Letter to the Editor
On "The Opportunity Costs of Remaining a Book Discipline"
Marc Becker, October 2015
To the Editor:
I agree with Lara Putnam (Perspectives on History, April 2015) that tenure guidelines should be more flexible, but the specifics of her suggestions are problematic. Advocating the replacement of a book with six or seven peer-reviewed articles is well meaning but ultimately naïve and misguided.
Without stating so, Putnam’s proposed changes to tenure guidelines apply primarily to research or elite universities, but most historians are employed at teaching-intensive institutions with quite different expectations. The history department at my teaching-intensive state university, for example, requires only one published article or book chapter, and that requirement can be substituted with either a conference presentation or other professional recognition.
Few seven-chapter dissertations could easily be published as seven quality peer-reviewed essays. History dissertations are not written as a collection of discrete essays, but as a conceptual whole. It is difficult to extract more than two or three high-quality essays from most dissertations, and often the best article-length publications are a result of related research left out of the dissertation.
Putnam also underestimates what is involved in achieving seven peer-reviewed publications. Those with the proper pedigree enjoy an inside track to publication, but others are subjected to a more rigorous review process. With a high number of submissions to journals, it is not uncommon for editors to reject essays from unknown or non-prestigious authors with only a cursory review.
Articles sent out for peer review inevitably come back with requirements for revision, and even after making those revisions the editors may very well still reject the submission, which means starting the process over with another journal. I have been told that a standard rule of thumb is to attempt publication with seven journals before tossing in the towel. That means possibly going through 49 journals with multiple review cycles before realizing seven publications. Not only is that process extremely time intensive in the face of looming tenure deadlines, but the level of constant and repeated rejection necessary to achieve that goal wears on even the most battle-worn scholar. In comparison, the energy and time required for a book publication, even if it requires shopping a prospectus to multiple presses, can be far less onerous.
Many institutions, including my own, are constantly raising tenure expectations. As a result, reputable journals commonly receive more submissions than they can publish, which both significantly delays time to publication and pushes good research into marginal journals. We already know about the explosion of questionable “open source” pay-to-publish journals. Putnam’s recommendation would require tenure candidates to publish more in such journals, which would both sacrifice the candidate’s reputation as well as relegate research to publications with very low readership. As a result, much of a person’s research would be less discoverable and less read than a book.
Enterprising scholars can find more valuable sources of feedback than through the demeaning and discouraging revise/resubmit/reject sequence of journal submissions. We often try out our new ideas at conferences. Seminars, workshops, and reading groups provide supportive and encouraging environments. A scholar who submits a book proposal without ever previously receiving feedback on it is simply not actively and intellectually engaged in the profession.
Scholars work in different ways, and some historians find it easier to write article-length essays, while for others books provide a more natural venue to express ideas. Although journal articles may be more easily discovered and downloaded through online databases, as we know, a scholar’s reputation and arguments through a book publication spread even among those who have not read the book. For many of us, the monograph is still a valuable instrument.
I agree we need to allow for more creativity in defining tenure guidelines, but simply breaking up dissertations into articles for publication in the “right” journals is not a good alternative. More flexibility in embracing pedagogical publications, the digital humanities, public history, and unusual styles would be a better path for broadening the influence and relevance of our discipline.
Yes, the publishing industry is facing a crisis and likely will change fundamentally within most of our lifetimes. We need to think seriously about how to face this challenge. Unfortunately, Putnam’s suggestion to replace books with journal submissions is simply not a realistic or viable alternative.
Marc Becker, Truman State University
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