September 26, 2003

A Solution to the Publishing Crisis?

A very quick post. Brian at Crooked Timber has a solution to the scholarly publishing crisis:

Stop requiring books! If philosophers can do it, so can sociologists and historians and literary critics. Quality is more important than quantity. This is meant a little flippantly, but at some level Iím not entirely sure why the quantity standards are so different in different fields. Maybe philosophers are missing something.

My initial response: I suspect that philosophy has never, or never fully, embraced the research model. That is, what philosophers do is more a thinking through with a relatively small body of texts. There's no expectation that the philosopher go out and find more texts, compile more data, uncover new materials. Whereas in the social sciences and in many humanities disciplines (including, of course, English lit), scholarship is defined as "original research." Hence the monograph as the coin of the realm. I personally believe that in many fields, there should be less emphasis on research and more emphasis on informed commentary.

Gone for the day. Next post: my own solution to the scholarly publishing crisis...

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at September 26, 2003 09:17 AM
Comments
1

Bingo.

Sure, scholars in history, other social sciences, and some of the humanities should continue to do research, but in fact, it seems to me that a lot of the original research you do as a historian could be published in short (or online) form and the books, if or when you write them, should be broadly communicative, generally intelligible commentary. The notion that producing a book is somehow required or a marker of professional standing could also then be tossed overboard.

Except. Here's the problem: assuming tenure (or even competitive 3-year contracts) continue to be part of the academic employment system, how would institutions then recognize the relative merit of academics when it came to hire, tenure, or promote someone? Many disciplines have come to rely on books (or completed research projects with published findings) as an absolutely quantitive marker of merit. It's easy, it's quick, and it keeps administrators (and colleagues from other disciplines) out of the business of having to judge the relative merits of intellectual work according to some sort of transportable standard.

Giving up the book (or similarly concrete, quantifiable measure of research productivity)necessarily also requires drawing the academy back in towards a shared set of benchmarks for what is good and not good. You cannot have specialization (and the good things it sometimes accomplishes) and have shared, meaningful, qualitative ways to institutionally evaluate merit.

The other alternative is to make such evaluations entirely local--let each college or university judge its own employees based entirely on their contributions to that institution, and screw whether they're producing knowledge in their fields and so on. That has some attraction too, but it makes me nervous knowing its pitfalls, that it would hand the academic bureaucrats and "dour machiavels" (to cite Turbulent Velvet's great phrase) even more capacity for mischief and it would potentially break up some of what is actually good or useful about scholarly networks and peer review.

Still, you can't just say "give up the book". The crisis in scholarly production is not about books: it's about the fact that in some disciplines, the book is the fetish-object that shapes one's chances for hiring, tenure and promotion. It's those systems that need forcible intervention in this regard.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at September 26, 2003 09:37 AM
2

I think that's a good point. I'd only add that in economics, we favor refereed journal articles over books -- the problem there is a proliferation of niche journals and lower standards for publication.

Posted by: kb at September 26, 2003 11:20 AM
3

Though there may be good reasons not to generalize from philosophy here, IA's hypothesis just doesn't hold up. First of all, contemporary philosophy does have very a research-driven model, and most papers (outside of the sub-branch of philosophy known as the history of philosophy) spend very little time dwelling on the canonical texts of the discipline. Mostly we try to constribute novel arguments, and we're expected to have read and digested a fairly large number of other arguments by other more-or-less contemporary authors.

Second, many fields that are research-driven are do not particularly rely on books. Economics, as kb notes, is one such field; linguistics seems to be another, and I'd conjecture that most of the hard sciences are this way. Indeed, in these other fields books seem even _less_ important than in philosophy.

I wonder if the relevant distinction here isn't between research/non-research but 'scholarship'/non-'scholarship'. Perhaps there's something about the truly massive amounts of text-crunching done by those in literature or in history, such that a series of article-length contributions just can't add up to the kinds of insights and analyses that the scholar would want to offer?

