Friday, April 01, 2011

The Sorry State of Academic Publishing

The article, "Libraries, Publishers, and a Plea for Shotgun Weddings," by Bryn Geffert, the librarian at Amherst College, really struck a chord with me. Geffert decries the sorry state of academic publishing which is exemplified by a book he was recently asked to review.

At first glance, the work appeared promising. The publisher's Web site pledges research based on "recently opened archives," "surprising" revelations, and a "comprehensive overview" of important and neglected topics.

The list of contributors includes important figures in the field. The editor, a reputable scholar, teaches at a good university.

The publisher is a well-known commercial press.

And the book is an absolute mess.

Sentences do not parse. Punctuation comes and goes as it pleases. Basic grammatical standards retreat in the face of indifference. Narrative coherence gives way to meandering, self-absorbed stream of consciousness. The essays largely eschew arguments and theses. New information and archival research: not so much. Inanities abound. And those essays that do evidence some internal coherence bear little relation to their neighbors.

Perhaps most troubling is the almost utter lack of correlation between the book's content and the content promised by promotional blurbs. "Key themes" noted in the introduction appear nowhere else. We can only assume that topics presaged in advertising copy took a wrong turn in Albuquerque.

Geffert concludes that a number of publishers are "charging outrageous prices for embarrassingly bad books, knowing that enough individuals and institutions will snap them up." I am responsible for most of the acquisitions decisions for my library and personally look at every book (except for standing orders) we receive before it is processed. Given the volume of what comes in and the scope of my other responsibilities, I can't spend more than a few minutes on each book. Obviously, this isn't enough time for me to make a thorough evaluation of every book, but it is enough time for me to form an overall impression of which publishers produce books of quality and which produce schlock. As a result, I have a list of publishers from which I no longer purchase because of the "inverse correlation between the price and quality of [their] books," as Geffert puts it. He concedes that there are "good university presses [that are] bucking" the trend to publish books "with meager or no editorial support." How do they survive?
[B]y canceling series, releasing fewer titles, slashing runs, and declining to consider manuscripts that lack broad appeal. The result: Scholars increasingly throw their lot in with the disreputables; libraries purchase garbage; promising manuscripts go unpublished; and good manuscripts go to press half-baked. University presses committed to publishing worthy books—the presses we admire and on which we rely—can no longer give us what we need. And those that try find that libraries—each year spending ever-greater portions of their budgets on commercially produced serials—can't afford to buy what we beg the presses to produce.

Geffert believes that the current situation will not be remedied until libraries "step into the breach." He points to the University of Michigan which merged its press and its library two years ago; it pledged to "publish all future books online, free of charge." He says there are similar experiments at Utah State, Penn State, and Stanford. Geffert concedes that library resources are so stretched that
We cannot provide those we serve with what they need. Perhaps it is time to produce ourselves what we can no longer afford to purchase; to use personnel and financial resources from our libraries ... to save and revive academic publishing of high quality.

The Oberlin Group, an informal confederation of 80 selective liberal-arts college libraries, is considering creating a "liberal-arts press" which would be a "serious, scholarly press committed to rigorous peer review, superb editing, and the free dissemination of publications." This would require libraries to "reconfigure" library positions to support such an effort. Time will tell if libraries will actually be willing to free up human and financial resources. For a good overview of the issues facing academic presses, see Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses, a recent report from the Association of American University Presses. Geffert's article is available online to those who subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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