Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Thoughts on Publishing

Over the break, I had several opportunities to catch up with some old friends, most of whom are in academia in various ways. Naturally, we talked some shop, and I picked up a few things from them.

One of the most basic, and this is more pressing outside of the community-college sector, is the really fundamental mismatch between what tenure committees take publishers to signify and what they actually signify.

In the humanities and social sciences, book publishing is absolutely part of the game for tenure. (In the physical sciences, it’s all about the journals.) Getting a book published is a milestone on the road to tenure, particularly if it is published by a ‘reputable’ press. The theory is that publishing houses have to be relatively picky, so if someone’s work passes muster there, it must be good, whether or not a particular department can see it.

The theory has become false over the last ten years or so, but very few departments (or institutions) have adjusted accordingly. With the precipitous drop in book-buying by academic libraries, and the precipitous drop in subsidies to publishers by universities, publishers have had to recalibrate their criteria from something like academic merit to something closer to salability.

Salability is fine, as far as it goes, but it has much more to do with fashion, established names, and ease of marketing than it does with academic merit. A well-researched and well-written monograph on an esoteric topic by a no-name author just won’t sell as much as a reheated compilation of occasional pieces by a Name. Some publishers have adopted a blanket policy of not publishing dissertations or ‘first’ books, having noted that neither sells especially well. No job without experience, no experience without a job.

While this shift is economically rational for the individual publisher, over the long term, we’re eating our young. By raising the bar for tenure in the first place, then raising the bar for publication, we’re making it ever harder for new people to break in. This is partially by design – if they break in, we’d have to PAY them – but mostly by negligence.

Journal articles come closer to the ‘academic merit’ criterion, since any given issue can contain a dozen articles; as long as one or two grab attention, the rest can be merely well-executed. Still, even there, I’ve noticed a distressing trend towards ‘special issues,’ and the same names popping up in the same journals over and over again.

Departments (and institutions) need to recognize that publication simply doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It could, if institutions were willing to pony up the cash for library book purchases and publication subsidies, but I don’t see that happening. The other alternative I could see would involve the web – since the physical cost of web publishing is close to zero, I don’t know why a purer ‘academic merit’ standard couldn’t hold there. Long term, that will probably happen. In the meantime, though, we’re losing a generation.