09 May 2012

The Ironies of Academic Publishing: A Manifesto?

Dive into the archives of the Royal Society of Medicine in London, and it won't be long before you come across letters pledging to subscribe to monographs. What are these epistolary sources? Long before it was a commonplace for academics to publish books with university presses, scientists and academicians supported the publication of monographs by soliciting purchase agreements from their friends and colleagues. Fifty or sixty individuals would agree to buy a book, and in this way many of the classic studies of the nineteenth and early twentieth century found their way from publishers into university libraries and private collections.

Times have changed. But academics still publish books. And in history, for example, the academic monograph remains the game changer. Over the last three generations, the monograph has so risen in stature that it has become the hallmark of mid-career achievement and promotion within university systems. The monograph is the global standard of academic success. An historian might publish fifty articles in a lifetime of effort, but without a book, his or her colleagues would typically regard him or her as a scholar who never realized their full promise. The book is the promised land, and for many young scholars their doctoral dissertation is the road map for getting them there (never mind what this guy says. Oh and similar thoughts about museums here.)

Prospective authors need to acquire a rather remarkable habitus in their pursuit of book-publishing in academia. The Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University accordingly offers excellent advice on how to fashion a dissertation into a seemingly book-worthy project. They note that it is often informal networks that achieve the desired end: "Some presses prefer authors to approach them through personal contacts; cold submissions are disfavoured. Others do not encourage communication through private channels. Talk to supervisors and those who have previously published about the vagaries of each publisher." They also observe that authors should prepare themselves for a "frustrating time lag" after they submit their first prospectus.

From the Chronicle of Higher Education to Inside Higher Education, the myriad advice columns that have focused on publishing the first academic monograph all call attention to the fact that a dissertation is different from a book. Indeed this fact might be called the first cliche about academic publishing. Again the Cambridge HPS column advises that: "Your thesis may lose quite a lot of material before publication, especially in a history PhD. Complex footnoting, for example, which works to establish your credentials in the PhD, is not necessarily essential in a book."

These facts conjure up the first irony. Generally academic books are supposed to possess sustained arguments, be mildly revisionist, and appeal to a wider community of scholars. A newly-minted PhD supposedly finds that the work he or she has slaved over for as long as a decade doesn't qualify for any of these categories.

But an ethnographer of academia might be forgiven for immediately pointing to evidence against  these claims. Firstly many dissertations are reviewed and many are published by ProQuest. It seems likely that the same academics who review those dissertations as book proposals - the people who create the frustrating time lag - could be found eagerly checking out ProQuest dissertations in their own university libraries and greedily acquiring the knowledge of their junior colleagues. Were there really no market, then it seems unlikely that ProQuest could survive at all.

But the ironies do not simply stop there. If efforts to make books appealing to a wider market really succeeded, then it seems likely that authors would not have to find subventions for books, pay professional indexers, and sometimes pay professional copy-editors (at the American Association for the History of Medicine I actually met two individuals who have made lucrative careers by providing essentially ghost-writing services to academics). And by the way - this pay structure is truer for the sciences.

But even when authors manage to pay for do all of these things, academic books remain expensive for institutional and individual purchasing. It is common for academic books to sell for more than $50.00. And in book series prices can be much greater. Books published for instance in the Routledge Series in History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, which are often excellent and important works, are regularly priced higher than $125 - well out of my price range and I imagine their books don't sell well in the Global South. Such prices could be taken as an indication that there is little difference between the market for dissertations and academic monographs. In other words, the cliches seem somewhat overwrought in comparison with market conditions.

There is no good reason for this system any more. In the same year that L. Stephen Jacyna and I published The Neurological Patient in History with Rochester Studies in Medical History, my father self-published his novella The Far End of the Park. Both of our books have nice covers. Both of our books are beautifully typeset. Yet his book costs a fraction of  ours and is already available for electronic readers. Ours is expensive and not yet available electronically.

Now in the instance of The Neurological Patient in History, a number of points can be attributed to the higher cost. The press poured a great deal of energy into the volume. Edited volumes are notoriously tricky to make cohere together, and we benefited enormously from all of their work. So these observations are not sour grapes. Nevertheless when my father's book is compared to our book, the difference between the two is impossible to spot. And that is a third irony.

Of course there would be real perils if academics began self-publishing without some systems of peer-review in place. Yet in the case of converting dissertations to books, one could hardly argue that a system of peer-review has not been in place. Either the viva process works - or it doesn't. And if scholars feel it doesn't work, then that raises many different issues that have less to do with publishing and more to do with graduate education.

But we can push this issue further. My father's book actually generates income and at a much higher percentage than any academic book would for any author (I'm not saying he's making money). Many complain that academic studies have no evident value. The recent fervor at the Chronicle of Higher Education is just one example among many of the conservative cliches (discussion here) that routinely denigrate good academic work on the basis that supposedly no one cares about it. The experience post-graduate school actually seemingly validates those conservative gripes; shopping a book prospectus can be a totally humiliating experience, especially because the book supposedly passed academic muster already and sometimes even won a prize along the way. What better way to answer the critics than to point to the existence of an audience for academic work. The determinants standing in the way are gatekeepers in publishing and the exigencies of the professional publishing world - which frankly have nothing to do with scholarship.

