Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Problems with authors who publish books but not articles

Do you ever get annoyed when reading book-length studies and the author feels justified in ignoring the scholarly literature on the topic? I have found this to be the case with a number of authors. If they would publish in journals, they would be forced to cite other studies on the topic and contextualize their work within the scholarly literature. But because they are publishing a book (and the editors/press don't seem to care), they feel free to write what they like, and other studies of the topic be damned. I think this practice is harmful to scholarship.

Here is a portion of a book review I published a number of years ago. I've anonymized it, since my goal here is not to dump on Dr. X. But it does express my frustrations with this particular book, something I have seen in other book-authors who do not publish journal articles:

I am in agreement with X’s overall goals and approach. This type of revisionist history, in which political explanations are applied to phenomena previously interpreted in particularistic and ideological terms, is welcome. Nevertheless, I am uncomfortable with many of X’ specific arguments, largely because I am unable to assess their strengths and weaknesses. In part this is owing to his style of scholarship. X identifies an important and unresolved issue, summarizes what the primary historical sources say, discusses the pros and cons of alternative interpretations of the data, and then states his preference. His exposition sounds logical and convincing but because he does not cite the relevant secondary literature, one would never know that a given topic is the subject of considerable published scholarship and debate among specialists, many of whom draw on data and methods not presented by X.  Scholars Y and Z, for example, have made fundamental contributions to the topics covered by X, but he does not cite the relevant publications  This failure does not make X’s arguments wrong, but the reader is prevented from evaluating them within the context of contemporary scholarship.

 I am also disappointed by X’s treatment of archaeological data. He presents incorrect dates (which support his interpretations) for several key buildings, including the New Fire temple on Mount Huixachtecatl and the twin-temple pyramids of Tenayuca and Teopanzolco. Contrary to X’s assertions, these latter temples are dated quite firmly to the Early Aztec period (several centuries before the Aztec empire) and thus cannot possibly have had the imperial significance attributed to them by his model. X’s book is an intriguing study with a fresh theoretical approach and many promising interpretations of Aztec history, time and calendars. However, to be assessed properly, X’s interpretations must be debated within the community of scholars working on these issues so that the strength of his arguments can be evaluated. 

Give me a series of journal articles any day. Or, if you write a book, please be scholarly and complete about it, even if it is not subject to peer review.


Anonymous said...

I suppose it would depend on the book's goal, at least in terms of the extensiveness in which an author recognizes other works by citing them. Seems quite common across the board. But, I agree, if doing so causes one to deliberately misrepresent facts to fit one's goals, then that is problematic.

Michael E. Smith said...

I think I disagree. Even if the facts are not misrepresented, the lack of citation of other scholars makes the book in question an outlier. Truth and value in science and scholarship are judged by communities of scholars. If a book ignores its relevant community of scholars, then it is decontextualized. It will have a lower impact on scholarship in the topic. When I want to check a complex fact in the realm of the book I blogged about, I am more likely to go to the OTHER scholars on the topic, since they publish responsible journal articles and book chapters that cite all the research in the field. I'll get not only the one scholar's viewpoint, but the viewpoints of others in the field. This give me more information, and a better basis to come to my own conclusions about the topic. If I go to the book in question, I will be nagged by the thought that perhaps this idea was already proven incorrect by scholars not cited by the author.

This case bring out the importance of communities of scholars. When we work in isolation of our relevant community of scholars, the individual products suffer, and the work by the entire community suffers.

Anonymous said...

I would suspect there is not a single book (and likely not a single journal article) in which the extent of citation is fully representative, and the reasons for this would range from ignorance, accident, to the deliberate exclusion of another person's work. I am not sure I've seen an article or a book that I thought completely recognized others' works or fully situated the article or book in a broader literature. There are always gaps and areas where the context of research could be expanded or enriched. I suppose peer review should ideally promote what is at least adequate or sufficient. From my own perspective and bias, however, I am more critical of such citational caps when I think my work specifically should have been cited or recognized. For that reason, I try to do my best, though I have seen some scholars deliberately not cite others for political or personal reasons (which seems worse than ignorance or accident).

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymous - Not sure what you mean by "fully representative" citations. One cannot cite all sources that are somehow relevant to the topic at hand. My point is that if one leaves out current debates and disagreements, then the value of a work is diminished considerably.

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