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The Future of Scholarly Publishing
From the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing

The Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of Scholarly Publishing, established by the Modern Language Association in 1999, set out to examine the current state of academic publishing in the fields of languages and literatures. The committee's charge was to investigate and understand the widely perceived crisis in scholarly publishing and make recommendations to address the situation. Librarians, editors, faculty members, and graduate students share the perception that there are severe problems currently facing scholarly publishing. However diverse the explanations for them may be, some factors have been established. Library budgets for monographs in the humanities have declined steadily, in relative and sometimes in absolute terms, leading to proportional reductions in the number of scholarly books sold. Subsidies for university presses have also declined as operational costs have risen, often placing the publishers under great pressure to make profit-based decisions. Even as they face growing economic problems, university presses are receiving ever more submissions as a result of increased expectations for promotion and tenure in our disciplines and at our institutions of higher learning. As the committee examined a growing bibliography on these topics and listened to specialists from the publishing world, the need for well-informed decisions by university administrations became apparent. After all, the same universities that have reduced the proportional budgets available for library acquisitions in the humanities and for scholarly press subsidies have also raised standards for tenure, thereby leading to increasing production of manuscripts submitted to presses. The suggestion that scholarly presses are publishing fewer specialized studies appears to be true only in the foreign language fields. Nonetheless, the apparent overproduction of book-length scholarly manuscripts in the humanities has led to widespread feelings of frustration among academics who are attempting to place their work with a publisher.

Is There a Crisis in Scholarly Publishing?

Multiple factors have contributed to the current situation of scholarly publishing. Economic pressures have reduced the amount of funding available to both university presses and university libraries, two complementary elements in the large equation of publication and consumption.

Worries about the ability of scholarly publishers to remain financially solvent have been expressed since the 1970s, as universities have increasingly rescinded substantial portions of their subsidies to the presses affiliated with them (Pochoda). In fact, as Sanford Thatcher, director of Pennsylvania State University Press, points out, it is probably more accurate to speak of a "chronic illness" than a "crisis" (par. 2). Nonetheless, fears about the financial health of university presses have increased dramatically in recent years. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some prominent university presses ran deficits in financial year 2000-01 (Ruark). Indeed, many publishers have found that, despite more than two decades of stringent attention to cost-cutting measures, they are in greater financial peril than ever. As one press director puts it, "Even with our valiant efforts, we can barely keep our heads above water. The revenue we take in through sales is simply too low to cover our costs" (Wasserman, par. 6).

This statement points to the twin shifts--in sales and in the award of subsidies--that, more than anything else, have led to the dilemma confronting scholarly publishers today. The issue of sales is primarily an issue of book purchases by academic libraries. Libraries have always accounted for the lion's share of orders received by scholarly presses (Humphreys, par. 2), and at present those orders are being drastically cut (Wasserman, par. 6). Limited resources for library acquisitions play a role here, but another key factor is that journals, rather than books, account for an ever-growing number of the purchases being made.

In particular, as scholars in the humanities have been quick to notice, an explosion over the past decade in both the quantity and price of scientific journals has produced a powerful new competitor for library funds. A study conducted by the Association of Research Libraries found that from 1986 to 1997, the unit cost of serials rose 169%, compared with 62% for book-length monographs. In response, research libraries' expenditures for serials rose 142%, while their expenditures on monographs rose a mere 30%. The net result was that, in 1986, libraries spent 44% of their budgets on books compared with 56% on journals; twelve years later, the ratio had skewed to 28% and 72% (see Assn. of Research Libs.).

Not surprisingly, this situation has had the single most significant impact on the financial woes of scholarly publishers. One press director, writing in 1993, had this to say about his own field of Latin American studies: "Back in the early 1970s [. . .] one could still count on selling between 1,000 and 1,500 copies of most new monographs in the field. [. . .] By the end of [the 1980s] it was moving closer to 500" (Thatcher, par. 4). Writing in the Nation in 1997, Phil Pochoda estimated that library orders for scholarly books were "now averaging 300 copies per title and falling fast." The director of Rutgers University Press stated in the same year that she could rely on "about 200 libraries" to purchase a given scholarly monograph (Wasserman, par. 2). Such dramatic changes in sales figures, Pochoda comments, have "converted every book into a breathtaking publishing adventure" (2).

The troubling aspects of this "adventure," however, result from more than declining sales alone. Sales revenue may not cover publishers' costs, but in an earlier era it was not expected to do so. During the same period of time in which library purchases have plummeted, university presses have seen their parent universities withdraw the subsidies that once formed the bedrock of their financial operations. At the time of their founding, American scholarly presses were presumed to act as havens for publications important for the field but "destitute of commercial value," as Columbia University's president put it in 1890 (qtd. in Thatcher, par. 8). Today the notion that university presses need not be concerned about the sales potential of the books they produce has increasingly given way to an emphasis on the bottom line.

