Gather insight by the book

Journal articles are important, but writing books is the sine qua non of deeper understanding, says Richard Rose

July 23, 2009

If reading a book educates students, writing a book can educate teachers. However, this skill is endangered now that academics can buttress claims for promotion by quickly writing journal articles and conference papers rather than spending years producing books.

Decisions about whether to publish a journal article have something in common with filming a television script. Like TV producers, most journal editors and reviewers claim to seek originality, but feel much more comfortable with what is familiar and fashionable, rather than what will surprise or even puzzle their audience. The growing academic fascination with bibliometrics parallels competition for audience ratings.

A journal article is an exercise in focusing narrowly on what can be said in a strictly limited space. Many journals now programme their computers to reject automatically any paper that exceeds a prescribed length, which can be as low as 7,500 words. After an author gives a compulsory review of the literature and explains and justifies their methodology, the scope for saying anything new is restricted. An economist may be able to state afresh how the economy works in a page or two of equations, but applying the same methods to analysing the world economic crisis would leave out much that needs to be included. Understanding the crisis requires book-length space and thought.

The restricted space in journals confines most articles within a narrow and familiar paradigm. However, as Thomas Kuhn has shown, big advances in science come from "paradigm shifts", in which "the professional community has suddenly been transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light".

Writing a book leaves an author no place to hide. Many problems can be left out or reduced to a few sentences in an article, such as the institutional and historical context of the topic at hand. In a book, there is no excuse for intellectual evasion.

I know from experience the difference between writing for different formats, having written everything from two-paragraph items for a daily newspaper to lengthy university press books, and many journal articles. Four times in my career I have sat down with 50,000 words or more of my published articles, expecting to turn them into a book in a few months. But doing so required much more than acknowledging the original place of publication or removing duplicated citations.

Although articles are similar in length to book chapters, arraying a collection of the former in a table of contents reveals gaps in the proper coverage of a subject. For example, when I started The Problem of Party Government (1974), I had published eight articles on the subject, but to treat it properly I had to write eight additional chapters.

Journal articles can be a good way of probing aspects of a subject as part of a process of gaining understanding. After the Berlin Wall fell, no one knew what would come next. I spent half-a-dozen years publishing journal articles, writing reports and giving talks on different political, economic and social developments in post-Communist lands. Sitting in an office off Unter den Linden in Berlin, I spent weeks intensively probing the assumptions of what I had already published before I grasped what the main issue was. The fall of the Berlin Wall was not the end of history: it offered the choice between "democracy and its alternatives", an insight that led to the book of the same title (1998).

In an effort to understand change in the longue duree, I have spent the past decade puzzling and publishing more articles. When European Union enlargement and the stability of Vladimir Putin's Russia established the scope and limits of 21st-century Europe, I was able to integrate two decades of articles into a new book, Understanding Post-Communist Transformation (2009). Its theme could not be discerned when I wrote much of the work that provided its raw materials.

These examples illustrate that writing journal articles and books can be complementary activities, but if scholars want to continue their education, they must write as well as read books.

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