Academic Publishing: What’s the Point?

By now many of you may have read Sarah Kendzior’s piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s new Vitae website entitled “What’s the Point of Academic Publishing.”  She echoes what is these days a fairly common lament about scholarly publishing and academic careerism.  Here is a taste:

In January 2014, creative-writing professor Cathy Day published a rundown of her publications since 2011: 300 pages of a novel, 100 pages of non-fiction, seven essays, two short stories, and 200 blog posts. The blog posts, dedicated to the craft of writing, attracted the most attention, garnering over 160,000 pageviews. Day’s last post was particularly popular: It announced the end of her blog.
“Here’s the thing: this work hasn’t counted much for me as an academic,” she wrote. “Every time I post to this blog, I’m taking time away from my fiction and nonfiction, from work that ‘counts’ for me—both institutionally and personally. Even now, as I write this, I’m not working on my novel and other projects.”
Today, a creative-writing professor is expected to produce more publications than a science professor of 50 years ago. But in other ways, little has changed. Though digital platforms enable scholars to share their ideas with the public, their desire to do so is often held against them. Academics are pressured to produce an ever greater amount of work for an inherently limited audience.
In order to maintain her professional viability, Day stopped work that she and the public found meaningful—work that directly relates to her role as a teacher—in order to have time to produce work that “counts” to a small number of academics. To “count” is not to spread knowledge, as Day did, or develop new ideas, as Higgs did. To “count” is to preserve your professional viability by shoring up disciplinary norms. In most fields, it means to publish behind a paywall, removed from the public eye—and from broader influence and relevance. To “count” is to conform.
Publishing and labor are two of academia’s most contentious issues, and they are usually debated separately. But when the rate of contingency hires and publications rise together—with the assumption that the latter is a means to avoid the former—they need to be taken as a broader problem: the self-defeating mechanization of scholarship. Scholars are encouraged to sacrifice integrity and ingenuity to careerism that does not reward them with a career.
As most of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are aware, I have been a strong advocate of historians writing for a general public.  But I also realize that not all historians are called to this kind of public work.  We need academic publishing (whether it continues to be done in traditional print form or move online is another matter).  Dissertation writers and monograph authors offer us carefully researched and detailed studies that provide the building blocks for larger synthetic works that have a better potential of reaching public audiences, influencing school textbooks, and informing public debate.