Forced to exist as independent financial entities, scholarly presses can scarcely afford to bankroll themselves with academic monographs, which may well represent a significant contribution to their fields but which possess little sales potential beyond purchases by university libraries. Academics who think of a monograph as a particularly musty, narrowly focused tome, perhaps a traditional single-author study, need to realize that for the scholarly press director today, monograph also describes virtually every book written by junior professors in the humanities seeking tenure. In fact, it describes the majority of books produced by most scholars of any rank in our field. The term, simply put, applies to any book lacking in crossover sales potential, which means sales to a nonacademic market or, at the very least, the possibility of course adoption for an undergraduate class (Wasserman, par. 2).

What this means for the choices publishers make is clear enough. Important scholarly series--a publishing strategy originally devised to promote new scholarship while establishing an intellectual profile that encourages libraries to purchase the complete series--are being reevaluated at many university presses (Waters, "Are University Presses"). Some series deemed unable to justify themselves financially have been cut altogether. The distinguished series in French studies at Cambridge University Press is now being phased out, and although the press will continue to publish specialized books on French topics in other parts of its program, the symbolic value of closing the series should not be underestimated. Similarly, Oxford University Press has eliminated its series in contemporary poetry (Schiffrin). Even more disturbing is anecdotal evidence that some scholarly presses are increasingly reluctant to publish literary criticism at all. If this tendency should become a national trend, scholarly publishing in literary fields will have entered a state of emergency.

Academic presses increasingly favor textbooks and other books for undergraduates, as well as books that extend beyond the university altogether; many regional scholarly presses have been publishing more and more books on local history. Some presses have been able to counteract dropping sales in many areas by sales of an important reference work: Princeton University Press's Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World is a case in point (Ruark). André Schiffrin, editor of the New Press and a devoted observer of the recent vagaries of publishing, notes that as nonacademic publishers are forced to cut their "midlist" books, publications known for slower sales over a relatively long period of time, titles of this kind often get picked up by university presses. Yet it is important to understand that what is commonly termed "midlist" often derives, in terms of sales, from the "very bottom" of commercial publishers' offerings (Pochoda 3). Many of these books have been dropped from such publishers' lists because of changes in the structure of book selling, including the advent of "superstores" (Lehmann 50) and taxes that were imposed on publishers' inventories in the 1980s (Chodorow, par. 3).

Will crossover publications ease the financial woes of scholarly presses, allowing them to maintain their traditional focus? Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, is not sanguine. Publishers now need to pay higher advances, make heavier outlays for marketing, and deal with increasing numbers of returns from booksellers--all this against the backdrop of greater resistance by individual buyers to book prices as well as rapid shifts in readers' tastes and interests. Given the far greater financial risks involved, he comments, "publishing for general audiences, in an effort to generate money for scholarly publishing, is a little like playing high-stakes poker to win back what you lost at blackjack" ("Scholarly Books").

These problems experienced by publishers need to be seen in conjunction with a decline in financial support for scholarly editions. Not only are editions of literary works expensive and time-consuming to produce, they tend not to be seen as significant scholarly accomplishments. Reductions in the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1996 made critical inroads into important editing projects. In fall 2000, Congress voted for the first funding increase for the NEH in four years, but even this renewal of support is not sufficient to ensure the continuation of crucial literary and historical editions, and it will be virtually impossible to initiate new projects of significant magnitude for some time to come ("Scholarly Editions").

The concern of this report, then, is straightforward. On a practical level, how can ever-increasing demands for publication as a qualification for tenure and promotion be sustained when scholars find it harder and harder to publish their books? On a broader level, however, we must also ask ourselves how these shifts in academic publishing will affect our scholarship, as well as the profession as a whole.

Dilemmas Facing Scholars

Publishers' financial straits are not the only hurdles facing junior scholars, whose chances for tenure and promotion depend on book publication. In some fields, they must also compete with a growing number of more established scholars for consideration by university presses. Here the sustained high production of PhDs in humanities fields plays a significant role. So does the continuing squeeze in the job market they enter. Financial considerations have led many universities and colleges to eliminate positions vacated by retiring faculty members and to cover some teaching needs with adjunct faculty members and teaching assistants. These financial constraints create serious obstacles to employment for recent recipients of doctorates. Increasing competition among candidates for a dwindling number of positions has allowed hiring institutions to raise their expectations with respect to candidates' scholarly achievement. More and more graduate students applying for initial academic appointments have published one scholarly article or more in the belief that hiring committees at research institutions regard publication as an essential prerequisite for acceptable candidates. While scholarly publication is not, in fact, the accomplishment search committees prize most highly (Broughton and Conlogue 44), candidates' perceptions of what hiring institutions want have led many young scholars to start publishing at an earlier stage in their careers. The result is an increasing flow of manuscript submissions to professional journals and presses.

