On scholarly monographs and the sciences

One of the most enjoyable aspects of working in research policy is that it forces you to explore and understand the research cultures of disciplines other than your own. I am a life scientist who specialised in plant biology by background, but in my current role I need to understand the processes, challenges and norms of the whole range of research disciplines. And it is fascinating to see both the differences and, importantly, the similarities across diverse subjects.

Over the last twelve months I have been privileged to have played a small part in the review of monographs and open access carried out by Professor Geoff Crossick, and through this have developed a much deeper understanding of the research culture of those disciplines that communicate their research through long-form writing, and the place writing occupies in the research process. The report has now been published, and it makes an important contribution, not only to debates about open access, but also more generally to our understanding of the role of the book.

What emerges from the evidence and analysis in the report is a very special role for the sustained writing required for longer works:

In many cases, the most effective way of communicating several years of sustained research on a single topic is to present it as a monograph. This does not preclude the publication of articles en route to the book itself, but the book has a special place in the culture of research publication. It provides the length and space needed to allow a full examination of a topic, with the objective of presenting complex and rich ideas, arguments and insights supported by carefully contextualised analysis and evidence. […] Writing a monograph allows the author to weave a complex and reflective narrative, tying together a body of research in a way that is not possible with journal articles or other shorter outputs.

But it’s not just about the space that a book affords to set out arguments and analysis, the process of constructing the narrative does itself influence the outcome:

The term ‘thinking through the book’ emerged through the consultations, and it is a powerful concept, effectively reintegrating the research into the writing process itself. Monographs should not be seen simply as the way in which research findings are communicated, because the act of constructing and writing a book is often a core way to shape the ideas, structure the argument, and work out the relationship between these and the evidence that has emerged from the research process.

Reflecting on these passages, I was struck by how these points could be applied to disciplines in the natural sciences, where the scholarly monograph is much less common. When scientists write books they are much more likely to be aimed at communicating research to a non-specialist audience, rather than presenting, synthesising and developing research ideas for fellow specialists.

It wasn’t always this way. What is On the Origin of Species if not a monograph? And there are plenty of other examples from the past. For my own PhD research I read Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by Norbert Wiener, an important book published in 1948, that has influenced many fields of research. Perhaps some of the most recent examples are some of the works of Stephen Jay Gould which were important vehicles for setting out his ideas about evolution, but they were still written very much with the non-specialist in mind.

Hearing about the role of long-form writing in the humanities and social sciences, I am left with a feeling that the natural sciences are missing out by not embracing the monograph. Of course, there is a tradition of review articles in the sciences; while some of these are summaries of current knowledge and evidence on a particular topic, others are more synthetic in nature, advancing new ideas based on a thorough consideration of current understanding. However, these are more limited in size than the scholarly monograph, and don’t afford the opportunity to develop arguments at length. The opportunity to ‘think through the book’ is much less evident.

How scientists would find the space in the fast-paced competitive world of scientific research is hard to imagine, when being the first to new findings is so important. Perhaps it is this feature of the natural sciences that results in less focus on communicating in long-form works, rather than any structural reason why the monograph couldn’t exist or be important. It is worth reflecting, though, that the norms of scholarly communication in the natural sciences may be incomplete, and that we lose something in the development of research because this is so.