Naomi Schaefer Riley - may her name live in infamy forever- was quoted in The Huffington Post as saying: "I read some academic publications ... but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I’d venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it." That just shows how incredibly stupid Riley is and how backwards current trends are in contemporary academic publishing. Factually I am quite certain that I know at least one hundred people who would buy a book on black midwifery (see the AAHM group Facebook page). I suspect that globally there is an audience approaching approximately ten thousand customers for a book on that topic (there are 5000 midwives in the USA alone), provided it were priced correctly, marketed via social networking, and readily available for download (7 billion people means there is whole big market for ideas). Riley is clearly no medical historian; people are voracious readers. It is just that most readers can't afford (or won't pay for) a $75 dollar book. But they are interested, and the world of academic publishing is actually preventing them from accessing those books.

So here's the picture: young academics - often broke and being exploited as adjuncts - have been told that their dissertation qualified them for a PhD. Their work is being disseminated in articles and by ProQuest. Others are already making use of their ideas, and idiots like Riley make fun of their lack of success (which has nothing to do with the merits of their scholarship). Meanwhile, academic publishers (and their reviewers) are telling young academics that their work is simply too niche and too scholarly. Moreover, if the young academic succeeds in publishing, then their ideas will be locked up forever in a monograph that not only pays them next to nothing for their labor but also makes their ideas far too expensive for most members of the academic community across the globe to purchase.

Meanwhile, their senior colleagues admit that it is becoming harder to publish monographs, but they continue to insist that the path to academic advancement is publishing a scholarly monograph with a university press. That is, by the way, a fourth irony. So even as my father can publish his book in a global market with a vanity press and sell it at a fraction of the cost while reaping a higher percentage return personally, junior academics who have had their dissertation peer-reviewed can't.

Putting it mildly - this system is stupid.

There may be a path forward here. The issue remains that monographs need to be peer-reviewed. It seems therefore necessary for academics to change with the times and create not-for-profit, peer-reviewer networks. These networks would rigorously peer-review works in exchange for a small percentage of sales from the first two years following publication. Such networks would be charged with making sure that the authors and reviewers have no preexisting relationship. The percentage would be paid to reviewers as an incentive for them to their jobs well.

These systems of peer-review should also be open, along the lines of, for example, the BMJ publishing group. Authors would know who their reviewers were and reviewers would know who the authors were, and it would be expected that they would form a positive relationship (such as Dissertation Reviews encourages between their reviewers and authors). The peer-review networks would only authorize books that had passed muster with all reviewers and such networks would work as mediating authorities in circumstances were there were irreconcilable differences between parties.

Authors would self-publish their works, but the reviewer networks would provide a page for each book that acknowledged that it was a work recognized by a community of scholars and the peer-reviews of the book would be published online so that scholars could compare the finished product to the original reviews. Thereafter, the author would be responsible for marketing the volume. In a world of blogs, twitter, websites, and social media, the returns to the author would be invariably higher. But, more importantly, the return for readers would be even larger, since books that would have been formerly priced out of reach or not available at all would now form a part of the library collection of humanity that is the internet. It really is time for academia 4.0.


  1. And now we are in the digital age: http://dp.la/wiki/Main_Page
    The digital library of America and its European equivalent may change the world of scholarship, although problems of access--hardware and literacy and poverty--remain. (I just went to ta lecture on this--also saw great pictures and heard about the National Digital Library of Korea: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Digital_Library_of_Korea)

    But what about the special world of medical publishing?
    Much will be available online and free because of funder demands and much will be costly as the Elsevier crowd will be selling knowledge at the highest of prices.

    It is a lot to think about.

  2. It's not just history. I recently read a review of a book in an (overpriced) academic journal & thought it would be worth having. When I check the price on Amazon, I reconsidered -- it was north of $90. The current system is not sustainable.

  3. Intellectuals in the Global South are already thwarting the antiquated system with open access publishing. I will never forget the afternoon I spent in an internet cafe near the main university in Madagascar. Students scanning website after website for books they could read online.

    1. I've seen the same thing in Vietnam. Clearly, this is a vision of the future. But I think Stephen is right to wonder about the role of editors & the editorial function -- are scholars going to be willing to submit to crowd-sourced "peer review"?

  4. The British Medical Journal - while not 'crowd-sourced' - runs a system of open peer-review. If you submit to them, then you'll know who has critiqued your work. Its very democratic. Similarly, there are journals in psychology that make their reviews open for the world to see, one the article is published. So these systems exist.

    jgolden notes the difficulties and uncertainties of access and poverty in the digital age. Those are, of course, real. But it is not hard for me to imagine a new Carnegie coming along and building small digital libraries across the globe. It is also not hard for me to imagine that e-books will still have a higher use-value to people living in the Global South than the current publishing standard. My dad - if he was so inclined - could aim his book at a market in Africa.

    The open-access model is the right model but we need to be wary of a consumerist model of knowledge production. I'm interested in making scholarly knowledge truly democratic. And I'm also willing to let people bootstrap to make a living - if they can - off of their ideas. What I fear about open-access is that it will come to function for a bean-counter's mentality and be used solely to establish academic standing. The open access model really needs to introduce differences from the standard journals to show both a real change in the culture of publishing but also to make an argument that the new standard is better.

    The best way to do that is to make it possible for people to comment on articles, to draft replies, to analyze the sources people are using. If open-access journals push for these changes, then I think they will represent a positive evolution on the current system. The worst thing that could happen, however, would be to copy and paste the current world into the open access one.