17

In both this comment and this answer it is conveyed that it is often the case in the humanities, that PhD thesis are viewed as a first draft of a book and are often published. There are probably a number of factors that have led to this view.

I'm interested in a number of issues. First of all, is there hard data that shows how many PhDs by discipline get published as a book?

I have no knowledge of the publishing process but it would be interesting to know in this case where the driving factors are. Does the student themselves seek to publish or does their supervisor/committee/department inform the student that they think their material could be a book. Do the publishing companies actively seek material to publish or expect the author to approach them. Are there other factors unique to the Humanities that mean the book is a preferred publishing route?

So to round up, what are the main factors that mean Humanities PhDs appear to often get published as book?

  • 10
    The most important factor is surely that having published a book is a requirement for tenure in most humanities departments. – Mark Meckes Jan 5 '15 at 12:01
  • 1
    It would be interesting to get some data. Number of PhDs compared to published theses. My guess is that lots of humanities PhDs do not get jobs in research-oriented universities, and similarly lots of humanities PhDs do not publish their thesis. But that's just a guess. – GEdgar Jan 5 '15 at 14:35
  • 3
    The term "humanities" is too broad here, as there are differences within individual disciplines. My wife just got her PhD in history and her job prospects are contingent on having her thesis published as a book within a couple of years (and if she wants tenure, she totally needs to publish a second book). Articles are in the "nice but not necessary" category. In contrast, I'm in linguistics, where nobody worries about whether my thesis is published or not, so long as I keep on putting out journal articles on a regular basis. – Koldito Jun 30 '15 at 9:51
7

First of all, is there hard data that shows how many PhDs by discipline get published as a book?

I doubt there are meaningful data available on this. I don't think total number of "thesis-books" is meaningful since this would depend on the size of the field. The percentage of thesis-books would ignore drop out (although potentially drop out rates are consistent across fields). My understanding of tenure and promotion committee meetings is that at top universities, the representatives from STEM fields discount books while the representatives from the humanities discount journal articles. At lower ranked schools, where research productivity is less, fewer books are published.

Does the student themselves seek to publish or does their supervisor/committee/department inform the student that they think their material could be a book.

Most of the so called "book" fields publish single author papers and books. The student (or former student) seeks to get the material published as a book.

Do the publishing companies actively seek material to publish or expect the author to approach them.

A little bit of both. The publishers encourage authors who they think are doing good research to submit a "book proposal", but they get hundreds of unsolicited proposals.

Are there other factors unique to the Humanities that mean the book is a preferred publishing route?

In some ways the optimal publishing strategy for a humanities thesis is to carve one chapter from the thesis into a journal article and have this published in a good journal. Book publishers are okay with some of the material being previously published (as long as copyright issues can be handled). This article/chapter then becomes the basis of the book proposal that is used to "sell" the book idea to the publisher. The problem with this approach is that for many theses in the humanities, craving out a single chapter is difficult. The research problems that humanities students tackle are simply larger in scope than the problems STEM students tackle and the problems cannot be neatly subdivided.

So to round up, what are the main factors that mean Humanities PhDs appear to often get published as book?

Historically, in the US PhD students in the Humanities would do multiple years of "field work" (often in archives, but sometimes in the actual field) and tenure at R1 institutions is based on one or two books being published. In the UK, the shorter PhD duration and the pressure of the REF to have 4 publications, leads to many more thesis being published as articles. The type of PhD projects conducted in book and article based cultures varies significantly.

17

Are there other factors unique to the Humanities that mean the book is a preferred publishing route?

The boundary between Humanities and Social Sciences is fuzzy in many places, and indeed the phenomenon of theses commonly being parlayed into books happens in some social sciences as well: e.g. history. But there are some factors common to these disciplines as opposed to non-STEM ones, yes.

  • The length of the thesis.

Average (in any of several senses) thesis lengths vary widely by discipline: see here for a nice treatment. Theses in history (the longest) are almost three times as long as those in mathematics and bio-engineering (the two shortest). (Note that history is followed by anthropology and political science: all social sciences. English comes in at sixth longest in the list of 50 disciplines.) In order to have math theses average about 100 pages, they must be counting pages with respect to the spacing one uses in the officially submitted copies. So when math theses are single-spaced -- as they would be in any published form -- the average is more like 50 pages. See here if you don't believe that a math PhD thesis could be much shorter than that.

Anyway, the moral is clear: in some disciplines a perfectly good PhD thesis has length closer to (or equal to) that of a journal article than a book.

  • The independence of the chapters of the thesis.

It is my understanding that in many STEM disciplines, a perfectly good PhD thesis is several independently written articles stapled together. (This is less true in math but not unheard of.) But in the humanities a thesis is usually one long, sustained argument such that it would detract from it to publish it in parts.

  • The prior publication status of the work of the thesis.

