A perspective on scholarly publishing — Cathy Davidson

“Who are the robber barons? Sometimes (yes, I mean you, English professors!), it is our own short-sighted book writing and book buying habits that are the problem. Some of the “crisis of scholarly publishing” is of our making. Sometimes the Ponzi schemes start with us.”—Cathy Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English at Duke University

Every so often we like to take a look at the state and future of scholarly and university press publishing. With that in mind we turn to Cathy Davidson’s recent blog posting The Futures of Scholarly Publishing—Urgently and Again, published on the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Collaborative) Web site.

Cathy Davidson begins by mentioning the recent publication of The State of Scholarly Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities and then examines the particular challenges confronting the publications of literary studies titles and specifically monographs:

Ask any book editor at a university press. Englishers write a lot of long (too long) books, sometimes without much regard for the fact that someone out there will be reading them. Maybe that’s realistic, given that relatively few English profs buy other Englisher books—and they assign relatively fewer in their courses. But it shouldn’t be that way. If we believe in what we do (and I happen to be a believer), we should be writing for readers, first of all, and, second, we should be reading one another’s work and, third, we should be teaching it. Right now, a sale of 300 or 400 copies of a monograph is a lot. That’s appalling. The result, materially, is that we do not pay our own way and certainly not that of junior members of our profession. Intellectually, our students never learn the value the genre of the monograph because we teach excerpts in our courses, even our graduate courses. We do not teach the kind of extended, nuanced thinking that goes into the genre that our very graduate students will have to produce for tenure. We say the scholarly monograph represents the epitome of our profession and a hurdle to “lifetime employment” at a research university. So we do not practice what we preach, adding to the crisis in scholarly publishing and the crisis in the profession of English in particular.

Davidson’s call for professors and academics to read and assign their colleagues work should be applauded. If taken up her suggestions will not only help allow university presses continue their mission but also perhaps breathe new financial and intellectual life to the monograph and literary studies.

Leave a Reply