A New Model for Peer-Reviewing Monographs?

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.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.

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8 replies »

  1. We younger academics could start our own “autonomous peer review” project to do this. All we need is enough competent (not necessarily famous or senior) participants to ensure a high standard of peer review, and a suitable web site for managing the process. At first, authors might wish to go through this process first, then publish with a traditional academic publisher (which would be free to peer-review again in the usual way). If the project works (by producing books that peers recognise as good), its reputation will speak for itself, and more and more people will want to publish this way. They might then feel that there’s no need to bother with a traditional publisher, because the “autonomous peer review” stamp of approval is enough; once they have it, they could just put their book on the web for free download. The RAE/REF would then have good reason to take monographs more seriously.

    • Benjamin, many thanks for the comment! I actually do not think that what I’m proposing should be started by less experienced academics unless they are in a field in which monographs are valued as a primary form of academic communication but in which it is exceedingly difficult to get monographs published in the usual way. Some literature fields might be an example. Otherwise, there is not enough incentive to submit oneself to an additional layer of peer-review above and beyond what an academic press would do. For sociology, I think the imprimatur of respected scholars and/or organizations would be essential for a such an endeavour’s success.

  2. Maybe the incentive could be that it would help you get a traditional publishing contract? You could use it as a kind of recommendation letter when selling your book to a publisher. Eventually publishers might decide to require it. Why do you think that senior scholars would need to be involved? As Shelley said, “Ye are many – they are few.”

    • Many thanks again for the comment. Why do I think senior scholars need to be involved? The answer seems to me like it would be obvious. Let’s say I have a manuscript that academic presses are already interested in publishing. Why would I the author be even remotely interested in this new model of monograph peer review? The likely answer is that I wouldn’t…unless I had reason to believe that such a process would provide additional access/affiliation to luminaries in my field.

      Without good symbolic backing from so-called Big Names, only third-tier publishers who don’t already have excellent networks in place and the scholars most interested in this new model would be those who have no other obvious recourse to publication. There would thus be little field-wide appropriation of the new practice, and it would quickly become associated (rightly or wrongly) with an unseemly professional desperation, a sign of not of excellence but of mediocrity.

  3. I think you need to take into account the fact that in sociology, as in other fields, there are struggles between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and that heterodoxy tends to come from younger, less consecrated practitioners who nevertheless have the same professional competence as their more consecrated, more orthodox rivals. Publishers are often forced to arbitrate in these struggles, by deciding whether a radical new idea merits the consecration they would give it by publishing it, or whether it is too risky and might damage their reputation as a publisher. Some publishers tend to play it safe and publish more orthodox work, while others specialise in riskier investments in avant-garde research. For the latter, the trick is betting on the right horse, given that it might take several years to find out whether the bet paid off (in the form of a book that, over time, comes to be seen as a pioneering work) or not. I would think that these sorts of publishers would be very glad to have a sensitive instrument for detecting promising avant-garde trends in the field, and that a system of independent peer review, run by and for younger academics, could be just such an instrument. It would cost them nothing, and would enable them to make a more informed choice than they are currently able to do, because manuscripts would come to them already pre-selected by the avant-garde. For authors whose work is really daring, this could make the difference between getting published and not getting published.

    • Well, Benjamin, you are officially oceans more idealistic than I am! Have you read Andrew Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines? Whether or not one agrees with Abbott, though, I suspect that the biggest divide within the discipline of sociology from the point of view of practice is between qualitative sociologists who primarily write books and quantitative sociologists who primarily write articles, not between the ‘orthodoxy’ and the ‘avant garde’…whoever those two groups are.

      Incidentally, as someone who studies book publishing, I can assure you that the absolute last thing a press that cares even a little bit about selling books wants to hear about a possible book project is, ‘Nothing remotely like it has ever been done before!’

  4. I haven’t read Abbott; I’ll have a look. What I’m suggesting isn’t idealism; it’s based on Bourdieu’s field theory. Since you study book publishing, I think you’d be interested to read his study The Rules of Art. There are indeed presses that seek out avant-garde work as a business strategy. It’s what Bourdieu calls a “long cycle of production”: the publisher knows that the book will sell very few copies at first, but if it becomes recognised by peers, and eventually assigned by professors to their students, it will become a “classic” and pay off in the long run. Bourdieu argues, convincingly I think, that some publishers specialise in this. (In France it’s Les Editions de Minuit, which published Bourdieu’s earlier works.) Other publishers specialise in the “short cycle of production”, i.e. publishing books that have a high chance of making a profit immediately. These two types of publishers correspond to the the “autonomous” and “heteronomous” poles of the field of authors.

    • Many thanks for what is has become an engaging discussion! Yes, I am quite familiar with Bourdieu. With regards to autonomy/heteronomy in the publishing field, I am in full agreement with John Thompson here, who argues that it just doesn’t work that way, not even for academic presses. My own research in a different sector bears this out. Since he is also in charge of Polity, which publishes Bourdieu in English, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (Full disclosure: John is my PhD supervisor.)

      Anyway, we are now pushing right up to the limits of what I feel comfortable saying publicly. I’d be happy to continue the conversation in a different medium. Or perhaps someday we’ll run into each other in person.

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