For the book from the PhD


I do love the book that comes from the PhD. The book seems like a fitting reward for all the hard work done during the doctorate. Indeed, in some countries, the post defence thesis is published as a book. That’s the book of the PhD, not from it.

There’s nothing quite like getting the first copies of your first book. There’s something uniquely satisfying about being able to hold the book in your hands, to feel its weight, its substance. It’s joyous to be able to give copies to the people who supported you. And it’s amazing to see the book advertised on publisher and commercial book sellers’ websites and on real shelves.

Of course not every PhD is book material. Some theses are better suited to being broken up, deconstructed into a series of papers and chapters of varying types. And some disciplines typically publish via papers and not books. It’s not that the book is superior. The book is just different to papers. And of course it’s not that writing papers isn’t rewarding – seeing your papers in print also feels wonderful – here you are, in the company of people in your reference list.

All of the publishing that comes from the PhD is to be enjoyed and celebrated.

But not everyone holds the book in high esteem. Just this week, as I heard about another book from the PhD being made ready for publication, I had an anxious moment. I found myself thinking about those people whose PhD could be a book but who felt they needed to publish papers in highly ranked journals instead. That they didn’t have the time to write the book and get it through the publication process and be competitive in the job market. That they needed to max out the number of papers they  could get out in the shortest possible time. I wondered, what are we losing out on by insisting on particular types of publication?

I worry about how the current pressure to publish straight after the PhD plays out, how the need to produce a particular kind of CV propels people into particular types of publications. Well, you know all the reasons producing piles of stuff while you’re precariously or newly employed is a problem and unfair.

It’s not uncommon for institutions push for more papers, arguing subtly or blatantly that papers lead to higher scores in international league tables across the board, regardless of discipline or topic. Such “strategic” institutional interventions are often associated with audit measures of various kinds. Writing a book may well take longer than writing a paper. So the audit measure of papers v. books is also about a particular version of productivity, where volume per year counts most.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that books no longer matter. Just this last week someone said this in my hearing. That journal articles matter more. This kind of comment worries me, as the interview panels and funding committees I’ve been involved with do take account of books. The most recent research audit in the UK has in fact allowed books to be counted as a double entry. But if it is the case that in some spaces and places the book is seen as no longer important, this needs to be challenged, it ought not to remain unquestioned.

The book has an important place in our shared scholarly library. While some kinds of academic work are best suited to short-form genres such as papers and chapters, other work is not. Sometimes a long-form write is required to do the scholarly job. There are some research projects which need a book rather than a smaller pieces which tell parts of the story. Similarly, there are some PhDs which need a book in order to present their case, to maintain the integrity of the work done, to make the significant contribution.

The problem with an emphasis being placed on a narrow spectrum of genres, because they are quicker, easier to audit and compare, is that we lose out on particular forms of scholarship and reduce the possibilities for communicating scholarly ideas and research results. And we leave the book as a playground for established and job-secure scholars. Not OK.

I‘m not arguing here that the book is dying. I’m not discussing book costs or publication practices or digital books or open access, all of which are really important. I’m simply saying that I would like all PhDs to feel – and be – able to write a book from their work, if that is the form that the work needs to take. And this choice shouldn’t jeopardise their future prospects.

So can we just reorganise the world so this is possible, please?  And do just call me Pollyanna.