Death of the monograph greatly exaggerated, say academics

Report suggests researchers feel there is no substitute for the traditional book-length contribution to knowledge

October 4, 2019
Source: istock
Researchers remain enthusiastic about the continuing importance of books in many disciplines

While journal articles are just “fishing trips with friends at the local pond”, monographs are “three-year voyages from which no one returns unchanged”.

That is the view of a respondent to an international survey of more than 5,000 researchers in the social sciences and humanities. Despite much talk about the death of the monograph, they make it clear how central it is to their work, their careers and even their identities, and how it is likely to remain so.

Published jointly by long-term rivals Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press, Researchers’ Perspectives on the Purpose and Value of the Monograph: Survey Results 2019 reports that “91 per cent of respondents considered monographs ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important to the overall body of knowledge in their subject area”. Although the figure for those working in the humanities was even higher (95 per cent), 87 per cent of social scientists were in agreement with them. Researchers in religion, history, philosophy and literature “valued monographs slightly more than journal articles”, while experts in disciplines such as law, politics and modern languages “valued journal articles marginally more than monographs”. And what is true now looked likely to remain true: “83 per cent of respondents anticipate that the monograph, in its current form, is ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ likely to have value for their work/research in 10 years’ time”.

Alongside the crucial importance of monographs for career-building, some respondents stressed that such works had shaped their thinking. One early career researcher claimed that he or she “might not have started to study what I finally did since monographs open up worlds to the reader that other formats can’t do the same way”. Asked to give detail about what the possible loss of the monograph might mean, a mid-career researcher noted that their field “would move more quickly, but would lose a significant amount of genuinely field-shaping, provocative, immensely important literature”.

Another argued that humanities scholarship “requires a venue to make a deep, sustained engagement with evidence, the scholarly record, and argument. If the monograph did not exist it would be necessary to invent it…the monograph can only go away if the humanities go away, which some people wish to make happen, but they will not succeed within 10 years. I hope they never succeed.”

Respondents also pointed to ways that the monograph needed to be adapted to the times.

Some expressed a desire for “a mid-length category (eg, 30,000-60,000 words) between journal articles and monographs” or “criticised the double-blind peer review system” because they “felt limited by not being able to react to reviewers’ comments”. Others “suggested adding supplementary material (eg, videos, images, maps, interactive elements) to the book online”. One late-career researcher commented that publishers were “not keeping up with research trends, for example, the visual turn in history writing”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Jack Fisher opined that inside many monographs is an article fighting to get out.