I have just finished editing a book collection in which Robin de Mourat, Donato Ricci, and Bruno Latour ask: how does a format make a public? It has been a somewhat painful process of editing, but the questions in that chapter as well as the very process of editing itself prompted me to turn back to Peter Webster’s short book (I refuse to call it an ‘Element’ as does the publisher) The Edited Collection: Pasts, Present and Futures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020) <https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108683647>. The book has just been published and is free to download until the end of April, so it’s worth snaffling a copy now. I had read the work in draft form, but in light of my recent experience I went back to it. I also noted, on this read through, that the book is cheekily named after one of the collections that Webster details, The Established Church: Past, Present and Future. So, is the edited collection an established church?
Webster’s book is premised on the notion that there is a ‘meme complex’ of beliefs that contribute to a ‘crisis of the edited collection’, in which it is thought that the form is subject to less rigorous standards of peer review and quality control than are journal articles; that they are often incoherent as volumes in ways that monographs are not; that they are slow to come to fruition and are less visible/cited when they are eventually published. Webster sequentially shows that there is a complexity and often outright falseness to at least some of these viral – and circularly re-enforcing (62) – myths around the edited collection.
What is an edited collection for Webster? There are three components to his definition (7–8):
- it is ‘a group of written outputs, of a length comparable to an article in a learned journal. They will have been written by different authors, although individual chapters may have more than one author’;
- ‘These collections must necessarily have one or more editors, with whom rests the decision of which contributions are included and which are not. They may very often themselves contribute a preface, introduction, conclusion or epilogue; these will most likely state the larger intellectual problem to which the chapters address themselves, draw out themes in common, reflect on dissonance between the chapters and set out the implications for the field in the future’;
- and ‘the edited collection is very clearly packaged as a coherent whole’.
This definitional work allows Webster to set aside the monograph and readers and anthologies, but to consider more thoroughly the place for handbooks, companions, Festschrifts, and general multi-authored histories (the Cambridge histories of literary criticism sprung to my mind). The first chapter of Webster’s book is devoted to histories of the edited collection and how they have shaped disciplinary spaces – but also those professional organizations outside the academy – mostly in theology, musicology, and history. For me, this chapter is a tricky one. It provides good examples of how these volumes work within specific disciplinary contexts, but I worry that some readers may get lost in the details of Anglican disputes or the politics of forming a discipline around the work of Benjamin Britten. That said, it moves at a good pace and broadens out to consider recent technological and institutional change.
For me, though, the real meat of Webster’s work is in the second chapter – actually titled ‘The Present’, but it could be ‘Myth Busting and Fact Checking’ – where he delves into the aforementioned meme complex. One of the interesting points made by Webster – and echoed by the Crossick report from 2015 – was that the number of monographs and edited collections published has increased (although proportionately edited collections remain at around th same portion, albeit with a concentration of market share by some publishers (37)). What has happened is that the sales volume per title has dropped dramatically from the 1970s to today. Publishers seem as ready as ever to take on edited collections, even though one of the myths is that one should probably feel guilty even for proposing one.
Peer review at edited collections is a topic that Webster tackles head on (38–44), noting that there are a variety of ways in which these titles are reviewed. For ‘[a]lthough the picture is mixed’, writes Webster, ‘the data cannot be made to support a general supposition that edited volumes are not peer reviewed; to that extent, the meme is mistaken’ (42). Modalities of review can include contributors reviewing each other’s contributions. This circumvents several problems, including: reviewers bearing grudges for not appearing in the book and reviewers having no stake in the volume (i.e. these readers will want the other work appearing to be as rigorous and strong as possible, to appear alongside their own work). I did though have my own thought, in general, about this, which is that it is far harder to reject work at the peer-review phase from an edited collection because it is supposed to have its own internal cohesion. That is, when proposing a volume of this sort, one has to make the argument that all the sub-components are essential. So why is it, then, that if a single chapter is rejected, the cohesion of the volume doesn’t fall apart? Surely it should if there were truth in the cohesion?
The slowness of fruition meme can be true, however, and Webster opens with an entirely plausible, albeit fictional, tale of project mismanagement for an edited collection. He also notes, in a highly amusing paragraph, that ‘[p]erhaps above all, editors themselves need to take seriously the size of the task, and the amount of time that it will require. Lord Acton had taken on the shaping of the Cambridge Modern History at the age of 62, and the work was the principal burden of his last years. One historian noted that he wrote almost nothing else himself at the time, and nothing at all for the History itself; another thought the work had killed him’ (46). I currently feel a strong degree of empathy with this. The work of editing is intense and, had I known then what I know now, I would have been much firmer in steering the project sooner and acted more decisively. Still, we got to the end!
Finally, are edited collections less widely available and less commonly cited? It is very difficult to compare items, notes Webster, since each chapter or article is published only once in either venue, but certainly in the digital age a print-only collection will be less broadly accessible than, say, an open-access journal article. Do they count less? In Norway, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ as Webster points to their painful system in which it is implicitly claimed ‘a priori that the very best edited collection chapter is of a lower quality than the very worst published journal article: a patent absurdity’ (55). Yet, overall, drawing on a bibliographic sample, Webster is able to conclude that there is no ‘clear citation deficit for chapters in relation to articles’ (61). At least in the disciplines in which he works and studies, the edited collection is not a hole in which scholarship is buried, although this may be different between fields.
So why should we continue thinking in collected terms? For Webster, the edited collection serves a unique purpose of disciplinary cohesion and formation, but it suits different types (hedgehogs and foxes – see p. 63) differently. In Webster’s terms, it is the value of cooperation that most strongly comes through in an edited collection. It is about synthesis and working in harmony, together, under a quasi-authoritarian (editorial) stance that nonetheless seeks cohesion, harmony, and unity (64). It is also about risk and trust. There are a set of mutual obligations in editing and writing for a collection. The contributors must place their trust in editors and the editors in authors. In the case of Webster’s fictional anecdote, these risks and trusts do not really pay off. This leads to the spreading of the memes about the edited collection. However, in reality, I believe Webster’s book suggests, the future of the edited collection should be founded on the payoffs from this risk/trust negotiation, which he suggests are worth our investment.
Photo by Lalaine Macababbad on Unsplash.