Do academic books matter? #AcBookWeek

It’s Academic Book Week and Policy Press director Alison Shaw tells us why she believes that scholarly books are essential for understanding who we are and how vital their contribution is to shaping and defining public and policy debates.

Alison ShawWhen is an academic book not an academic book, that is the question. 

Of course the traditional notion of an academic book is of a printed volume destined for the library to be read only by other scholars.

But does a ‘Short’  – a succinct piece of writing that is longer than a journal article but shorter than a full length monograph – count as an academic book, like Whose land is our land? What about the piece of practice guidance for professionals such as one on how to design homes for people with autism, or a social atlas which tells the story of Europe?

Antique books B9Qbz3nCIAAiKXmIn highlighting the importance of scholarly books in Academic Book Week, I am keen to celebrate books that have the power to change the world we live in, reaching, as they do, beyond the academic community to take the rigour of evidence based research right into the heart of some of our most essential questions on how we function as a society.

Books are not so easy to define as we chop up and chunk writing, juggle numerous digital forms and encourage communication via different social media means, but the importance of the information in them doesn’t change.

Short attention span

If your family needs a social worker, you hope very much that your social worker will have learnt their trade well through their initial training and the books that guided their learning. When governments want to change the organization of the NHS, you would like to think that the evidence they are using has been well researched instead of policy and practice being determined purely by ideology or ‘gut feeling’. When new research is being undertaken you assume that this is not in isolation but builds on and develops research that has gone before. In the Social Sciences and Humanities much of this knowledge is passed on within books.

I believe academic books still matter in our world of short attention spans when a sustained argument is needed to build a full and convincing picture. They matter when telling an important research story to wider non-academic audiences in order to move public opinion.

“ academic book reaching right into the hearts and minds of its readers…”


George Peabody Library_MatthewPetroffWiki

We try and make a difference with our books, whether that is challenging traditional concepts and ideas like Andrew Sayer’s Why we can’t afford the rich, campaigning for change in government policy in the US – Sixteen for 16 – or in UK policy and practice like Children behind bars.

When Lisa Mckenzie passionately explains the reality of living in a deprived estate in Getting By, and what meaning people find in their lives when they have few privileges and how impossible it can be to ‘fit’ into society’s perceived norms, this is an academic book reaching right into the hearts and minds of its readers. It should also be reaching policy makers and professionals whose role is to create policy and implement practice to make their lives better.

As many academics have recently experienced in gathering their impact case studies for UK REF, and policy makers have always known, it is rare to see a direct correlation between one piece of work and a change in law, policy or practice.

“Scholarly books are only part of the picture but they are the basis for so many other parts of the communication eco system”

Often it is driven by a change in the nature of the discussion and shifts in public opinion which come out of a groundswell of work that builds and takes hold.

Enormous influence

We see the enormous influence of the recent books on inequality so that now world leaders and social commentators put that concept centre stage: from Wilkinson and Pickett’s Spirit Level, Danny Dorling’s Injustice (now in fully revised edition), The Price of Inequality, by Stiglizt, the phenomenon that is Piketty, and Tony Atkinson’s recent Inequality, the argument is built in carefully researched books that become hard to ignore.

pile books 13929.37039.file.eng.400.265Scholarly books are only part of the picture, but they are the basis for so many other parts of the communication eco system from articles, blogs, news items, documentaries, etc.

One of the most wonderful aspects of being an academic publisher is when we receive direct feedback on the books that have been discussed in Parliamentary debates.  From the myths of the welfare state in John Hill’s Good times, bad times to Eva Lloyd and Helen Penn’s Childcare markets or parliamentary researchers building alternative policies like Naomi Eisenstadt’s Providing a sure start.

Recently a large number of our books on child abuse and related subjects were requested for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and Malcolm Dean’s book Democracy under attack was read by the Leveson Inquiry team. These academic books are part of the knowledge base that enables others to come to difficult conclusions on challenging subjects.

Scholarly books contribute to our understanding of who we are, how we operate, how we should govern and be governed, what kind of society we should be part of and how we express ourselves. They are not obscure, arcane artifacts that sit on library shelves; they contribute to our understanding now and to what we will become.

#AcBookWeek   #PPAcBookWeek

All Policy Press books mentioned in this article are available to purchase here  from our website. Remember that Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – if you’re not a member of our community why not sign up here today?

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