City upon a Hill or Potemkin village?

Courtesy of Venti Belli blog, I read a blog piece on current academic publishing. The op-ed presents the University of Illinois Press editor-in-chief’s view on that hotly-contested question of whether PhD students should embargo their dissertations. I’m personally ambivalent about that particular issue (see Publishing tag), but the broader import I took away from the blog post was disconcerting. I appreciate the pressures academic publishers face. I appreciate the concerns of acquisition librarians, who have to placate the increasingly-specialized interests of their faculty with dwindling acquisition funds. But more and more I think the interests of academic publishers are diverging from the interests of academic scholarship, at least for historians.

Overall the story is a well-known tale of the decline of the monograph, the core of the academic publishing business model as well as the historical discipline. If presses can only sell a few hundred copies of an academic monograph instead of a thousand, then fewer monographs will be published and each monograph must appeal to a more diverse audience; as a result, presumably, fewer budding historians will be able to advance their professional career, and a less diverse variety of (popular) subjects will be published.

To assist graduate students in their quest to achieve publication, the latter part of the blog article lists numerous revisions to make a dissertation more publishable. “Basic” revisions include the addition of an introduction and conclusion, structuring the book around an argument, “making selective rather than exhaustive use of examples”, shortening its length, and being sure to change its title. More involved revisions include encouraging the author to “embark on some new research to expand the geographical and/or chronological scope of the work, or to bring in additional primary sources.” Most are sound recommendations. But those few that aren’t common sense (if your dissertation doesn’t already have an argument, then what the hell is wrong with your dissertation committee?) have dangerous implications to my eye. I certainly wouldn’t have published my dissertation as it was. In fact I followed just about all of the revisions mentioned above. Revising a dissertation is a good, even necessary, thing.

I am more concerned with how far we travel in this direction. One passage from the blog that jumped out at me deserves some rumination (as always, read the original for context):

publishers prefer that a book contain little to no previously published material. We try to counsel authors to publish the articles they need for their portfolios by developing pieces that won’t be in the book, perhaps pulling out a self-standing chapter of the dissertation that’s an outlier to the book’s focus. It’s also wise to avoid publishing a “nutshell” version of the book as an article that a scholar can access on JSTOR instead of buying the book.

What do we make of this? This suggestion would have, I think, several deleterious effects on academic history.

First, the call to publish books with no old material certainly would seem to upend the whole promotion-and-tenure process as it now stands. When university press editors explicitly state that they don’t want to publish any “old” material (and all historical research is old), that should make us wonder how exactly young scholars are expected to get a monograph published in time for tenure/promotion – particularly since the AHA has recently reaffirmed that the monograph is the gold standard for historical scholarship. Ph.D. recipients have just spent 5-10 years immersing themselves in the ins-and-outs of topic X, written a 150+ page work on the subject, yet now they are advised by academic publishers to change topics, or to glom on a period or place outside of their expertise? How is a young scholar supposed to do research on a new topic while holding an academic job (if they’re lucky enough to get hired in the first place), and then be ready for P&T in 5 years? Historians need to decide to what extent our promotion-and-tenure decisions should be founded on the vagaries of the publishing market.

Personally, however, P&T isn’t my main concern – callous I know, but I’ve got tenure. My larger concern is over what effect this trend will have on History (see how I capitalized it there?) as an academic discipline – what it would do to historical scholarship. For example, what quality should we expect from a work that has not seen any kind of previous publication? Should we be comfortable with academic publishers essentially saying: “Trust us. The book you are now reading hasn’t been vetted by multiple layers of peer review (the sustained input of dissertation committee members, multiple chapters vetted independently as separate journal articles or conference proceedings, as well as further input from readers of those publications). The two or three peer reviewers we’ve chosen should be more than adequate for you. And, by the way, we made the author incorporate the subsequent century into his/her argument because more people are interested in that timeframe than the period the author actually studies.” That kind of publisher gatekeeping will open the gates not to a City upon a Hill, but to a Potemkin village instead.

I’ll have more to say on the subject – maybe this summer will be the summer of the Marlborough historiography? – but the last thing History needs is yet more pressure to crank out half-baked research composed of arguments based off a few anecdotes drawn from a few published sources. I’m sure most readers can think of several recent historical works that are a mile wide and an inch deep, some published by academic presses. Such shoddy scholarship should be unacceptable today, now that so many more sources are available to the average historian than ever before in history.



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