlet for scholarship, as it disseminates scholarship in ways different to journals (e.g. at publishers’ tables at conferences, in libraries around the world, on book shelves in individual offices, etc).  Such collections also permit younger or new scholars to work on a project alongside senior members of the field and under the focused review of a senior scholar (the editor).  The editing produces high quality finished product, substantively of much higher value than that of many journals, especially in comparison to the many student edited journals (publication within which is often countable as “acceptable” scholarship). Furthermore, edited collections, unlike journal articles, are often the subject of a book review, itself a valuable contribution to the field . Finally, such books are “one-stop” resources on a discrete topic and are thus invaluable, a gold mine, for researchers.

In conclusion, as noted with respect to textbooks, a blanket characterization that the work that editors put into such valuable scholarship is not “countable” or “approved” does a disservice to the field and to the scholarly output of the editors.

Anyway, enough procrastination.  Review of draft chapters on comparative civil procedure or further work on the substantive introduction to a collection on China and international economic law beckons.

By Colin B. Picker

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