Can the Monograph Survive?

Professors and librarians consider the advantages of digital, the reluctance of many tenure committees to look beyond print, and the possibility of paying the costs of publishing works by young scholars.

October 10, 2014
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WASHINGTON – The first four chapters prove the scholar’s done the work, and the next two chapters – the ones “people might actually read” – present the argument. Elsewhere and in between are the reworking of the author’s dissertation and implicit tenure pitch.

That’s how Timothy Burke, professor and chair of history at Swarthmore College, described the scholarly monograph here Thursday during a forum on its future sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries. Half-jokingly, Burke said of how authors view their books: “I prize this because only five people in the world understand it … We all know it.”

Despite being so easy to criticize – it’s static, expensive to publish and inaccessible to all but a small few – Burke said, “the monograph is still the standard” to which junior scholars aspire and on which tenure bids often hinge.

So what to do about it? Burke and other speakers pointed to the digital monograph as a remedy to higher education’s stubborn grip on an increasingly obsolete form.

“Digital has the capacity to call us back to why we said were going to do this in the first place,” Burke said.

For Stefan Tanaka, professor of communication and director of the Center for the Humanities at the University of California at San Diego, that means working collaboratively and sharing history in new, dynamic ways. He’s currently working on a digital monograph about 1884 Japan that seeks to present a nonlinear version of events, and a story that’s “problem-based,” rather than focused on a single place.

The desired outcome is something closer to life, and that better reflects the “pleasure” a historian feels about his or her work – before trying to fit it into a conventional monograph, Tanaka said. On a wide scale, that has profound implications for how information is transmitted going forward.

“In digital work, expert-based work becomes less important, and problems become more important,” Tanaka said. “That changes the authority structure on which our careers and expertise are based.”

Somewhat counterintuitively, however, he added, the historian in this context becomes more important, not less. With the wealth of data now available to the general public, historians don’t just transmit information; they must think critically about how it is best shared with which audiences, and how it intersects with research and teaching.

Laura Mandell, professor and director of the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media and Culture at Texas A & M University, said digital monographs and other projects offer another advantage: they can be corrected. Despite the intellectual heft of the monograph – especially one written by an eminent author or critic – she said, “Monographs are more misleading than you might think.”

Mandell said even respected literary critics make mistakes in their work – errors of interpretation, for example – but due to the static nature of the monograph, it can be decades or more before someone else corrects them. And there’s no guarantee that the published correction will enter the discourse.

Compare that to what Mandell called “virtual learning environments,” in which scholars can collaborate and correct each other’s work in real time. Mallard said there’s a lot to be worked out about these kinds of spaces, such as how they’re reviewed, and who is permitted to comment, and how. (Several audience members expressed concerns about the potential for trolls with Ph.D.s.) But she said she hoped academics would see such environments for what they are, and behave accordingly – no “shooting gallery” approach.

Ultimately, she said, any scholarly format that can’t correct misinformation “cannot adequately serve the needs of scholarship.”

Despite those and other virtues, various speakers said digital monographs faced a major hurdle: tenure and promotion committees. Traditional monographs are still de rigueur for many faculty reviewers. “You’re not going to get them out in public,” Burke said of print-loving traditionalists, “but in private they’ll say ‘What the hell is this ebook bullshit?' "

To address that problem among historians, Burke said, the American Historical Association has formed a committee to help establish how tenure and promotion committees should assess digital projects. Monographs that are traditional in structure but simply published online will be easiest to assess, he said, while at the other end of the "spectrum," projects such as the one Tanaka described will prove more challenging. The committee, on which Burke sits, is also compiling a database of digital humanities experts from within the discipline and without who can help non-expert faculty members with these evaluations. Mandell said she’s been involved in such work for years, offering tenure and promotion committees “equivalencies” to more familiar metrics on which to base their decisions. A given digital work might equal two journal articles, for example, she said. Speakers praised the guidelines the Modern Language Association established two years ago for evaluating digital scholarship.

Tanaka said digital projects face another bias in terms of peer evaluation: single authorship. He said many digital projects have a primary investigator but incorporate the work of many academics. So tenure and promotion committees might give them partial credit for publication. But collaboration doesn’t mean less work, he said, adding that digital projects often are “more than their sum of their parts.”

Other speakers focused on ways to rejuvenate the more traditional monograph. Elliott Shore, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, said the body was working with the Association of American Universities on a proposal that institutions include in a young scholar’s startup package funds to publish his or her monograph with an open-access press. Some may consider the idea similar to a “vanity press,” Shore said. But, he asked, "Are there any university presses who aren't essentially subvened?"

More importantly, he argued, newer scholars need outlets in a publication landscape that is increasingly spare. The humanities also need to be a bigger part of online scholarly conversations, he said. Still, Shore said he wondered if the proposal -- especially in light of the day's conversations -- "goes far enough." He told the librarians in the room that they were the "intellectuals of this new ecosystem," and encouraged them to share feedback and -- along with faculty members -- "take risks" in exploring the future of the monograph.

The Andrew W. Mellon foundation is considering a similar proposal to the one Shore described, in which it would offer "seed funds" to universities to help their junior scholars publish high-quality digital monographs with university presses, said Donald J. Waters, the organization's senior program officer for scholarly communication.

Barbara Kline Pope, president of the Association of American University Presses and director of the National Academies Press, said both ideas were promising. But she urged those present not to underestimate the traditional press’s role in vetting, reviewing and promoting monographs. She compared a “one-off” monograph published online with no press promotion and tracking to a “sad little puppy" at the shelter. University presses, she said, “can get those puppies adopted.”



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