September 25, 2003

The Crisis in Scholarly Publishing

Chun the Unavoidable writes about the crisis in scholarly publishing: university libraries can no longer afford to buy as many books as they bought two decades ago (they are spending their money on computers and database access). So what happens?

Chun the Unavoidable: Scholarly Publishing: The Invisible Adjunct has a post on a recent Chronicle article by Cathy Davidson on the crisis in scholarly publishing. Those of us in the field have been hearing a lot about this lately, from Lindsay Waters, William Germano, Stephen Greenblatt, and pretty much anyone else with an interest and/or brain. As I understand it, all research institutions and an increasing number of liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities require assistant professors to publish a book before being granted tenure. Academic books do not sell, of course, and the university presses which publish them are coming under increased economic pressure....

I find most interesting about the piece the fact that she doesn't seem to acknowledge the universe of non-book requiring tenure-track jobs. In English, I'd guess that there are about 150 programs which would definitely require a book-for-tenure. Of the faculty in these programs, I suspect that 80% of them were trained at the same twenty or so programs. A young scholar not trained at one of these twenty or so programs probably would have to publish a book before getting an assistant-level job at one of these places, whereupon she might have to publish another book before getting tenure. I've seen it happen.

Waters's suggestion is, as I recall, allowing journal articles to substitute for the monograph. As I was discussing in my earlier post, one of the problems with this is determining the relative quality of journals.... Because of book-fetishization, entrenched prejudices, and administrative neuroses, I do not think Waters's plan is feasible, though I think it makes good sense.

When book-fetishization, entrenched prejudices, and administrative neuroses run up against budgets, they will fall. Have every university press "publish" books that it doesn't believe will sell 2000 copies by putting .pdf files up on their respective webservers.

If all university presses did this tomorrow, the crisis in scholarly publishing would be solved--as would the difficulty assistant professors have in finding publishers.

We can move from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom tomorrow, if we will just open our eyes and abandon our false consciousness. The High Energy Theory subfield of physics moved from journal articles to webservers as their principal locus of intellectual activity back in 1995. It's been nearly a decade since then. Why have the rest of us not followed them?

Posted by DeLong at September 25, 2003 03:40 PM | TrackBack

Comments

The problem, as I'm sure you know, is that people will continue to publish paper books, and those who do not will not be regarded as "publishing" in the same manner.

If the schools regarded as the best started to unilaterally allow various electronic publications to serve as tenure requirements, there might be hope; but they will be the last to do so.

There are also, of course, vast differences in the expectations for each field. As far as I understand, books are viewed as being less prestigious than articles by economists, the reverse of the situation in the humanities.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable on September 25, 2003 04:00 PM

Could it be because the University is (organizationally) the most tradition-bound, medieval public institution that we currently have in American life?

Posted by: williamsburger on September 25, 2003 04:37 PM

OK, but how about HTML publication instead of the accursed, hateful, murderous, loathsome, impious, ungodly, despicable, .pdf format?

I have suggested that certain manuscripts, after consideration by the appropriate committee, be awarded bright-colored ribbons denominated in tenure units which can be attached to the PhD diploma.

To me, pushing a button and getting a publication immediately to whomever wants it seems infinitely superior to mailing it around for a year or more until finally a journal decides to mail it to its subscribers. But then I've always been a little eccentric.

Posted by: Zizka on September 25, 2003 04:40 PM

>>The problem, as I'm sure you know, is that people will continue to publish paper books, and those who do not will not be regarded as "publishing" in the same manner.<<

Which is why all the university presses have to move together, at once, by surprise...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on September 25, 2003 05:43 PM

Was the High Energy Subfield of physics in rapid flux in the mid-1990's? That would add pressure to go to the web; otherwise the publications would be obsolete by the time that people read them.

Posted by: Barry on September 25, 2003 07:02 PM

"Why have the rest of us not followed them?"

Is it that active scholars in High Energy Theory are typically younger than in other fields? Of course, the typical age of active scholars in a (sub)field potencially has itelf to do with many other things: institutional, ideological, epistemological, historical etc.

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on September 25, 2003 07:11 PM

The mid-1990's saw a lot of excitement in string theory. Typically, one of the giants in the field (Witten, say) would post a papers on the arXiv, and a few days later, there would appear follow-up papers.

The downside to swift electronic publishing is that it makes it cheaper and easier to publish crap. Inefficient paper publishing with peer review helped filter out the bad stuff (and, who knows, perhaps some unorthodox, great ideas too.)

Posted by: Matt on September 25, 2003 07:27 PM

The mid-1990's saw a lot of excitement in string theory. Typically, one of the giants in the field (Witten, say) would post a papers on the arXiv, and a few days later, there would appear follow-up papers.

The downside to swift electronic publishing is that it makes it cheaper and easier to publish crap. Inefficient paper publishing with peer review helped filter out the bad stuff (and, who knows, perhaps some unorthodox, great ideas too.)

Posted by: Matt on September 25, 2003 07:32 PM

The problem Brad writes about is only part of the bigger picture. Tenure committees are really looking for demonstrations of scholarly respectability, but they aren't ready to make that judgment without external evidence to point to. Nor, these days, can they legally do so without some "objective" criteria to point to. This is the mostly hidden but vital function of peer-reviewed journals and university press editorial boards.

