The End of the Monograph? Conference Explores Crisis in Publishing

Amy Smith Bell, November 1997

On September 11–12, scholars, librarians, university press officials, and university administrators gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss the status and the future of the scholarly monograph at the conference, "The Specialized Scholarly Monograph in Crisis, or How Can I Get Tenure If You Won't Publish My Book?" Cosponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Association of American University Presses, and the Association of Research Libraries, the conference examined the crisis in monograph publishing in conjunction with a number of issues: the job market for new Ph.D.'s, the current demographics of the professoriate, the role of tenure committees, the economic forces at play in publishing, ever-diminishing library sales, and the development of a two-tiered system of monograph publication—shrinking print versions and experimental electronic versions. Conference participants explored possible solutions to the crisis and opened discussion on the value of the traditional monographic form itself.

Defining the Crisis

"Scholarship is the currency of the academic economy," said Stanley Chodorow, provost of the University of Pennsylvania. As the academy's primary means of scholarly communication, the specialized monograph traditionally has been central to scholars as writers, researchers, and reviewers as well as to tenure committees. But if the monograph plays such a significant role in humanities, why is it in a state of decline? Why are university presses turning away good scholarship? University press officials said that the costly editorial and peer review processes for a typical 125–300 page specialized monograph, coupled with the prospect of fewer than 800 copies in lifetime sales (although one press representative said that even 400–500 sales is optimistic), make monograph publishing an expensive undertaking. Marlie Wasserman, director of Rutgers University Press, said a loss of $10,000–$15,000 is typical for a monograph published in hardcover only ($8,000–$10,000 for those published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback), and "the financial losses for presses are nearly intolerable."

Although many university presses have adopted strategies to cover costs, such as encouraging authors to write original material with classroom use in mind or looking for better written manuscripts that are intended for broader audiences, most presses are publishing fewer monographs than in the past. But what of monographic scholarship that is not currently "marketable"? The conference explored the often conflicting values of the market (measured in sales figures) and those of the academy (measured by the quality of a scholar's contribution to the field, no matter how narrow). Peter Nathan, professor of psychology and acting president of the University of Iowa, raised "the radical notion that dissertation topics increasingly may have to be chosen for their market potential, not simply their scholarly appeal."

The single most contributing factor to this crisis is the loss of library sales, which had been the primary supporters of these small-market books. "Whereas we could once count on selling about 800 copies to libraries worldwide," said Joanna Hitchcock, director of the University of Texas Press, "we are now lucky if we can sell 200." Robert Wedgeworth, university librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explained that while libraries had large acquisition budgets in the 1960s, today "competition is keen and budgets are nonexistent." Wedgeworth also noted the behavioral shift from shelf to online browsing, with technology changing ever more rapidly. He suggested that the separately marketed, separately printed specialized monograph is not going to last; rather, multimedia technologies will continue to be libraries' model of choice. Ultimately, participants said, there are more materials that must be paid for with the same amount of money, and libraries are redefining their missions.

Finding Solutions

The conference also examined the role of university administrators, changing expectations for faculty, and tenure requirements and processes, asking how the academy can strengthen rather than threaten the process of scholarly communication. In response to the decrease in funding for higher education, many university administrators have cut press subsidies and library funding, and many people see the decline of the monograph as a sign that the academy is inhospitable to the humanities. Stephen Humph reys, professor of history and Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, suggested that the monograph crisis is "in reality the crisis of the academic profession. ... And yet it is of course in substantial part our own creation-the ironic result of our success ... in creating an oversupply of very able Ph.D.'s, in striving for greater scholarly productivity among our colleagues, in demanding higher levels of theoretical sophistication." Scholars must subject themselves to scrutiny, said Humphreys, and examine different subjects or approaches for the most appropriate form of dissemination, including articles or serial publications. Several participants cited an increase in other publishing opportunities, such as the explosion in the existence of journals since the 1980s or newer electronic forms of publication.

But will tradition-bound universities modify their expectations, extending what kinds of materials are acceptable for promotion and review? Nathan said the expectations for junior faculty at the University of Iowa have not yet changed, even though junior scholars are finding it harder to get published. However, "less strong departments in less prestigious universities," he said, "will almost certainly have to do so [modify traditional expectations for promotion and tenure]." Some participants questioned the monograph's credentialling function as the "gatekeeper to tenure," calling for a reexamination of its role in review processes altogether. "Books are indeed one measure of a scholar's ability and productivity," said Hitchcock, "but the criteria used to determine the publishability of a manuscript are different from those used to evaluate its quality as a piece of scholarship or the promise of its author as a scholar and teacher."

The Electronic Monograph

The conference also looked at alternative forms of delivery and the possibilities of the online monograph. James Neal, director of the Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University, outlined advantages of the digital environment for housing scholarly material: accessibility, searchability, currency, researchability, interdisciplinarity, multimedia, linkability, and interactivity. Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, pointed to other advantages of the Web: its system of informal recommendation that circulates within scholarly communities, the potential for community building and active collaboration among scholars, and the possibility of presenting multisource, visually rich material, which is very expensive in the print world. In addition, the web encourages the creation and use of "arena publishing," or disciplinary-based spaces in which collections of different kinds of material are located. But if the monograph is to be digitized, continued Lynch, it needs to be reconceptualized. He argued that simply moving the print monograph in its current form to the Internet will not work; the printed book will always be preferred to reading on screen. Lynch touched on other important questions surrounding publishing scholarly material on the Internet: How will credit be allocated, given the collaborative style of discourse that the electronic environment fosters? How will the fixed document exist alongside the "living" document, given the speed at which material can be updated and revised on the Internet and the potential for multiple variations of a single document existing simultaneously? Is the nonlinear nature of the web, in which small chunks of material are viewed one screen at a time, conducive to the traditional scholarly argument? For example, asked Lynch, "What does this do to the standards and practices of writing history?"

Colin Day, director of the University of Michigan Press, urged participants to look at the system-wide impact of any change in the current scheme of disseminating scholarship, warning against simply shifting the costs to another part of the academic system. For example, if university presses shift more of the burden of publishing onto faculty, these costs are seemingly invisible, but they are inefficient from a university's standpoint. "Faculty time not used for teaching or research is a real and major cost to the university," said Day. Sanford Thatcher, director of Pennsylvania State University Press, also stressed "the need to view scholarly communication as a system of many interacting parts if any viable long-term solution to the crisis is to be found." Thatcher expressed concerns about whether Internet accessibility of dissertations will cause them to lose their economic viability, undermining the opportunity of a scholar to publish his or her first book. Others questioned how the peer-review process, the identification of authority, and the preservation of editorial independence and diversity will translate to the electronic publication system. Concerns of security of intellectual property were also touched upon. Also, as Wasserman pointed out, "many of the costs, such as peer review, ads, copyediting, design, rights management, and accounting will not go away if the monograph is put on the Internet."

The conference closed with a discussion of the potential for broader partnerships in scholarly communication as well as a final warning. "We stand poised now at the dawn of a new era in learning where technology, in allowing for innovation in both research and teaching, holds forth tremendous potential for greater productivity," said Thatcher, "But we in universities are not alone in seeing this potential. Commercial firms are gearing up to get into the business in a big way." Raising the analogy of what happened in the postwar period with science, technology, and medical journal publishing—when the academy lost all control to commercial operations because it did not seize opportunities to link scholarly communication and market concerns—the real challenge presented by the conference was to make sure this does not happen in the humanities as well.