Pressure to publish, plight of publishers focus of CGS panel
By Tim Stoddard
For junior faculty in the humanities, publishing a book-length monograph has become a key factor in achieving tenure. But at the same time that tenure and promotion committees across the country are placing greater emphasis on publishing books rather than journal articles, academic publishers are struggling under economic pressures that make it more and more difficult to publish scholarly books. For years, university presses have been in dire straits as their parent institutions have reduced subsidies and as academic libraries have drastically cut orders for monographs. Last week, Northeastern University decided to shut down its 27-year-old publishing arm, Northeastern University Press, because of the rising costs of subsidizing the press. To stay afloat, other scholarly presses have been forced to eliminate entire disciplines from their catalogues and look for books that can cross over to a wider audience of scholars and the general public.
“As academics, we're so burrowed in our research that we neglect to see that these publishing houses are businesses,” says Thomas Whalen, a CGS assistant professor of social science. “They are interested in the economics of scale and the bottom line, and we don't give enough attention to that. A lot of our research, depending on how we present it, might not be palatable to university presses.”
With Silvia Shaw, a CGS assistant professor of rhetoric, Whalen has organized a panel of representatives from academic presses in the Boston area to address the question: what are university presses looking for? Sponsored by the CGS committee on faculty research and scholarship, the discussion, entitled Publish, Don't Perish, is open to the BU community and will take place on Friday, April 2, at 2:30 p.m. in CGS Room 505. Representatives from Addison-Wesley Publishing, the University of Massachusetts Press, Harvard University Press, and MIT Press will discuss recent trends in academic publishing and how scholars can turn their research into a marketable tenure-track hardback.
“We decided to bring together representatives from major academic publishers in Boston so that they could give guidelines as to what they expect from scholars,” says Shaw. “There definitely is pressure for faculty to publish, certainly for getting tenure and to advance from associate to full professor. We in the faculty naturally want to know what these presses are looking for, but they in turn want to know about our research. They're looking for ideas, too. I'm really hopeful that it will be mutually beneficial.”
While publishing is an important part of tenure decisions, Shaw adds that it serves the more important purpose of nurturing intellectual discourse. “If we weren't sharing our ideas,” she says, “we'd be in intellectual isolation. Publishing is to break that isolation. What inevitably happens is that when you write something, you get responses from your colleagues that agree or contradict or somehow add to that conversation. We devote our whole lives to a subject we love. We want to dialogue about it. Publishing is the way to open up the conversation.”
University presses have traditionally done things that otherwise wouldn't get done, publishing books for narrower audiences of scholars. But in their efforts to cut costs, many presses have been forced to make choices about which subjects to minimize, and which to eliminate altogether.
“It's very difficult to publish books of literary criticism,” says Whalen. “University presses are just not making money from them.” Similarly, scholars of foreign languages face considerable challenges in publishing scholarly books.
Whalen, who recently published a book on Boston Celtics star Bill Russell, says a lot of university presses are now picking up sports history topics. “Harvard University Press is going to be putting out a book on Boston sports,” he says, “and the University of Notre Dame Press is putting out a baseball book this month on Ed Delahanty. They're good history, and a neglected topic, but now presses are taking them seriously because they realize there's an audience out there and that helps the bottom line.”
According to Whalen, young scholars need to have a better grasp of the bottom line long before they set about writing their dissertations. “Graduate schools generally don't teach you what you need to do to publish,” he says. “You do all this research on a topic with all this methodology, but you put it on the desk of one of these editors at a university press and they'll look at you like you have three heads. I think graduate students are ill served if they spend all that time on a dissertation, and put it in such a form that editors will just scratch their heads.”
The solution, Whalen says, is to revamp the dissertation. “Academic advisors have a set idea of what a dissertation should look like,” he says, “but that idea is often not publishable. I think it would behoove graduate departments, particularly in the fields of social science and English literature, to get their students to write dissertations in book form, so that when you get your Ph.D., you won't have to scramble around trying to completely remake your work into something publishable. I think academia has to adjust to the changing times, to the changing nature of publishing. When I write a book, I want everyone to read it, from the college professor to the bricklayer to the plumber, and I think that's what graduate schools need to convey to their students.”