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Shedding light on academic press

Although most professors at Duke are finding the complications in publishing only slightly problematic, the situation is bordering on a crisis throughout higher education.

This is the first in a three-part series about Duke University Press.

Publish or perish. That’s the standard by which major universities have long measured their faculty, and the publishing of research has set up a complex culture of promotion—both of professors’ career tracks and universities’ national reputation.

But within the complicated economy of academic presses, researchers in the humanities are discovering that peer-reviewed monographs—expansive works written by one author and evaluated by scholars—are increasingly inclined to perish. Although most professors at Duke are finding the complications in publishing only slightly problematic, the situation is bordering on a crisis throughout higher education.

Most experts agree that there are two convoluted catalysts of the current printing crunch. When chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders first started to sprout up across the nation, they would buy books from trade and university publications. But as sales for academic books failed to generate profit, the stores began to substantially scale back—almost to the point of buying nothing—their purchases from university presses, even elite ones like Duke University Press.

The second obstacle universities and their faculty are now trying to overcome stems from an increased strain on research libraries. Because of rising costs in journal subscriptions, Duke’s libraries spend only 29 percent of their collections budget on monographs, according to library statistics from the 2003-04 fiscal year. The libraries, in fact, spend almost 10 times the amount of money on technology and services they do on actual books.

Science journals specifically have also put the pressure on libraries, as some cost nearly $100,000 for a single year’s batch of titles. Some publishers also require universities to buy multiple journals at a time, another complication that academia is seeking to sort out.

“There’s a backlash against this bundling concept,” said Deborah Jakubs, director of collections services for the Perkins System Libraries. “The ability to collect based on the needs of any particular university or particular library is out of the hands of the librarians. If you’ve got to buy this product or nothing... you can’t use that money for anything else basically.”


Sorting out the money mess

From B&N to science journals to tech overhead, humanities professors are finding more obstacles in publishing their work. Junior faculty who need at least one monograph in print to obtain tenure encounter even more problems as university presses are reluctant to invest in first-time authors.

Only a select number of universities have esteemed presses, and even elite institutions like Brown and Vanderbilt universities are without their own publishing services. But with professors from these institutions using other universities’ presses, some believe schools without their own publishing capabilities should pay a fee to universities that do. Provost Peter Lange, however, said this tax on the press-less would never be instituted to fund Duke University Press.

“Unfortunately, they are always operating in a market context and that affects the decision making. Nonetheless you would never want to create that kind of system,” Lange said. “Why would you punish, so to speak, or make difficult publication for faculty members because their schools didn’t want to do something?

“It’s probably an infringement on the basic marketplace of ideas, but it’s one we’ve lived with for many years and it’s now more constrained than it was.”

One hotly debated possible solution lies in subventions—financial allotments factored into professors’ contracts designated to support the publishing of their books. Less than half a dozen schools currently provide subventions, which theoretically lessen the financial risks a publisher takes on. Duke does not employ a subvention system, but administrators have not ruled out its future use.

While detractors claim a press could print a book that would be otherwise unworthy of publication and that presses would use the system for profit, Kenneth Wissoker, editor-in-chief of Duke University Press, said the relatively small subvention stipend is “not enough to make you publish something you wouldn’t publish.”

“No one is making money on publishing books,” he said. “What you’re trying to do is not lose money or lose a controlled amount of money. What the subvention does is allow you to not be so worried that a book in a particular field is going to lose more money than you can afford to lose, and maybe it will bring it up to the amount of money that you could more reasonably lose.”

Cathy Davidson, vice provost for interdisciplinary affairs (and Wissoker’s wife), sees subventions as a way for schools without presses to indirectly fund the universities that do.

“There’s lot of different models that could work,” Davidson said. “One model is that every time someone publishes a university press book, it is assumed their university helps subsidize the cost of the book. That’s probably the fairest model. Right now, there are people at many, many, many different universities publishing books and not every university has [a press]. This would be a model that would spread the costs out.”

While the process may be academic to administrators, subventions have a real effect on those attempting to publish. Younger faculty have been especially vocal in their support of a subvention safety net.

“I think it’s something that universities need to address, particularly with their non-tenured faculty,” associate professor of English Ian Baucom said. “I have a sense that it would not be a bad idea for universities that require book publication for tenure to provide the financial support to make that possible.”


Opening space for the sciences

David Beratan, chair of the chemistry department, said chemistry scholars have not yet found major difficulties in publishing their work. Part of this advantage is greater reliance on journal publishing than on monographs, which are few and far between in the natural sciences.

“I’d say because of the range of prestige of journals—it’s really a continuum from extremely prestigious to not-so-prestigious—you can usually find a level where your work is published,” Beratan said.

In the meantime, there are some ideas for lowering journal costs. One popular concept is “open-access” publishing, which is part of the ideology that knowledge created by universities should be available for all to access. While many other science publications are owned by corporate conglomerates that can drive up costs, “open-access” publishers do not seek profit; this is similar to how monographs are published in the university press system, where profits are a luxury rather than a goal.

“[Open publication] is getting a lot of publicity because it basically puts the cost of publishing on the submitter of the paper,” the libraries’ Jakubs said. “There’s a lot of debate about open access. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t get two or three articles saying ‘open access is good,’ ‘open access is bad.’”


Pressing online, pressing on

Publishing monographs on the Internet is not yet a serious alternative, but that has not stopped some junior faculty from experimenting with the boundaries of the World Wide Web. Assistant Professor of English Matt Cohen is following the normal route of working for tenure as he researches and writes a monograph. At the same time, Cohen is one of several scholars laboring to archive the works of Walt Whitman on the Internet, a project he views as indicative of the future of academic publishing.

Cohen, echoing the head of the Whitman project, said “this kind of work, even though it was peer review, even though we were always encouraged to write scholarly articles based on our research with the editing... was not likely to get points from the tenure committee, no matter where we were.”

While the University has felt the effects of publishing problems in higher education, Duke professors in general are far from the crisis level. Most scholars agree that by assigning each other’s books in each other’s classes and by instituting some of the suggestions in the works, the publish-or-perish culture will remain at elite research institutions.

Although professors complain that their dissertation students are having to take publishing into consideration when choosing a topic and that researchers in highly specialized fields have difficulties finding academic publishers, publishing still thrives at Duke.

“If university publishing is going to do one book or 10 books... if they’re going to go from 10 to one, they’re going publish the book written by the person that teaches at Duke University,” said Maureen Quilligan, chair of the English department. “It’s because we’re probably better, we’re more competitive.”


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