Friday, October 12, 2007

Not Special

In recent years, I have occasionally published papers in thematic “special volumes” and have edited one as well. Note that I am referring to the book-type of special volume, not a thematic issue of a regularly published journal. When deciding whether to submit a paper to a special issue, I have in the past considered the following:

- Whether a book comprised of a set of papers contributed by various authors will make an interesting compilation – i.e., that the sum of the parts (= individual papers) makes for an interesting whole (= book) – as compared to submitting the paper to a journal. At the time the decision must be made, it is impossible to predict how good a book will be, as you don’t know how many of the authors who indicate a tentative title to the hypothetical book will actually write the paper. The book could end up being amazing or lame, and you have to try to guess in advance.

- Are the editors going to do an efficient job of making sure the book goes to press in a timely way, or are they going to keep extending the deadline for slow authors? And if the deadline is extended, how much is it extended? This is a book editor’s dilemma: if you extend the deadline so that a few more excellent papers will be submitted, thereby making the book more excellent, the delay (if not excessive) may be worthwhile and everyone will be happy; if the deadline is extended and the other papers don’t ever arrive, the authors who submitted on time will be angry about the delay and/or about having a paper in a book that isn’t very good.

- Is the book going to have an extended introduction to the topic or just a brief overview that highlights the individual papers? Review articles can be very useful and interesting and may even be necessary if the other papers in the book are highly specialized and narrow in focus, but I generally prefer the latter because people tend to cite the introduction paper rather than the individual papers, even if there is no original research in the introduction paper. It is easier to cite one review article than a series of more specific papers. There is a place for comprehensive review papers, but perhaps not at the beginning of a thematic volume, especially if the paper includes all the important points of the individual papers.

- Is there some other benefit to submitting the manuscript to a thematic book rather than a journal (other than that mentioned in point 1)? For example, a reason I submitted a couple of papers to a thematic book a few years ago was because they were Big Idea papers of a type that I didn’t think would make it into a regular journal but that fit the theme of some special volume books.

These are all difficult things to evaluate, but my current thinking is that an additional consideration overwhelms all my previous calculations about whether a special volume was going to be worthwhile: Some of these books are not included in article search programs and citation indices. That’s become a clincher for me – if the paper isn’t going to be found by anyone doing a search on the topic, it’s not going to get read as much as it would otherwise.

I suppose I sound as if I’m obsessed with citations, but so much work goes into writing a paper, it’s kind of tragic if it disappears into the black hole of works not catalogued by Web of Science etc. The consequences for me, as a senior professor, are not so dire, but could be very serious for an early-career scientist. For early career people, I suggest that they avoid the special volumes unless they have an ‘extra’ paper in addition to their regular journal articles, the special volume really is special, and/or the editors are not closely connected to them (having an article in a volume edited by your former advisor might not ‘count’ as much). [though I may not be expressing a majority view there – I have been on committees in which someone whose advisor got a Nobel Prize – or whose advisor’s advisor’s brother’s uncle got a Nobel Prize – was considered to be a genius, or at least asymptotic to one].

At the moment, for various reasons involving a recent bad experience with inefficient editors and concern about papers that don’t show up in online searches, I am saying no to most opportunities to submit manuscripts to special volumes. I feel sorry about this, as some of these books are very interesting. If authors stop contributing to these volumes, I wonder if their number will decrease dramatically or if the publishers will work out a way for the papers to be included in citation indices and search engines.


Moby Dick said...

In your previous post you say "resubmit" and yet you are giving up because you had a bad experience?

I can certainly sympathize with you. Bad experiences are extremely de-motivating and can stifle your impulse to work harder.

mentaer said...

Mhm.. never thought about this topic - but thanx for the recommendation (being a young researcher ;). I think too, that appearance in an article database is critical. But it must not necessarily be the ISI web - google scholar may be already sufficient.
About the introductiory article I am not sure if i would prefer a summary paper. Maybe the sense of such special books is not that clear to me. A good introductiory paper to the topic should always be indcluded from my point of view (otherwise what is the difference to conference proceedings? and what do I pay for?)

Anonymous said...

I include two more considerations: 1) will the book reach a general audience outside of the sub specialty? I wrote a chapter for a book that is given/used/assigned to a clinical community. It won't really help all that much for basic science, but it will get ideas out to (and introduce my name) to a broader community. 2) who is the publisher? I'm displeased with the consolidation/profit taking in the publishing industry and am less willing to donate free labor to a for-profit enterprise like Elsevier.

(and, of course, the final consideration is one you mentioned. Is it something you want to write -- that gives you an opportunity to explore a big topic or idea)

Keep the comments coming. I really wish I had someone like you to talk to in real life, and the blog is the next best thing.


Anonymous said...

If you want to make sure people read and cite your papers, the most important thing is to make sure they are available on line. Probably you do this already, but it's worth emphasizing.

In mathematics the main citation index and review really reviews everything. I guess it's not as good in every field.

Ms.PhD said...

Although I will go to the library and xerox something if it's not online, I'm the only person I know who does this. The other day I asked a student to xerox something for me (for which an electronic copy did not exist) and he got the funniest look on his face, like I had just asked him to calculate something with an abacus.

I have a couple of papers on my CV that fall into the "not indexed" or "special volume" category, and I'm always afraid that someone who doesn't know how to do a search outside of Pubmed will assume I made them up out of thin air and they don't actually exist.

For that same reason I generally hesitate to cite them, even when they're the right thing to cite, because I know nobody will go to the trouble to locate them. Admittedly all they would have to do is email me for a copy of the pdf files, but they never do. Because of copyright concerns I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed to post the full text on my personal website.