Another matter of concern is the increasing emphasis that tenure and promotion committees place on the scholarly book, at a time when constraints on academic publishing make it more and more difficult to get such books published. Schools that once considered a group of articles acceptable evidence for tenure now routinely demand a published book; other schools have begun to make the transition from requiring one book to requiring two. As the book-length monograph has become the holy grail for achieving tenure, not only scholarly articles but also some kinds of book-length publication have undergone concomitant devaluation; tenure and promotion committees frequently accord editions and concordances--to say nothing of textbooks--considerably less weight than scholarly monographs, even though such general-usage texts are forming a larger and larger part of what scholarly presses themselves wish to publish. In any event, contributors to such volumes tend to be established scholars. If the academic publishing system moves substantially away from specialized studies and toward introductory and reference works, younger scholars may well be increasingly edged out of the publishing process.

The excessive emphasis on monograph publication as the ideal qualification for tenure, coupled with the economic crisis faced by the monograph, has also affected scholarship negatively. Tenure committees usually judge the merits of young scholars by how deeply and knowledgeably they expand on previous research, but they must publish their work in presses that are increasingly making decisions on the basis of breadth and crossover appeal rather than scholarly depth. This discrepancy between the criteria for tenure and promotion and the criteria that university presses have been forced to adopt has been particularly damaging to young scholars. Ultimately, however, it affects all of us as we conceive scholarly projects and bring them to completion.

Small language fields, especially the lesser-taught languages, are already under considerable strain. Because libraries buy fewer books in these fields, academic publishers are reluctant to produce such books unless they also address a broader readership. It is easier, for example, to include in a more widely ranging study a single chapter on an author writing in a less commonly taught language than it is to publish an entire book on some aspect of the literature and culture produced in that language. This situation means that colleagues in smaller fields who are coming up for promotion and tenure have fewer outlets for their scholarship than do their peers in larger disciplines. Because scholars in these fields cannot assume general knowledge of the material they study, their books cannot proceed as rapidly to analysis but must spend at least some time on introductory explanations. Yet colleagues in these fields face the same expectations in terms of quantity and speed of scholarly publication as do their peers who work on material that is more familiar to an English-speaking readership. Under present constraints, these scholars may in fact simply not be able to rely on university presses as an outlet for their research. They may need to seek alternative opportunities for publication.

Scholars looking outside the American university press system may find themselves caught in a double bind, however. Publication abroad may fail to receive due credit from committees on promotion and tenure, as the editorial criteria and evaluation methods used by foreign presses differ from those in place in the United States. Universities have tended to rely on the procedures of American university presses to set the standard and have therefore not established appropriate policies by which these publications are judged. The evaluation of manuscripts carried out in European and Latin American presses usually relies on specialists employed by the press itself; this evaluation informs editorial decisions but does not produce public referee reports such as those used in the American peer-review system. As a result, serious scholarship published in reputable presses abroad can be, and sometimes has been, undervalued by committees on promotion and tenure. These committees have failed to acknowledge the special difficulties facing scholars who attempt to publish on the domestic market; they have also failed to evaluate appropriately publication in venues that differ from American university presses.

From the perspective of American university libraries, furthermore, foreign books are often prohibitively expensive. Interlibrary loan is a poor substitute for ready access to foreign language materials, making scholarship in foreign languages and literatures difficult at certain institutions. The tight financial budgets of university and college libraries have also led to a degree of competition between the purchase of texts in foreign languages and the purchase of English translations of these same texts. This competition is unfortunate, as the field is increasingly dependent on both. While teachers and students of foreign language literary and cultural productions need to have this material available in the original language, there is a simultaneous need to introduce this material to those who cannot read it in the original. Foreign language departments are increasingly teaching courses based on works studied in translation. Furthermore, the publication and dissemination of translations are essential ingredients in widening the readership for scholarly topics in foreign language fields. Nevertheless, the critical importance of translation in the mediation of foreign cultures in the academy has yet to be appreciated fully. This is true not only with respect to the creation of library collections but also with respect to the evaluation of translations in tenure and promotion cases, where their basis in scholarship is often not fully understood.

