Technological advancements, accessibility needs, and study practices have and will continue to develop at a rapid pace. We find, use, and publish research completely differently than we did 25 years ago.
But Oxford University Press has been publishing Very Short Introductions throughout this period. Launched in 1995, these publications offer concise introductions to a diverse range of subjects, written by experts to make challenging topics highly readable. As the series turned 25 this year, we spoke to the series’ senior commissioning editor, Latha Menon, to see how it has stood the test of time.
Here, Menon discusses the importance of condensing complicated information and important research into new, accessible, and digestible formats in order to reach a wide and diverse audience. Plus, we examine the processes behind subject selection, author working practices, and ever-developing research habits that are at the heart of the series and other important publications.
Charlotte Crouch: How has the dissemination of academic research changed over the past 25 years?
Latha Menon: The past quarter century has seen a revolution in the way research is done and how it is disseminated, driven primarily by the internet. The ease of communication and growth of powerful search engines has led to an explosion in research in many fields, with far greater and rapid international cooperation, and the dissemination of all this research increasingly through electronic journals and other online resources such as research encyclopedias, alongside traditional monographs.
These changes have also had an impact on teaching in universities and high schools. Where once courses stuck to a series of standard textbooks with little change over years, now students are increasingly given a taste of cutting-edge developments, for example by being encouraged to discuss recent articles and research papers. At the same time, there remains a little-changing core of fundamental body of knowledge, concepts, and approaches at the heart of all subjects with which all newcomers to a field need to become familiar.
CC: Why is it important to condense complicated information into shorter, digestible formats?
LM: To make sense of rapidly changing fields, or introduce an area of study by distilling out the key concepts, concise, digestible formats have become vital. With the emergence of new and often highly interdisciplinary fields, especially in science (for instance earth system science, soft matter, bioinformatics), involving disparate teams, researchers from one specialism also often find they require a rapid introduction to a less familiar field.
CC: How do you decide what will make a good topic? Could any research area be suited to this format?
LM: We have a panel that selects topics carefully. We seek to cover major areas which are subjects widely taught at university level, and also major concepts that feed into a variety of fields. Not all research topics are suitable for a full book. Many are too narrow, or little studied; while some are too diffused to work.
CC: What are some of the behind-the-scenes processes that come with publishing these books (online and print) that wouldn’t come with publishing a monograph, or journal article?
LM: To reach a wide readership, including not only students and researchers new to a field but also a substantial number of intellectually curious readers among the general public who would like a thoughtful introduction. To reach such people – intelligent, educated, but without specialist knowledge in the field – with a clear, accessible, and engaging as well as informative essay requires different skills and writing style from the often rigid and formulaic structures employed in research writing. Therefore, in addition to external peer review to assess academic rigour, these publication scripts are subject to considerable editorial assessment and input. They have to have a good structure, a clear and fluent narrative, and the right level and tone to suit the series. So authors can expect the proverbial red ink as needed, and strict editorial control on acceptance, based on writing quality as well as academic standard. It’s a rather different experience to writing a journal article or monograph!
CC: Are there any difficulties that come with covering a topic within a short extent?
LM: Navigating what is usually a vast topic within an extended essay of some 35,000 words that is at once fresh, interesting, and authoritative is the biggest challenge. That is why we select authors with a deep and wide understanding of the shape, scope, and frontiers of a subject, and able to articulate this knowledge in a concise and clear way. And that is also why we pay particular attention to the content outline in a proposal. Is the shape right? Is it pitched at the right level? Does it look to capture interest and take the reader through? Get the outline right and you are a significant way towards a good first draft that comes in at about the right length. It doesn’t work so well if you plan to write everything you want and then try to cut it down. You need to think in terms of the size of your space from the start. It’s the skill used by researchers in writing an abstract – but combined with the skills of a journalist.
CC: And finally, why write these over another kind of book?
LM: Writing a Very Short Introduction book is very different from writing a textbook or primer, and also different from writing a popular book. This is often the first step for those wishing to explore a subject and requires some literary and journalistic skills as well as deep knowledge of the subject. While they are generally broadly balanced treatments, there is an element of authorial voice. The series has considerable academic prestige, and selection of authors and scripts is rigorous, but writing a one of these books provides a powerful opportunity to present the shape and scope of a topic to a wide readership in an inspiring way, through print, eBook, and online formats. And unlike standalone popular books, with these books we publish new editions to maintain the content up to date.
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