Monday, December 11, 2006

Publish or Perish--in an Ever Diminishing Pool of Scholarly Publishers

Originally, university presses were created to publish the otherwise un-publishable--the research and "high art" of scholars in various fields. However, as the universities have scaled back formerly hefty subsidies, one of the most basic realities of economics has begun to set in: A press needs to sell books (at least enough to cover expenses) in order to stay in business.

Today, a young scholar is encouraged to do her/his dissertation on "marketable" subjects. And presses are increasingly looking for work with "cross-over" potential. Publishers want--need--to find work that will appeal to multiple markets/audiences. For example, a quick perusal of the University of Alabama Press catalog will reveal a number of titles with timely subjects such as, Religion, Politics and the American Experience: Reflections on Religion and American Public Life. This isn't a "bad" thing, unless you're a specialist in a field with little commercial appeal.

Now, couple this market pressure, with a traditional institutional aversion to popular, or generalist writing. For instance, while tenure committees haven't totally ignored publications intended for general audiences, they haven't exactly lauded them either. For a long time, there was an almost total lack of understanding from the senior faculty--I've encountered numerous instances where the general grumbling consisted of statements like, "They can't get published, and they expect us to lower the standards--which we were able to meet."

But the "good old days" of plentiful outlets for traditional scholarship are over--at least for publishers. Today, scholars must rely on professional journals, rather than traditional book publishers, to gain exposure for their work.

Professors seeking tenure have fallen into a double bind--"publish or perish" as the old saying goes...but in order to publish, you have to give the publishers what they want/need, and that isn't exactly what your tenure committee is looking for.

So what does a junior scholar do? What should the institution/tenure committee do?

The Modern Language Association has been working on an answer, or series of answers. The following is the opening to their report--which is available as a free download:

In 2004 the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association of America created a task force to examine current standards and emerging trends in publication requirements for tenure and promotion in English and foreign language departments in the United States. The council’s action came in response to widespread anxiety in the profession about ever-rising demands for research productivity and shrinking humanities lists by academic publishers, worries that forms of scholarship other than single-authored books were not being properly recognized, and fears that a generation of junior scholars would have a significantly reduced chance of being tenured. The task force was charged with investigating the factual basis behind such concerns and making recommendations to address the changing environment in which scholarship is being evaluated in tenure and promotion decisions.

To fulfill its charge, the task force reviewed numerous studies, reports, and documents; surveyed department chairs; interviewed deans and other senior administrators; solicited written comments from association members; and consulted with other committees and organizations. The most significant data-gathering instrument was a spring 2005 online survey of 1,339 departments in 734 institutions across the United States covering a range of doctorate, master’s, and baccalaureate institutions. The response rate to the survey (51% of all departments and 67% of all institutions) provided a solid basis for the task force’s analysis and recommendations.

The information gathered by the task force substantiates some worries and mitigates others.


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