Earlier this month in London at the British Sociological Association Annual Conference, during a panel for early career researchers, I asked John Holmwood why the RAE/REF does not seem to rate scholarly monographs as highly as journal articles. Both a book and an article count as one item, but the latter is only one-tenth the number of words. To a freelancer accustomed to being paid by the word, this does not seem fair. And a book published with a good academic press will be peer-reviewed, right? Holmwood, however, pointed out that an academic press’s peer-review is not the same as a journal’s because a press is far more concerned about whether or not the book will sell. This, he was implying, is not meritocratic.
Although I would be hesitant to argue that the peer review process of scholarly journals is necessarily perfectly meritocratic, either—point taken. Much has been written about how non-profit university presses, once for all intents and purposes the printing arm of their universities, over time have become increasingly exposed to the demands of the market. This puts ever-increasing pressure upon authors to write certain sorts of content in preference to others and publishers to seek out certain sorts of content in preference to others. As an English-speaking researcher writing in English your future book might have a global audience, and perhaps paradoxically that means you probably won’t find too many takers for your elegant monograph on a small town in Northern England.
Ironically, the channels through which book-length scholarship may be disseminated have never been so diverse. Researchers need little more than an Internet connection to make their work freely available on the web, and new technologies have lowered the cost of self-publishing and print-on-demand services. If you are reading this column right now, you also have the resources necessary to publish your own book. Yet most career scholars recoil from such options, fearing lack of quality control and requiring the imprimatur of a prestigious press for professional advancement.
Why do we allow this state of affairs to persist? Why do we, for all intents and purposes, outsource hiring and firing decisions to organizations which need to sell books to survive? Why not disassociate the monograph peer-review process from the monograph publishing process? I could easily imagine discipline-specific peer-review panels, perhaps organized through scholarly associations such as the enormous US-based Modern Language Association. Researchers could submit their manuscript to a relevant panel, which would then adjudicate a rigorous double-blind peer-review process in the usual way. An approved script would receive a certification of some sort: ‘Approved for publication by the MLA Monograph Review Board’, for example. The researcher would be free to publish the work however he or she deems most suitable. In this manner, good books which do not have a sufficiently large market would not be condemned to die in professional obscurity.
Of course, I have no illusions. While such a scheme may be practicable, it would not be feasible without the support of the most respected senior academics. And it is precisely these sorts of people who are most likely to benefit from the status quo. While some publishers would welcome their liberation from researchers’ professional anxieties, others might resist what could be seen as a usurpation of their critical judgement. Perhaps there are other, better solutions. Still, I would argue that we ought to be interrogating the assumptions and conditions of our profession in precisely this reflexive way. If the monograph has value apart from its (typically modest) market potential—and I believe that it does—we must not be complacent. To be complacent is to fail to sociologically imagine ourselves.
Categories: Mediated Matters