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Is the Academic Monograph an Endangered Species?

May 20, 2008

In the United States, a system of just 88 university presses support and maintain the entire process of tenure and promotion for scholars working in the arts and humanities disciplines. I learned this a couple weeks ago at a depressing talk by Stephen Wrinn, Director of the University Press of Kentucky. Wrinn’s discussion attempted to familiarize graduate students and untenured faculty members with the ever-worsening market for academic books published by university presses.  For many positions (especially in English), scholars are expected to publish a book in order to get tenure, so the fragile financial conditions that most university presses now endure inevitably affect the health and stability of academic departments.  Consider the following reflections on academic publishing and its relationship to tenure and promotion:

  • Academic publishing has changed drastically in recent years.  Until about 10 years ago, university presses were guaranteed to sell anywhere from 300-500 copies of a book to research libraries.  That number is now down to about 120 copies, mainly because fewer libraries can afford to buy monographs comprehensively.  Acquisitions budgets for monographs in academic libraries constantly shrink, and many libraries are forced to spend a higher percentage of the money they do have on subscription based proprietary database access.  “Information companies” like Elsevier, which specializes in science related research, essentially force universities to pay for their information twice.
  • Why do universities pay twice for their information, one might ask? The tenure and promotion system, and the pressures it creates, allows this to happen. Scholars are forced to produce research and then submit it to a press or journal without being directly compensated for it. Instead of receiving direct payment or fair royalties, they receive a salary from their university to “produce knowledge,” a task recognized in each professor’s distribution of energies. Professors willingly surrender their information because their job depends on it, and after receiving their products free of charge, journals or presses then publish the information (with university systems often subsidizing this expense, which can range between $40,000-$60,000 per book).  Then, just to access many journals, universities shell out millions of dollars each year to proprietary database managers who have received their product for free.
  • The obvious tension here is between the laws of capitalist enterprise and the fiduciary responsibility academic university presses have to disseminate information to other scholars.  Most academic presses are non-profit enterprises, and they exist mainly to support the tenure and promotion system of the academia in the US.  However, the book publishing industry in general operates by laws of supply and demand, and it’s no secret that academic books usually aren’t big sellers.  Thus, when fewer libraries commit to purchasing monographs, academic presses can almost never recover the costs of producing a book.  Academic publishers often turn to publishing material that leans more toward popular appeal so that it might defray the costs of publishing “less popular” (even if more rigid) scholarship.
  • Academic presses are furthermore put in a bad position because they essentially work to support the credentials of other state universities.  Often, a book published by the University Press of Kentucky (for example) will help a professor teaching at the flagship university of another state achieve tenure and/or promotion.  It doesn’t make economic sense for the state resources of one university system to be expended in such a way that bolsters the faculty and relative prestige of another.  This is the academic equivalent to one company paying for professional development and training of employees that work for a rival company.  Some well-noted presses, Oxford is one of these, have remediated this problem to some extent by asking the institution which employs a prospective author to subsidize a potential publication.
  • As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, many academic disciplines, English being tantamount among them, must reconsider the standards for tenure and promotion in light of the bleak academic publishing market. One solution is to value other forms of scholarship, including work published with commercial presses.  Another is to reconsider the monograph as the benchmark for a respectable and productive academic career.
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