It is my understanding that in many (most?) STEM disciplines outside of mathematics, the sense is that a PhD thesis should contain some already published work! Whether the work got published in a reasonable place becomes part of the committee's evaluation. Clearly this works against publishing as a book.

  • The amount of time that one spends doing the work and writing of the thesis measured as a portion of one's academic career.

In the humanities and many social sciences, postdocs are no longer unheard of but are still quite rare. A lot of STEM PhDs are awarded to people in their mid to late 20's at the point where they have demonstrated that they can do one novel, sufficiently substantial piece of research. They then go on to 2-5 years of temporary faculty positions where the real work is done. In the humanities (and...), getting a PhD much below the age of 30 is pretty rare, and most tenure-track jobs -- even very strong and research-intensive ones -- hire straight out of PhD programs. One might say that a PhD in the humanities is more like a European Habilitation in the sciences: it's just a more mature, substantial piece of work.

  • The feeling that someone outside of academia might just possibly be interested in buying a copy.

I have actually occasionally read and even bought books that I presume originated as a humanities / social sciences PhD theses. Though I am having trouble thinking of a truly gripping read, some of these books certainly make more of a concession to the general reader than STEM theses do. I have never bought a book describing five experiments the author did in someone else's lab...

  • Most book publishers are okay with a single (sometimes two) chapters being previously published (assuming the copyright issues can be resolved). – StrongBad Jan 5 '15 at 15:09
  • I sometimes think that the length itself has a deeper cause, namely that the humanities tend to value (some would say fetishize) discursive prose more than the sciences do. In the sciences many papers are short and direct, essentially saying "This was what earlier research suggested would be good to do, here's how I did it, here are the results." It's difficult to do that in the humanities because they do not accumulate "results" toward a more and more accurate understanding of some phenomenon. – BrenBarn Jan 6 '15 at 4:50
3

I would like to add to the good answers above that until recently in Europe, examination regulations in the humanities in general required the writing of a single, monographic thesis and its subsequent publication. The doctoral title is awarded not until publication. A dissertation that is "stapled together" from finished papers was unheard of. This has started to change over the last few years, but out of tradition and for the reasons named in the answers above, it has not yet become customary. Thus, part of the answer is that regulations required a published monograph.

I am generalizing a bit here, my first-hand experience being in the German system and in law and the social sciences (political science, cultural studies, sociology). Even beyond those fields, what in Germany is called a "cumulative" (non-monographic) dissertation was possible only in 12 percent of local universities back in 2007.

The usual procedure after submitting the thesis was to (more or less) revise the thesis for publication and maybe extract one or two papers from it for publication in a journal. These of course need to be self-contained enough to count as separate publications; for example, they could be a summary focused on a particular aspect of the thesis. Thus, in general, while the STEM fields tend to write separate papers and then staple them together, the humanities write a monographic thesis and then rip it apart.

1

My guess -- a wild guess, actually -- is that in humanities, or at least in many sectors thereof, authors need to publish their theses mostly as books and not as journal papers due the strictly local value of many topics, which would not find their way to international journals.

For example, if I'm doing my PhD in literature digging in the life and works of an obscure Italian poet lived in the middle age, writing in lingua volgare, how many papers could I expect to be accepted by international journals? Probably not even one. Indeed I could expect a better acceptance from specialized Italian journals -- if I could find one -- but those would count next to nothing when applying for a faculty position. So, let's publish my findings about that obscure poet as a book.

  • 2
    But if I am looking at optimizing data flow under an obscure network topography, I probably cannot publish my research in any general science journals. – StrongBad Jan 5 '15 at 15:07
  • @StrongBad: But if you can "sell" your optimization algorithm, or the results of your optimization, as applicable to more general networks, you would be probably able to publish your research without too many difficulties. This kind of generalization, which is not uncommon in STEM, is probably not easily applicable to the humanities. But, as I premised, mine is just a wild guess, I won't defend it too much ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Jan 5 '15 at 15:36
  • 1
    @PeteL.Clark: At least in Italy, publications on national and local journals count almost nothing (by law) if you want to apply for a faculty position; a book counts much more. I don't know if this is true worldwide. – Massimo Ortolano Jan 5 '15 at 15:43
  • 1
    I think things work somewhat differently in the US (certainly there is no law that governs such things). On the other hand, since I work in a field (mathematics) in which the notion of a topic of purely local / national interest doesn't even make much sense, I have zero expertise on the matter. – Pete L. Clark Jan 6 '15 at 5:59
  • 1
    Wait, I just remembered that the promotion and tenure guidelines of my university mention having a regional national and/or international stature in one's field unless that is not possible because of the local/regional nature of the field. Even for promotion to full, national stature is said to be sufficient. See e.g. provost.uga.edu/index.php/policies-procedures/… if you are interested. – Pete L. Clark Jan 6 '15 at 6:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.