Must Academic Criminologists Write Books?

A frequent debate exists in many academic fields regarding the best venues for publishing ones scholarship. In the field of Criminology and Criminal Justice, some criminologists wonder if is it better to conduct research, write, and publish a book in the field, or disseminate the findings from their efforts in the context of one or more chapters in scholarly books or articles in journals.

Unlike some disciplines (e.g., Engineering, Health Sciences, Mathematics, Medicine, Science, Technology, etc.), however, criminology/criminal justice often sees scholars gravitating towards book publication as a common practice and a way to demonstrate their expertise.

Although this is an important question, it also begs several others and often involves a series of cost-benefit calculations that need to be made.

To begin with, there are numerous academic criminologists who are not only successful in their career, happy, and they have never authored, co-authored, edited, nor co-edited a book.

Also there is a time and place in one’s academic career to publish one’s work in each of these venues. And with the exception of turning your dissertation in to a book, there is stage in one’s academic career when it makes most sense to  devoting your resources to publishing in each of these venues. Let’s take a closer look what I mean.

Departmental, college, and university expectations about publications for merit pay, tenure and promotion

When determining what and where to publish, academic criminologists need to take into account personal interests, institutional expectations, and career objectives.

Understanding the unique criteria set by departments, colleges, and universities is crucial, particularly regarding merit pay, earning promotion and tenure, being awarded research grants, and employability elsewhere.

Most institutions of higher education operating in advanced industrialized democracies are relatively transparent about the requirements that instructors and faculty need to achieve to be considered for merit pay, tenure and promotion. This information, is usually available in a faculty handbook located on the institution’s website.

However, there’s considerable variability in how different academic entities value various types of publications. While some colleges and universities equate all types of publications regardless of prestige, others employ metrics based on field-specific rankings.

For instance, highly ranked journals like Criminology or Justice Quarterly, or university presses may hold significant weight in some departments, while in others, self-published blogs may be considered equivalent (a publication is a publication). That’s why many scholars scrutinize rankings before submitting their work, recognizing the relative impact that publishing in different venues may have on their careers.

Considering career stage is often paramount, as expectations can vary widely between early-career academics and established scholars.

Additionally, it’s essential to acknowledge diverse perspectives on publishing norms, including contrarian views that challenge conventional evaluation criteria.

Not all books are created equal

If writing a book is what you ultimately decide to do, then there are additional decisions to be made.

First, junior colleagues are often counseled against writing a monograph early in their careers. The rationale behind this advice is that the considerable time and effort required might be better allocated towards activities such as producing peer-reviewed articles, enhancing teaching ability, engaging in service commitments, prioritizing personal well-being through activities like exercise, a hobby, and nurturing relationships with loved ones.

Second, sometimes young scholars are advised to try and carve up their dissertation into publishable articles. In many respects this approach is better said than done. Not all dissertations are amenable to being divided into separate parts. The individual chapters may be very general (as in mainly mini literature reviews) or too esoteric.

Third, if you are going to publish a book then it is important to consider the different types of books, publishers, and the quality of the press. The publishing landscape encompasses a spectrum of entities, ranging from textbook and trade publishers to university and scholarly presses. Some publishers at the university, commercial, and textbook levels specialize in publishing books on Crime, Criminology and Criminal Justice. And it’s worth spending some time looking at their lists otherwise you are probably going to waste your time (and become frustrated) submitting your work to publishers who are not interested in your work.

There are all types of books, including scholarly works, textbooks, sole-authored, co-authored and edited volumes. Each format carries its own set of advantages and disadvantages. And if you have a co-author or co-editor then additional considerations need to be taken into account. Thus it’s essential to discern which type of book and publisher best aligns with your objectives and audience.

Fourth, while some criminologists have successfully self-published books, occasionally resorting to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter to cover production costs, I advise against this route. With few exceptions and contexts, if a book has merit, publishers should be responsible for covering the upfront expenses.

Fifth, it’s also a misconception that editing a book is inherently simpler than doing your own research and writing, but this is illusory.

Sixth, another highly touted strategy involves integrating some of your previously published articles and chapters in scholarly books, into a cohesive volume. However, executing this strategy, just like carving up your dissertation, is easier said than done and demands meticulous planning and execution.

Seventh, certain ideas may not lend themselves well to book-length treatments, particularly those of a narrow scope.

Finally, and perhaps most important, it’s imperative to dispel any illusions of achieving runaway bestseller status with your book. I recommend delving into insightful blog posts by thought leaders like Seth Godin and Tim Ferris, who offer sobering advice to people who are inclined to think this way.

Parting words

When all is said and done, the most important thing is to stop overthinking and take action. Conduct thorough research, write up your findings, and promptly submit your work to an appropriate publishing target. Too often, we get bogged down deliberating where to publish, delaying the completion of projects we started months (even years) ago. Difficult as it is, we need to break free from this cycle and commit to finishing what we’ve started. Take the leap, submit your work, and hopefully you will reap the rewards of seeing your efforts come to fruition.