Will monographs arise from the dead, or eat our brains?

4 minute read

Inside Higher Ed reviews and interviews an author who argues that the scholarly monograph shackles academics to an obsolete model of communication:

So it is strategic that Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association and a professor of media studies at Pomona College, invokes the living dead early to illustrate her argument in Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU Press). The scholarly press book, she writes, is no longer a viable mode of communication [yet] it is, in many fields, still required in order to get tenure. If anything, the scholarly monograph isnt dead; it is undead."

I agree with this thesis in part. Sixty-dollar monographs are going the way of the thylacine. Locking scholarly content in the tall stacks of university libraries doesn’t disseminate it. Peer review no longer improves work to the extent that it’s worth locking it up in response. It is ridiculous for anyone to judge the quality of a young scholar’s work by the imprint of a “prestigious” academic press. Tenure committees have simply delegated their responsibilities to editors, and the editors do a poor job.

But I disagree that the scholarly monograph is dead. Personally, I expect monographs to undergo a renaissance as more academics adopt e-publishing. Academic presses affiliated with universities should be going all-digital, and should start massively promoting their back catalogs as e-books at fire-sale prices. The smart ones will take the opportunity to change their agenda, competing to publish new books by a new generation of scholars who are building a broad readership both inside and outside academia. There’s no reason why we need to constrain our scholarship to books so boring that nobody wants to read them. Tomorrow’s scholars should be engaging with a much broader public than university presses have historically cultivated.

The stumbling block is that these books still must serve as a guide to the academic quality of young scholars’ work. On this count, Fitzpatrick provides some useful ideas about how to build quality scholarship under a more collaborative model:

The way to make this work, Fitzpatrick says, is to change the currency of scholarly communications from paper to credit. Instead of rewarding faculty for getting a lot of paper published, universities should consider how helpful tenure candidates have been in parsing other peoples articles written and helping others refine their ideas, she says. Journals could help out with this by creating trust metrics that cede more weight to academics who consistently give constructive feedback. They could also encourage frequent, thoughtful reviews by making them prerequisites for publishing ones own work thus attracting the sort of critical mass of reviewers that Fitzpatrick argues is necessary for successful peer-to-peer review (and which some previous high-profile experiments with the model failed to get).
Under such a system, faculty members could glide to tenure on the wings of their reputations as positive contributors to the advancement of knowledge in their field a metric the current publish-or-perish model does not adequately represent, Fitzpatrick says. Little in graduate school or on the tenure track inculcates helpfulness, she writes, and in fact much militates against it.

Obviously I think this model would be better than our current one. Still, I worry about the actual assignment of credit. Quite frankly, all my writing here has done wonders for my influence, but has had a substantial drawback: Many of my ideas are used by other scholars without credit or citation. We compete for research support, and in that competition I get no credit or acknowledgement whatsoever for any contributions I make. That’s a cost I’ve been willing to pay for what I do, but if we expect more young academics to share their ideas broadly, we’re going to need to change the culture of research funding to recognize their contributions appropriately.

My favorite part of the interview is the last question, which asked Fitzpatrick to give advice about new models of publication to a junior faculty member, librarian, and university provost, respectively.

Finally, to the provost: understand that scholarly communication is a core responsibility of the university so fundamental to the university mission, in fact, that it must be thought of as part of the institutions infrastructure, not as a revenue center. And every university must develop some kind of plan for scholarly communication. If you leave disseminating the work of your faculty exclusively to corporate publishers, corporations will profit from it at your institutions expense. Instead, invest in the structures that will get your facultys work into broader circulation not least because those structures will help you make clear to the concerned public why the university continues to matter today.

I’m going to append to this post the first link to my entry in the Anthropologies project: “What’s wrong with anthropology?” where I discuss my own perspective on these problems. Needless to say, I think things need to change. I expect the change in scholarly communication to be highly specific to each academic field, as what works for cultural anthropology will not be the same as what works for genetics or English. But new approaches will be digital, and that means a university may find much more ability to support multiple approaches than is possible with print. The tools to support varied forms are already available, if universities would support and extend them, they could capture much of the need for academic communication.