While scholars in foreign languages face a particularly daunting set of constraints, the predicament of their colleagues in English and comparative literature is no less frustrating. From both an intellectual and an economic perspective, scholarship in all language and literature fields would be better served if the book were not so universally required for the award of tenure and promotion. If evaluation committees were more open to other forms of scholarly expression, production of book-length manuscripts might shrink to more manageable proportions. Scholars at all stages in their careers, but especially those who are still untenured, might be inclined to choose a publication format that is appropriate for the kind of argument they wish to present, rather than rush unthinkingly into the writing of yet another book. Colleges and universities need to reflect more carefully about appropriate models for tenure and promotion dossiers, with the aim of devising a variety of models that would do better justice to the different kinds of projects candidates may wish to undertake. By ceasing to regard book publication as the gold standard for tenure and promotion, universities and colleges would be able to place more emphasis on the quality of publications than on their external format.

In addition to focusing the productivity and evaluation of individual scholars more appropriately, scrutiny of the actual conditions of academic book publishing should prompt thoughtful reexamination of the production of knowledge in our fields. If peer review is assumed to be the ideal gateway to scholarly communication, we need to consider whether journal publication--arguably determined more directly by peer readers--may often be not only better for individuals but also better for the collective advancement of knowledge. Other academic fields, such as psychology or economics, do not place such exclusive emphasis on the publication of books, since scholarly impact in those fields is measured in different ways (Waters, "Modest Proposal" 316). A presumption that the needs of book publishers and of fields are inevitably congruent may be as ill-founded in some areas of literature and language at present as it has long been in most areas of social and natural science.

Whatever the mode of publication, it seems increasingly important to us to emphasize quality over quantity. A practical means of doing so has been proposed by several university administrators, notably Myles Brand, president of Indiana University, and Gerhard Casper, former president of Stanford University. The procedure they advocate would call for a candidate undergoing professional review to submit a small cluster of publications that represent his or her best work, regardless of length (Magner). Such a measure would help shift tenure and promotion reviews toward an emphasis on the quality of the work submitted for evaluation. We believe, further, that it would reduce the flow of both books and articles that do not greatly add to current scholarship in their field. We hope it would give precedence to two important questions: Are our local and professional practices encouraging the best work of individuals? Are those practices shaping our disciplines in ways that are intellectually coherent?

Is Electronic Publication the Solution?

The committee agrees that electronic publication is an important new component of the problems that it has set out to examine, a component that must be analyzed in the light of recent experience and research into the topic. The Columbia University Online Book Evaluation Project found that scholars in the humanities have become regular users of electronic resources such as bibliographies, encyclopedias, concordances, and databases available through university libraries (see Summerfield, Mandel, and Kantor). Online journals are already being used by many scholars in our fields, and this use is likely to increase. The committee sees these developments as presenting exciting new possibilities for our profession. However, questions remain about the economics of electronic publishing, its permanence and circulation, as well as its validation in decisions about tenure and promotion in the university. Members of the committee expressed different degrees of enthusiasm about the prospects offered by electronic journals and had different perceptions about whether such journals may come to replace print journals in the humanities, but they agreed in general on the importance of the phenomenon and the need to examine it carefully, rather than simply to propose it as a panacea for a crisis that has complex causes.

Several questions about electronic publishing are still not resolved. First, electronic book publication does not necessarily reduce costs, a major portion of which are connected with the editing process. Second, electronic book readers and software programs designed for reading electronic documents on personal computers have not been standardized, and different systems may not become compatible for many years yet (Lynch, "Battle"). Third, we need mechanisms that will guarantee the permanence of electronic publications, given that digital storage systems continue to undergo complex changes (Besser 157-58). And fourth, some observers fear that large conglomerates will end up owning and controlling the content of electronic sources (Lynch, "Battle"), thus making access to this mode of publication more difficult for scholars in the humanities, whose work often does not have immediate or obvious practical use value. However these problems may be resolved, scholars and the institutions that hire them and give them tenure must recognize that, as Givler pointed out to the committee (letter), the current generation confronts a more complex task as it not only conducts scholarship but also develops new formats for its presentation and dissemination.

Most urgently, we need to address the issue of peer review for electronic publication in the humanities, whether of monographs and specialized books or of articles in online journals. It is crucial that electronic publications--including book-length studies, periodicals, editions, and scholarly Web sites--contain a statement about the form of review used to evaluate the quality of the work published and that such peer review be comparable in type and standard with that employed by university presses and reputable print journals. Electronic publications included in tenure and promotion dossiers will likely be viewed with suspicion unless a widely accepted system of quality control is in place.


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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 06/07/2003.