Last May Stephen Greenblatt, who was then president of the Modern Languages Association, the literary academic’s equivalent of the Teamsters, circulated a letter among its twenty thousand or so members. ‘Over the last few decades,’ he wrote, ‘most departments of language and literature have come to demand that junior faculty members produce, as a condition for being seriously considered for promotion to tenure, a full-length book published by a reputable press. A small number of departments’ – Greenblatt means institutions such as Harvard and Berkeley, at both of which he has taught and sat on tenure committees – ‘expect the publication of two such books.’ And, one might add, for subsequent promotion (to professor, endowed chair, or president of the MLA) more full-length books will be required.
Vol. 26 No. 3 · 5 February 2004
From Jonathan Sawday
John Sutherland’s suggestion of paying academics in book tokens in order to support the academic monograph is intriguing (LRB, 22 January). But is the academic monograph an endangered species? To a researcher in medicine or engineering, material presented in the form of a book, given the lead-time for book publication, is already outdated. But let’s assume that the monograph is still worth supporting. Sutherland argues that the major issue is one of supply. He’s quite right. Currently, via the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the UK taxpayer supports the supply of scholarship in the arts and humanities to the tune of around £70 million annually. The AHRB’s efforts, understandably, are focused on production, but in supporting supply (through research grants, fellowships, centres, study-leave etc), the AHRB is compounding the problem: more research is being produced, but nobody can afford to read it. Effectively, the AHRB is neglecting an important strand in its own mission statement: ‘to promote and support the dissemination of research in the arts and humanities, both to the research community and the public at large’.
There is a solution to hand. Set aside a small fraction (say, 2 per cent) of the money that is currently spent on arts and humanities research by the AHRB, and use it for the establishment of a peer-reviewed AHRB imprint, dedicated to disseminating, at paperback prices, the work of younger scholars, or any scholarship that is not judged to be commercially viable. This would mean less money overall for arts and humanities research from the AHRB, but at least the public would be able to buy and read products of the research. It would also probably mean that commercial publication of most arts and humanities research would collapse (if it hasn’t already), since a necessary quid pro quo would have to be that any academic in receipt of public funds to support their research would have to offer their work for publication by the AHRB, on the presumption that if it’s reasonable to ask the taxpayer to fund the work, then the taxpayer should be enabled to read it. To the objection that this curtails academics’ freedom to publish wherever they like, it may be argued that academics are perfectly at liberty to decline public funding and take their chance, alongside David Starkey, in the marketplace.
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
From John Price
John Sutherland addresses the problem of an endless supply of monographs which no one wants to publish, no one wants to buy and hardly anyone wants to read. His cunning plan, that taxpayers’ money be hypothecated to ensure that academics stockpile huge quantities of these unloved tomes, is obviously a non-starter. Instead, I would propose that a little more attention is given to the Internet. it’s said to be almost impossible to apply a suitable degree of quality control to web publishing, but hardly anyone has tried. Universities should publish the work of their academic staff and brightest students on their own tightly controlled sites, thus making all their worthwhile research available to the widest possible audience. Financial constraints would be overcome, academic work would be more accessible, universities could advertise the strength (or otherwise) of their various departments, and a free, internationally available, searchable library of modern criticism would be created. Furthermore, the needs of promotion and appointment boards would be met: they could review candidates’ work and make judgments without having to move from their desks. It occurs to me that they should also be making their decisions based on perceptions of teaching ability, but let’s not take things too far.
University College Worcester
Vol. 26 No. 5 · 4 March 2004
From Alan Thomas
John Sutherland’s account of the economics of scholarly publishing is accurate in broad outline but less so in many specifics (LRB, 22 January). The monograph crisis is uneven, affecting some fields more than others. University presses still compete for many monographs, including revised dissertations, and, contrary to Sutherland’s belief, they pay advances for a significant number of them. Sutherland sees ‘the pricing up of the monograph to levels that only institutions can afford’ as a ubiquitous practice, but university presses have long been coping with the erosion of the library market, and pricing only for institutions is hardly a viable option for most of them. Many American university presses, in particular, work mightily to price monographs for individual buyers, and inexpensive original paperback editions of monographs are common.
It also needs to be said that a monograph selling five hundred copies may yet be important to a field of study. Should we scoff at scholarship on, say, classical Arabic literature because a transformative monograph in that field sells only a few hundred copies? To be sure, many presses cannot afford to serve such small communities of scholars, but let’s applaud those that do, and the universities and foundations that support their efforts.
The rumour of ‘profit-driven’ monograph publishing at the University of Chicago Press is false, and Sutherland’s anecdote about my exchange with his UCLA friend garbles almost every detail. To address just one, I can’t take credit for the statistical claim Sutherland attributes to me: that the crisis would be solved if every literature professor bought six new hardbacks every year. I’ve never heard, much less said, anything of the kind.
Finally, for the record, Stephen Greenblatt sent his letter about the monograph crisis to the MLA membership in May 2002.
University of Chicago Press
From David Beer
John Price’s suggestion that academic monographs should be published on the internet is highly enlightened (Letters, 5 February). There is, however, a problem. In Price’s model, individual universities would publish their staff and students’ work on their own sites, but this would leave the current situation unchanged: unread pieces of paper would be replaced by unread virtual papers. If national sites based on subjects were set up then university departments could join the relevant sites and contribute the material they wished to be published on them each year.
University of York