For many humanities researchers, book chapters are an important publication activity. This is particularly the case for PhD students and early career researchers who may see book chapters as a necessary first step in scholarly publishing. Edited collections are also useful for gathering together contemporaneous research in a particular area in a format that sometimes allows for greater editorial autonomy and a degree of flexibility around word counts and the ‘style’ of individual chapters. However, there are well documented concerns around book chapters and edited collections. These tend to centre around the lack of traditional peer-review and their assumed low status in research assessment exercises. Crucially, book chapters tend to be less visible than journal articles and this is something I want to address in this blogpost by highlighting the avenues available to scholars who wish to make their book chapters both discoverable and accessible.

Lack of accessibility and discoverability   

In a blogpost entitled ‘How to bury your academic writing’ from 2012, Dorothy Bishop summarises the issues around access to book chapters:

‘Accessibility is the problem. However good your chapter is, if readers don’t have access to the book, they won’t find it. In the past, there was at least a faint hope that they may happen upon the book in a library, but these days, most of us don’t bother with any articles that we can’t download from the Internet.’

Similar to monograph publishing, the publishers of edited collections still focus, predominantly, on selling print copies to academic libraries. Whilst they may also offer the option of acquiring the collection as an e-book, the work and its individual chapters, remain accessible only to those with institutional access.  

Problems with accessibility can also feed into visibility concerns. Searching Google Scholar for my own book chapters has proved frustrating as they are either not found or, in some cases, a sketchy metadata record exists which is presumably acquired from Google Books. However, when searching multiple indexing databases via ORCiD I have been able to trace all of my book chapters, which does suggest that publishers are beginning to routinely produce metadata records for individual chapters.

Finally, book chapters fall outside the scope of traditional metrics and their lack of visibility and accessibility often results in lower citation counts. Interestingly, Peter Webster (2013) found that of all the work he had cited in a six year period, 23% were chapters in edited collections. Webster’s data therefore demonstrates that book chapters are regarded as important scholarly outputs in specific disciplines, with researchers still happy, in Webster’s words, to ‘spend a good deal of time in libraries, picking books off shelves.’ However, this does not solve the wider problem of access to book chapters and it is here that open access provides potential solutions.

Increasing accessibility via open access

Despite limited access to book chapters, there has not tended to be incentives to encourage both authors and publishers to make such works available open access. HEFCE’s open access policy for the 2021 REF only covers journal articles and published conference papers, the reasons for which can partly be explained by the historical focus of the open access movement on journal articles. There are, however, signs that this is changing with the Wellcome Trust’s open access policy incorporating book chapters and monographs, whilst HEFCE’s recent consultation on the next REF articulated a desire to ‘see the benefits that open access has brought to journal articles extended to other research outputs, including monographs’ (p.36). This is due to be implemented as part of the research exercise in the mid-2020s.

As a result of this gradual move towards open access for a wider range of outputs, some publishers have started to offer authors the option of paying processing charges to publish individual chapters gold OA. Notable examples include Palgrave and Routledge. Additionally, there are a number of open access publishers which provide an avenue for publishing edited collections. Prominent examples are UCL Press and Open Book Publishers.

Nonetheless, for PhD students, early career researchers or even some tenured academic staff, the gold route may not be a viable option. In which case, archiving via an institutional or subject repository (green OA) provides a fantastic route for scholars who wish to increase the visibility and accessibility of their book chapters. As with journal articles, archiving your accepted book chapter manuscript may be subject to an embargo and you will need to read through your contract with the publisher to check it permits the deposit of manuscripts in a repository. Even so, most major publishers will permit book chapters to be disseminated via the green route, as illustrated by this spreadsheet created by the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge.

By archiving my own book chapters on Brunel’s institutional repository, it has both provided access to writings which were otherwise only accessible via a small collection of academic libraries, whilst it has also increased the visibility of these outputs through Google Scholar’s regular harvesting of data from institutional repositories as well as the prospect of further dissemination via aggregation services such as COREIt is therefore important for authors to be aware of their open access options, not only for journal articles, but for the entirety of their publication record. For book chapters, which form an important part of the publication landscape in the humanities, this is particularly salient as large amounts of vital research currently remains hidden. By actively exploring open access options for book chapters authors will not only make their work visible, but it will contribute to building a fuller digital picture of current publication activities across research areas.

Further reading

Witold Kieńć (2016) ‘Unsolved problem – green open access to academic book chapters’. 22nd June. Online: http://openscience.com/unsolved-problem-green-open-access-to-academic-book-chapters/ 

Witold Kieńć (2016) ‘Not only journals – open access to academic book chapters’. 9th June. Online: http://openscience.com/not-only-journals-open-access-to-academic-book-chapters/