Perishing Publishing

Quoting big huge bits from the Boston Globe’s Brainiac “section”:

Imagine an alternate universe in which young professors don’t face the ultimatum to “publish or perish.” Instead, they’d face a contrary threat — censured if they rushed sloppy ideas into print, denied tenure if they’d ground out a numbing, heavily padded 400-page tome when a few nimble essays would have sufficed. Scott McLemee, of Inside Higher Ed, dares to envision such a future. “Of course,” he qualifies,

there would be occasions when some wunderkind had so many ideas that brisk and frequent publication became a matter of urgent necessity. But that would be rare. A strictly enforced set of proscriptions would add excitement to things. Picking up a book or journal, you would know that it had involved some risk. Scholars might begin to publish pseudonymously, if they felt it was absolutely urgent to get a piece of research out. The spirit of adventure would probably be good for people’s prose as well.

The most immediate issue that occurs to me, of course, is that this new system holds potentially greater benefits for qualitative researchers than quantitative ones (or, perhaps the unit of description should be “papers” or “projects” and not people).  Although many forms of quantitative analysis involve great gobs of time to collect and analyze data–many do not.  Therefore, a quick and dirty system of production may be suited to the “natural” pace of production.  It has also been alleged that there is more and better grant support for quantitative work (perhaps because “better” or more “policy oriented” questions are asked), and it is clearly the case that money buys time.  On the other hand, while some forms of qualitative analysis can be relatively fast, the great majority are marked by years of data collection (think: community-level ethnographies).  Ergo, one might conclude the current system has greater benefits for quantitative research projects, while the proposed system would give “undue?” advantage to the qualitative ones.

McLemee has allies in high places: Lindsay Waters, the executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, has been arguing in numerous venues– most recently the Journal of Scholarly Publishing — that the essay ought to replace the book as the intellectual currency by which young professors are judged. (From Montaigne through Paul de Man and Edward Said, Waters points out, much of the best scholarly work in the humanities has been in the form of essays.) Virtually no one under 30 — or, more precisely, six years out from a Ph.D. — is qualified to produce a full-blown academic book, Waters believes.

I think we could all agree that a great number of the books we read would be just as enjoyable if they had been edited down and reframed in journal article form.  Moreover, most of us are forced by circumstance to introduce our students to the articles spun from books, so the articles have greater functionality, in this sense.

Such views remain heretical in the academy, but Waters argues that he and McLemee will ultimately win out, in part because the existing system is so mindless — and therefore nothing less than an “obscenity.” Like the mortgage business on Wall Street until recently, the academic system in the humanities has been erected upon a shaky foundation — in this case, books no one reads, and which even the authors don’t like.

I think the hyberole here trivilizes the point.  We’ve seen few changes in our reward & evaluation systems for faculty (changes in amount, but not in kind, I would say), despite the massive changes in the organizations that employ us, and their client base.  But I’m new to this particular argument.  What do you think?  Have I got blind spots?

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