war on the rocks

Entry 19: Are You a Book Scholar or a Journal Scholar?

January 9, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 19th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


There’s a question that I wish I’d been asked in graduate school: What kind of scholar do you want to be?

There are book scholars and there are journal scholars. While most scholars publish both types of research over time, you establish yourself primarily as one type or the other. You can do things with a PhD other than scholarship, of course, but for establishing yourself on the academic track, most of what you do needs to fit in at least one of those two boxes.

I publish both types of research, but I’m evolving into a book man. I love working on journal articles because they’re like puzzles. They’re also less time-intensive projects, which allows you to explore a wider range of intellectual territory. And in my field (international relations), the quickest route to getting read by other scholars seems to be through journal publishing.

But books provide a deeper kind of satisfaction to me, in part because they require such an extensive commitment. Book projects are the ultimate marshmallow test. Policymakers and the media are far more apt to read a book than a journal article. Books tend to have a longer shelf life than journal pieces. You get paid (modest) royalties for book sales. And whereas journal articles typically have to follow pretty narrow standards for what counts as a contribution, books let you make and defend arguments in ways that are more intuitive and persuasive to a much larger audience.

For anyone who has notions of working in academia (I didn’t until a couple years ago but that’s a story for another day), it merits mentioning that not all book publishers are created equal, and neither are all journals. There are lots of scholarly blogs that talk about the highly subjective hierarchies of quality and esteem in the book- and journal-publishing industry so I won’t weigh in with that here.

But book sales seem to impress very few in academia, even though that would seem like the ultimate measure of impact. Publishing books with top university presses (for example, Cambridge, Oxford, Cornell, and Princeton) is a route to prestige or peer esteem or whatever you call pleasing other scholars, but most young scholars go the journal article path. I’m guessing it’s either because it’s what they’re told to do, or it’s because a book is a big gamble with your time early in your career.

Anyway, this book is turning me into a book guy, if I wasn’t one already. A chance to write a book for a general audience that includes policymakers has its appeal.

I wrote 377 words today in chapter four, which starts to document the Obama years. I also realized that my prior chapter might benefit from a short section that explicitly walks through answering the question “Is North Korea deterrable?” The answer, of course, is yes. The case for preventive war against the North hasn’t had much intellectual underpinning, but the strongest case put forward so far is that Kim Jong Un is undeterrable.

So, I may need to go back and write a thousand words or so in chapter three addressing something I thought would be obvious—why Kim Jong Un is deterrable.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.