university presses and scholarly networks

The Nation recently published a thoughtful piece by Scott Sherman on the plight of university presses. It’s a familiar story by now. For some time now, these presses have only been able to count on sales of 300-400 copies of new scholarly monographs. That, combined with the larger economic pressures that many universities are facing, has created conditions where their future is in doubt. At the same time, higher education heavily relies on the mechanisms of university presses to subsidize the faculty research that is expected for tenure and promotion in many fields, especially in the humanities (i.e. book for tenure). As Sherman notes, “ If the University of Colorado Press publishes a monograph by a young professor at Dartmouth that enables that scholar to obtain tenure, then the University of Colorado Press, with its very modest budget, is in effect subsidizing Dartmouth, which has an endowment of $3.7 billion as well as its own small press.”

In a way this post follows on the end of the last one, on Bauerlein’s observation about the 30,000 pieces of scholarship published on Shakespeare in the last 30 years. Of course this isn’t about Shakespeare or even literary studies. It’s about the proliferation of scholarship and the motives that drive it. Here are two key quotes from The Nation article

“It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures—but far and wide.” So wrote Daniel Coit Gilman, the founder of Johns Hopkins University and its university press, which, established in 1878, is the oldest in the country. 

Says Peter Dougherty of Princeton University Press, “I know what an art it is to publish scholarly books: to attract them, to build a list, to get them edited, to present them to an editorial board, to design them, to get them reviewed—to do all the things you need to do to offer them to the world so they can do what they are supposed to do, which is to help inform a discussion and a conversation.

There’s a consistent message going back 130+ years. University presses serve to diffuse scholarly knowledge “far and wide” so that the knowledge can “help inform a discussion and a conversation.” Clearly presses perform important professional and intellectual work in bringing a monograph to press, and it would be naive to believe those functions can be removed from the process of scholarly publication or taken over magically by free labor on the Internet. At the same time, who can believe that the years spent by scholarly authors, combined with the long hours spent by editors, reviewers, and the rest of a press, for the result of 300 copies sold, is a sensible way to go about achieving the mission that Gilman and Dougherty avow?

[Point of correction, thanks to Doug Armato. The Nation article points to 300-400 copies sold, but that is library sales not total sales. For a better picture of total sales, see his work here, which at least provides a picture of how this works at the University of Minnesota Press.]

Put more pointedly, who really believes that most monographs are published for the purpose of informing a conversation? We don’t have a marketplace of ideas. We have a marketplace of reputation. I am not going to make the argument for digital scholarship. I’m tired of making that argument. It’s like making the argument for using the telephone at this point. Thrown your scholarship down a deep dark hole if you want or open your front door and start yelling it across the neighborhood. Whatever. The argument I am interested in making is against monographs, against 100,000+ word doorjambs.

I wrote about this a while back, pondering how many dissertations are ever read by more than five people, including the author. In theory though, the dissertation becomes the primary material for that first book. So think about this. The average humanities doctoral student spends 4 years writing a dissertation. Let’s imagine this person is working reasonably hard at this, say 800 hours per year (15-16 hours per week). That’s 3200 hours. Then our particularly fortunate example gets a tenure-track job at a research university and spends the next five years getting the monograph published, including one full semester of research leave. We have all heard how very hard academics work, so let’s say that’s another 4000 hours over five years. So 7200 hours on this book. That works out to 3.5 years of full-time, 40 hrs/week of labor. The university presses will argue that if universities want to use the book for tenure process then they should subsidize the publication of books. But universities DO subsidize those books. Taking just the 4000 hours spent researching and writing the book (apparently), the university pays the author two full years of salary to write it. These monographs are incredibly expensive to produce.

Of course we can’t make this all about the money. Research faculty are paid to do research in the field in which they are hired. What is of interest here is the network/assemblage of relations among research and scholarly composing and publishing activities. If we tell a professor that she must publish a monograph, can we safely assume that this requirement shapes not only her compositional activities but the shape of her research itself? Maybe this is a case of the tail wagging the dog or maybe we genuinely believe that the best research activity is the kind that focused on producing a monograph. I’m not sure how we make the latter argument. Even if we say we want faculty to engage in some sustained and focused research activity, I’m not sure how monograph becomes the best tool for dissemination. Once upon a time maybe.

I am happy with the argument that we still need people to perform many of the traditional roles of university presses: reviewing, giving feedback, helping to guide a text into publishable form, etc. etc. And this means devoting resources to those efforts. But we need some intentional shifting of how these activities integrate with the research activities of faculty, the publication of this work, and the fostering of the discussion and conversation that we all claim is the reason for doing it in the first place.