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Publishing crunch hurts younger faculty

Financial constraints at university presses across the country may mean more challenges for humanities faculty seeking to publish books as a prerequisite for tenure, but administrators say the University is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Many university presses have struggled mightily in recent years. Ken Wissoker, editor of Duke University Press, blamed the publishers' financial difficulty primarily on the dwindling market for scholarly books at libraries and bookstores--many of which are experiencing financial crunches themselves.

In the past, said Provost Peter Lange, approximately 800 libraries regularly purchased every book published by leading university presses. But that number has dwindled to 250 libraries in recent years, depriving the presses of a major source of income.

The result of this decrease in demand has been a more competitive environment where more academics are struggling to get published, particularly those seeking tenure. Assistant professors in the humanities are generally expected to publish at least one book as a basic requirement for tenure, Lange said.

He said the publishing squeeze is worst for junior faculty members because their books--often based on their dissertations--are generally targeted at a smaller audience and are therefore less appealing for a publisher seeking big sales.

"It's definitely making it more difficult," said Assistant Professor of English Robert Mitchell, who has not yet published a monograph.

Across the country, people have called for departments and university administrations to modify their tenure expectations in response to this changing climate.

Last May, Stephen Greenblatt, president of the Modern Language Association of America, sent an open letter suggesting that universities "rethink what we need to conduct responsible evaluations of junior faculty members."

Lange said Duke was waiting for more information, particularly an MLA study, before rushing to change tenure standards.

"We're nowhere near moving in any action proposals, but we are thinking about it," said Lange, who broached the topic at a meeting of 10 university provosts last summer and at a Sept. 26 meeting of the Academic Council.

Maureen Quilligan, chair of the English department, said Greenblatt's suggestion to rethink tenure standards is largely inapplicable to Duke, where expectations for professors are higher than at most universities.

"One should always want to have someone with a book," Quilligan said. "Do I expect people to get tenure without a book? No! Ever!"

Despite hopes that scholarly publishing will recover, the trend in the industry has been toward consolidating and even eliminating humanities publishing. Stanford University Press, once an industry leader, has all but eliminated its humanities list, Wissoker said. And Assistant Professor of English Matt Cohen said the University of California at Berkeley will soon be shutting down its literature list.

A number of administrators and faculty have suggested exploring electronic and online publishing in response to the shrinking market for book publishing.

However, Lange said relying on electronic publishing is a long way off. "The difficulty is that what makes publishing valuable is the peer review. A manuscript [considered for print] is sent to the university press; it's sent to eminent people in the field," he said. "E-publishing doesn't have that organized system."


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