Title

In Praise of University Presses

Who else will publish the research we all need?

November 4, 2019
 
 

All too often I hear a couple of falsehoods slung around carelessly.

  • Nobody reads scholarly books because they’re self-indulgent and impenetrable, used only for tenure and promotion
  • Students don’t read books anymore.

These pronouncements are often made by people who purport to think critically, but if you ask for evidence for those claims, you’ll get, “Well, I mean, duh. Everyone knows …” followed by anecdotal examples of jargon-laden writing or vague slurs about millennials (which is funny because faculty are more likely to be millennials than their students and besides, pigeonholing people into birth-year stereotypes is intellectually lazy).

I suspect what underlies the first falsehood is frustration about out-of-control demands for faculty “productivity” measured by publications, fueled by the increasing use of contingent labor in the academy and the hypercompetition it has generated. People feel more pressed to produce and disciplines become more specialized and splintered, and for-profit publishing behemoths are happy to oblige by publishing narrowly focused books and journals that carry such high prices very few people will ever have access to them, which is considered fine because very few people could understand them, anyway. It’s incredibly wasteful of money and human talent, but it’s not true that all scholarship is in this category.

What underlies the second falsehood is the kind of frustration teachers have always had with their students coupled with changes in how information is created and shared that influences how students do the things that perennially frustrate their teachers. Before the internet, the easiest way to write a paper the night before it was due was to grab a handful of books from the library’s shelves, copy some quotes and stitch them together with a hazy thesis. Now it’s easier to grab a handful of articles from a library database, copy some quotes and stitch them together with a hazy thesis. Given the same incentives but a different path of least resistance, you won’t see as many books in a bibliography, but that has nothing to do with whether students will read books.

So if faculty have incentives to write lots of stuff quickly and students do, too, you might draw the wrong conclusions. But students are simply doing what they’ve always done and will read books with pleasure given the right conditions. Likewise, lots of scholars write well for a wide audience (and also write highly specialized stuff -- and there’s nothing wrong with that). As evidence, I submit the catalogs of university presses. Here’s a sampling:

(Note: if you have Privacy Badger installed on your browser, and you should, you may have to temporarily disable it to see the slideshow.)

I just browsed through the list of nonfiction books I’ve read recently that have meant the most to me. The majority have been published by university presses, and they were both compelling for a nonspecialist and well written in spite of (or because of) the intellectual heft behind them. I’m kind of lazy. I wouldn’t have read them if it wasn't a pleasure. These books might have succeeded in the trade publishing marketplace, but maybe not, or they may have been altered beyond recognition in the process. That’s one of the reasons university presses matter -- they publish books we may not realize we need because they aren't driven only by the marketplace. University presses take risks that commercial presses might avoid for economic reasons or for fear of backlash -- the University of Minnesota, for example, published a book about child sexuality that trade publishers wouldn’t touch, and got condemned for it by right-wing talk show hosts and politicians who hadn’t actually read the book. Though university presses often have a trade line to pay the bills, they don't publish celebrity bios or political jeremiads that would fall apart if fact-checked, as the Big Five trade publishers are happy to do. Unlike for-profit academic and scientific conglomerates like Wiley, Springer Nature and Taylor and Francis, university presses are experimenting with ways to make research open access without using that move to preserve high profit margins, For one thing, they don’t have high profit margins to preserve. For another, they are much more closely aligned with the value of scholarship, not just the shareholder value that can be wrung from perverse incentives.

Count me a fan of university presses. Let’s stand up for them when they’re threatened, but let’s also make sure we don’t count them out when -- in reality -- they’re thriving.

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