And this is where the crisis in scholarly publishing really hits. We just don't have a substitute for the gate-keeping, discourse-structuring role. And it is needed, even if its exercise can be stultifying.

Look where we are: On the one hand, monographs focused on ever-narrowing cultural interests of some editors; on the other, an expanding range of popularly-oriented books by university professors. People do write to the market because they have to.

The economic problem in scholarly publishing is a complicated one. Some publishing houses-- mostly private-- have taken a predatory approach to pricing (especially in science journals, I believe), while the university presses have to make money for the universities. Both are exploiting what is known as a "franchise." Both do this off mostly unpaid, or barely paid, labor, at least in the humanities. Individual presses and journals are actually subsidized by academic institutions and funding agencies, many of which really don't have a lot of money, and essentially profiting from the commons.

These same academic institutions then have to turn around and pay increasingly more for the very products they subsidize (in the abstract, if not directly). They also have to pay for databases that contain that self-same subsidized product. It certainly is perverse.

But it can't be replaced until some acceptable substitute can be developed for the gate-keeping function that tenure and promotion committees need.

Posted by: Altoid on September 25, 2003 07:46 PM

Gatekeeping is easy. A page of links. Publish EVERYTHING, and the editors of journals would surf around, read all "submissions", choose the best, ask for revisions, and link.

Hint: sort of the way a master-blog like Atrios channels attention to his serf blogs.

Posted by: Zizka on September 25, 2003 09:54 PM

I think a lot of it has to do with the cultures associated with various disciplines. Paul Ginsparg says that part of the reason that eprints have been so important in his field, partical physics, is that it is an area in which being published in peer-reviewed journals is relatively unimportant to one's professional reputation. Even before the advent of eprints, informal publishing was extremely important to the spread of ideas in this field.

The greatest resistance has been in medicine. Part of this may be the conservativesm that is typical of the medical field; part of it is concerns that informal publishing in this area creates a health hazard/

Posted by: David on September 25, 2003 10:15 PM

"Was the High Energy Subfield of physics in rapid flux in the mid-1990's? That would add pressure to go to the web; otherwise the publications would be obsolete by the time that people read them."

Most high energy theory papers in the 1990s were obsolete before they were written.

When I was a grad student, I took several random issues of Physical Review D (Particles and Fields), maybe five years old or so, and did citation searches for the theory articles in the Spires database. I found that something like 40% of articles were never cited anywhere even once.

Posted by: hackticus on September 26, 2003 12:04 AM

At Invisible Adjunct the dispute quickly zeroed in on requirements for tenure in English and history. Reading between the lines, it seemed apparent that a lot of stuff is published (books and articles) which no one will ever want to read, but which gains the author points toward tenure. Probably not a coincidence that this is within two fields with a glut of PhD's and, in English at least, great difficulty in ranking quality of work.

To me the exciting thing about electronic publication is that it's cheap and easy and potentially reaches everyone, even unaffiliated strangers with an interest in the topic. I used to know a guy whose interest was an obscure, unimportant area of mathematics. Perhaps there were a dozen or two people worldwide who cared about it. Starting a print journal would be a waste of effort, and other math journals weren't too interested. But essentially perfect communication can be achieved easily on the net.

Posted by: Zizka on September 26, 2003 09:01 AM

williamsburger asks >>Could it be because the University is the most tradition-bound, medieval ... institution >>
And this seems mort than probable in my view. Consider that the outside world were routinely copying text by movable type technique couple of hundred years ago. Today University still routinely copies text by hand, professor writes on blackboard, students copy by hand...


Posted by: Mats on September 26, 2003 09:53 AM

In the 1980s I understood that there was such a backlog in economic publishing that papers were accepted as-if for publication so that the scholar could be credited with a publication, but no one knew when the paper would (if?) actually be published.

Can anyone give the details of this?

Posted by: J Edgar on September 26, 2003 01:50 PM

Just as a matter of possible interest, David Friedman has started "The Journal of Interesting Economics: An Experiment in Open Source Publishing" at http://www.daviddfriedman.com/JIE/jie.htm

It wil be interesting to see how interesting it turns out to be.

Posted by: Jim Glass on September 26, 2003 04:42 PM

Zizka is right. 25 years ago, before the web, even before widespread email, the usual practice in both math and theoretical physics was, at the same time you sent your paper to the journal, to mail xeroxes to everyone you thought might be interested. This informal publishing was what mattered. The actual journal publication was for the next generation, not your peers.

This worked because your result was either right or wrong. If it was right, it didn't need the journal's imprimatur; if it was wrong, the journal's imprimatur didn't matter. If it was useful, people would remember it; if it was pointless, it would be forgotten.

IIRC, external reviewers opinions were of considerable importance in the tenure process.

The webserver is a natural progression.

Posted by: jam on September 27, 2003 04:46 AM

One of the issues I haven't quite figured out is archiving. If the e-record were the only one, theoretically a few fried servers, a bankrupt library or institute, or a line of bad code could delete a lot of unique stuff. At the same time, e-libraries can be disseminated and backed up quite easily, so they are actually less vulnerable than dead tree libraries.

Posted by: Zizka on September 27, 2003 10:21 AM
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