Deans Love Books (Chronicle)

August 21, 2014 by 
[full article here.]

“Doesn’t Matt care about publishing books anymore?” That’s what an editor of a well-established humanities journal recently asked one of my press colleagues. The editor had just returned from a meeting with me, where she had expressed interest in publishing “curated” collections of articles from back issues of the journal. It struck me as a wonderful idea.

“Why make these print books?” I asked. “What do you mean?” she replied. I explained that the articles already existed in digital form in Project MUSE and could easily be collected there on the same page. Moreover, most scholars read journal articles online, not in print. (Many institutions, in fact, subscribe to only the digital editions of scholarly journals.) Why not simply bundle the digital versions of the articles and publish them together online?

My explanation didn’t relieve her puzzlement. She explained that the editor of the collections and the authors of the articles wouldn’t get promotion and tenure credit if the collections were published only digitally: “Deans care about books.”

This exchange reveals a troubling and unsustainable view, shared by scholars and deans, of the function of university presses in the world of scholarship. It has two elements. First, university presses have a responsibility to credentialize scholars. Second, presses discharge this responsibility by publishing scholarship in the form of print books.

For the sake of argument, I will leave the first assumption unquestioned. (See Lindsay Waters’s Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship for a compelling argument against the practice of deans relying on university presses to evaluate scholars.) It’s the second that concerns me here. University presses largely accept their credentialing function in the scholarly world. The economic realities of publishing scholarship, however, lead most of them to reject the idea that print is the proper, much less the only, format for all scholarship that makes it through the review process. By clinging to this second idea—the idea that humanities and humanistic social-science scholarship must take the form of a printed book—scholars and deans threaten the future of university presses and erode their ability to evaluate and distribute high-quality scholarship.

The only sure ticket to tenure and promotion is having your scholarship published by a university press. The reason is that having a university-press book on one’s CV serves a signaling function. It tells deans and fellow scholars that your work withstood the rigors of peer review and the evaluation by press editors and faculty boards. This, in turn, signals that your work is good and that, as a scholar, you do your job well. There’s an alignment here between the interests of university presses and the interests of university deans. The presses want to publish high-quality scholarship, and the deans want to employ and promote scholars who are good at their jobs. The process required to produce the first provides evidence for the second.

These interests align, however, only up to a point. The decisions that track the scholarly quality of a project—those involved in discharging the credentialing responsibility—are not the only decisions a press makes when it comes to publishing a project. The work of determining the quality of scholarship and signaling this quality is done when a press issues a contract for a project and stands behind the decision by publishing it. In between those two moments, a press must make many production decisions—about the size of the print run, whether a book should be sold print-on-demand, whether it should be cloth or paperback, whether is should have a jacket, whether images should be in color—that have nothing to do with the project’s quality. These decisions are responsive to practical matters like how much it will cost to produce the book, how many copies a press thinks it can sell, who the press thinks the audience is, or even (perhaps especially), how well the press gets along with Jeff Bezos. They’re decisions about selling books, not evaluating them. (For a good illustration of the gap between quality and sales, consider: The press that published Nietzsche for Beginners probably sold a lot of books.)

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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