Scholarly Publishing

by Brian on September 26, 2003

There are several interesting discussions going on at the Invisible Adjunct’s, Chun the Unavoidable’s and Brad DeLong’s about scholarly publishing. The basic theme is that universities are currently making incompatible demands. Their tenure committees demand books for promotion. Their finance offices demand that the presses be profitable. And the kind of books that get published for tenure aren’t profitable.

I’m mostly posting this to link to the interesting discussions, but I thought I’d also add some points about how philosophy differs from the humanities in these respects, and how things look a little more hopeful from our shores.

First, book publishing hasn’t been required for tenure in philosophy for a long time. You can become a very important philosophical figure without having a book at all. Donald Davidson never wrote a book, and Saul Kripke reached the peak of his philosophical influence before his first book came out (as a book). More locally, my colleague Jamie Dreier, who just got promoted to Professor on the basis of some very good articles, has never written a book, and that doesn’t seem to have hampered his career prospects.

So here’s a simple 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 I’m not entirely sure why the quantity standards are so different in different fields. Maybe philosophers are missing something.

Brad DeLong’s solution to the crisis was to cut costs by moving to e-publication. This is a great idea, but of course a problem is that e-publication may not be taken too seriously. This fact is not entirely independent of the fact that it is affordable. When there are barriers to entering the publication market, the mere fact that something is published is at some level a sign of quality. When those barriers fall, there is no such signal. So it might not be unreasonable to be a little suspicious of e-publications at first.

On the other hand, judging a publication by where (or whether) it appears is pretty crude to start with. Much better to try actually reading the publication.

If we are judging quality by location, it’s not clear, at least in my fields, that our current practices make it easy to judge book quality. The problem is that the book publishing market is not as finely segmented as the paper publishing market. Currently in areas I follow, Oxford is publishing by far the best work. Almost all the books I’m reading from the last seven years are Oxford books. (Not that I read a huge number of books, but the ones I do read tend to be Oxford.) Still, that a book is published with Oxford is nowhere near as reliable a sign of quality as that a paper is published in Mind or Nous. Not that no Oxford books are at the level of those journals. Many are. But there are so many Oxford books that many more are not. And that’s the very best press. There are so few presses, relative to the number of journals, that looking at the imprint just can’t give you detailed quality information.

If the current book industry doesn’t provide detailed quality signals to those of us too lazy to read the books in question, an e-industry wouldn’t be much worse in this respect.

Finally, if you want an electronic press to have a high reputation, there is some evidence you can do it, provided you put in enough work. No one’s tried for books yet, but some electronic journals are establishing themselves as major players. The Philosopher’s Imprint, based out of the University of Michigan, has built up a very good reputation over its three year life span, in part because of the high reputation of the people running it, and in part because it has been very selective about what it publishes. This year, one of its articles (Do Demonstratives Have Senses? by Richard Heck) was selected to be reprinted in the Philosopher’s Annual. The Annual is an interesting attempt to find the best 10 articles from the previous year and reprint them in a prominent format. I don’t want to get into debates about their accuracy in actually getting the best papers, or into philosophical debates about what might constitute the best papers. I just wanted to note that the fact they are even considering articles from an e-journal is a sign of how well respected an e-journal could be. (The Imprint by the way is free, so it’s doing its bit to help the library funds crisis.)

Now it’s not clear that what goes for article publishing goes for book publishing. But there’s a hopeful sign here that academics can adjust to new forms of publication, and take seriously publications in electronic format, even in relatively short spaces of time.



Chun the Unavoidable 09.26.03 at 8:17 am

I don’t want to get all Sven Birkerts up in here, but we also have to consider the torture of trying to read a book-length manuscript on a computer screen. You can always take a large pdf to a copy shop and have them print and bind it, I suppose, but that’s no way to live.


Chris 09.26.03 at 8:33 am

If selection for The Philosopher’s Annual is a criterion for the prestige of a journal, I’d just like to mention – opportunistically – that a paper from Imprints (which I co-founded and used to edit) was included in vol 21. Namely, Christopher Woodard’s, “Egalitarianism and Desert”.


J. Ellenberg 09.26.03 at 4:19 pm

Mathematics is another field in which books aren’t relevant; most junior faculty members are well advised _not_ to write books, as they take a great deal of time away from journal articles, which are what get you promotion.

Is it possible that the kinds of arguments that historians and literary critics make generally require hundreds of pages to accomplish something serious? This happens in math sometimes too; in that case, you publish a monograph in the “Memoirs of the AMS” or Springer’s “Lecture notes in mathematics”–these are printed from camera-ready copy and are surely cheaper to produce than the scholarly books I see in humanities, which look as good as mass-market books. And there’s still a barrier to entry, though not as high as those in the better journals.


Brian Weatherson 09.26.03 at 4:43 pm

Chun, I agree it’s horrible trying to read that much on a computer screen. Maybe screens will get better and reduce that problem, maybe not. But unless you need to closely read the whole book, you can always print out the pages/chapters you need and closely read them in print, while skimming the other chapters on the screen. Most times I get books now I’m only interested in a relatively short section. The ones I need to read in full are rare enough that I probably could get them bound without much difficulty. If the books in question are being widely read cover to cover, I agree this won’t work.


Stentor 09.26.03 at 6:04 pm

Geography has also shifted toward an article-heavy publishing expectation. Tenure-wise, it’s more important (and harder) to get an article in the Annals of the AAG than to publish a book. And “publishing a book” usually consists more of wrangling various people into writing chapters then editing them and doing an introduction, and less of writing a 300-page monograph.


Matt Weiner 09.26.03 at 8:12 pm

Is it possible that the kinds of arguments that historians and literary critics make generally require hundreds of pages to accomplish something serious?

J. Ellenberg, that’s what I’d guess. I don’t know much about scholarly history and literary criticism, but it seems plausible that, in order to present an argument, a historian or literary critic might have to present a lot of facts–what happened when, what goes on in a book*–that no one has ever presented before. In math and philosophy, the background is more likely to be stuff that you can find in other articles.

So if I want to write about Kaplan’s theory of Demonstratives, I just direct anyone who wants the background to read Kaplan’s long article. If Jim Dixon wants to write about the importance of some developments in Italian shipbuilding, 1484-1593, he’s first got to explain what those developments were.

*This may or may not display astonishing naivete about what literary critics do these days.


Chun the Unavoidable 09.26.03 at 9:10 pm

Call me a traditionalist, but I’ve always believed that it’s important to actually read books. Read them all the way through, even. If your book doesn’t need to be read this way, it’s not really a book. Obviously, edited collections, unrelated articles, etc. do not fall into this category.

I’m proud of having read nearly every one of Fodor’s books, though I’m sure I could have gotten the gist from articles. And surely not one word could be cut from any volume of literary theory you’d happen to name.

Also, Jordan Ellenberg, I collect snarky outsider MLA accounts, and yours is one of my favorites, mostly because of the mild disbelief you expressed at learning that a woman with a Southern accent could be tenured somewhere.


Neil 09.27.03 at 12:32 am

Analytic philosophy is not typical of the humanities, and one of the ways in which this is clear is the importance of the journal article. Part of the reason is that AP has a set of tools and relatively well individuated problems to apply them to. We agree on methodology and on what counts as a good argument. In the (rest of the)humanities, including continental philosophy, things are quite different. There are no ‘problems’ in our sense – so a lot of the work goes into laying out the terrain, developing an approach, defending a methodology, rather than attacking the problem. Result: books, not journal articles.

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