Posted by: JW at September 26, 2003 11:29 AM
4

In biology, a tenure or promotion candidate's journal articles are weighted by the journals' ISI impact factors, which have to do with how often all the articles in the journal in question are cited elsewhere in the literature. The system results in a bit of fancypants-journal fetishization, but it does help sort out things like publication standards.

Posted by: Bob at September 26, 2003 01:24 PM
5

There's at least two discussion topics here: on the one hand there's the crisis in publishing, on the other there's the way in which publications are used in hiring and promotion.
On the first topic, I think (as someone outside of the tenure track who does buy hardcover university press books on occasion--but I'm a real outlier, we also buy poetry in hard cover) that part of the difficulty is that while there is some ritual hand wringing about the loss of respect for academia, there is no real respect within academia for the "public intellectual." Books that do sell outside of the academy, and those that write them are often viewed as probably not good for one's CV, neither the books nor their writers are seen as doing "serious scholarship." So there's not much push to write such books, or, when one is written, it isn't steered toward a university press but toward a trade publisher. Which is really too bad--wouldn't it be great if promotion and tenure required evidence that you were interacting with the world outside the academy? Providing appropriate service to the community, "professing" publically??

On the second subject, while it's true that there seem to be more and more books published (and unread) all the time, there's also the phenomenon of the "terminal associate" who continually reports research in progress, but doesn't seem to produce any finished work.

Posted by: sappho at September 26, 2003 03:48 PM
6

The size of the work should be scaled to the size the topic. Big topics -- where, for instance, a new theory is proposed that touches empirical evidence at many points -- require a big treatment, to check their consistency with known facts and to elaborate their implications.

To say that only articles, not books, should be published is to say that scholars will never address big topics, at least not in a coherent way. Papers are good for incrementally pushing the boundaries of established perspectives; really novel perspectives need a larger canvas.

Sappho makes an excellent point about the unwillingness of academics to engage the larger community. If scholarship is "serious" if and only if it is unpopular, academia is cutting itself of not only from funding sources, but also from a valuable source of intellectual criticism and review.

Posted by: pj at September 27, 2003 12:48 PM
7

"Except. Here's the problem: assuming tenure (or even competitive 3-year contracts) continue to be part of the academic employment system, how would institutions then recognize the relative merit of academics when it came to hire, tenure, or promote someone? Many disciplines have come to rely on books (or completed research projects with published findings) as an absolutely quantitive marker of merit."

Yes. This is the problem. And the greater the surplus of qualified candidates relative to desirable positions, the more this is a problem. It's all very well to talk of placing more emphasis on teaching (which goal I certainly support), but how can this be measured, really? I don't think student evaluations do it. Though they can probably help identify really bad teachers, I doubt they can do the opposite.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at September 28, 2003 07:01 PM
8

"Many disciplines have come to rely on books (or completed research projects with published findings) as an absolutely quantitive marker of merit."
Yes. This is the problem. And the greater the surplus of qualified candidates relative to desirable positions, the more this is a problem."

Repeating my self:

Bug or Feature? To you this a problem. To academic administrators, who regard tenure the same way y'all regard the President, this is great. One stone, two birds. Less money for the press to print unreadable glub, fewer tenured profs to clog up future budgets, more money for me.

Have Lemons? Make Lemonade. Hey, Translate that disertation into english, trim up the footnotes and publish the thing commercially.


No respect in academia for that sort of thing. Tough Nouggies. You may not get tenure, but that won't be the reason why. You were not going to get tenure anyway. Its not personal, its just the way it is.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 30, 2003 12:38 PM
9

most papers (outside of the sub-branch of philosophy known as the history of philosophy) spend very little time dwelling on the canonical texts of the discipline

Really? You might want to vouchsafe this information to the slaves in the Wittgenstein mines. Or the poor hand-loom men working in the satanic mills of Rawls. Or the serfs tilling the arid wasteland that was once the fertile pasture they called Davidson.

Posted by: dsquared at October 1, 2003 10:43 AM