Here Comes the Flood

How to handle the constant pileup of scholarly publications? Scott McLemee takes a look at two alternatives.

January 21, 2009

In the January issue of The Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, tries to imagine a world in which "the well-wrought, slowly gestated essay" has replaced the monograph as the gold standard for scholarship in the humanities.

Some of his argument seems familiar. For one thing, Waters tried out an earlier version as a keynote address to the Council of Editors of Learned Journals when they met at MLA in 2007, where I heard it. For another thing, one idea in it came from me: the daydream of a world in which people would be penalized for publishing too much and too early in their careers. This is among the most cherished of my crackpot ideas. By now Waters has doubtless been subjected to some variation of it at lunch, probably more than once.

Of course there would be occasions when some wunderkind had so many ideas that brisk and frequent publication became a matter of urgent necessity. But that would be rare. A strictly enforced set of proscriptions would add excitement to things. Picking up a book or journal, you would know that it had involved some risk. Scholars might begin to publish pseudonymously, if they felt it was absolutely urgent to get a piece of research out. The spirit of adventure would probably be good for people's prose as well.

Well, someone has to draw up the floor plans for utopia. I found the page proofs of Waters's article while trying to clear my desktop before the start of the new administration. (Emphasis on "trying.") The title of the essay is "Slow Writing; or, Getting Off the Book Standard: What Can Journal Editors Do?" Another version ran as a Views piece here at Inside Higher Ed last year -- and if you missed it, as I did at the time, I'd recommend a look.

The alternative to utopia is not pretty, but a lot more probable.

The fundamental problem with the approach that Waters takes in his essay -- and in his little book Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship (University of Chicago Press, 2004) -- is that it overlooks the essentially compulsive nature of the human urge to produce and accumulate garbage. Waters seems to assume that the production of badly written monographs is an unfortunate failing of the system that could be fixed if different standards were adopted. But this is wrong.

The system works just fine. Unreadable works are unreadable precisely because nobody was ever supposed to read them in the first place. Communication is not the point; accumulation is. The producer of text accumulates credit for publication, while the glory of an ambitious research collection is that it is complete, whether or not any given work is used. The beauty of e-publishing is that it reduces the amount of physical space required to store all the unread material.

As it happens, all of this was predicted almost 50 years ago by Hal Draper, a figure best known (at least among people who know this kind of thing) for numerous definitive works in the field of Marxology. Draper also translated literary works by Goethe and Heinrich Heine, and wrote a widely circulated book about the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. I've heard that when the Sixties catchphrase "Don't trust anyone over the age of thirty" first caught on in Berkeley, people sometimes added "except for Hal Draper."

Draper's day job was as an acquisitions librarian at the University of California at Berkeley. His experience inspired him to write a short story called "MS Fnd in a Lbry," first published in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1961 and currently available online.

The anthropologist from Andromeda who narrates this piece of library-science fiction reconstructs the efforts of civilization to handle the accumulation of books generated as it spread throughout the galaxy. Libraries the size of a solar system were not enough to handle the human urge to churn out books. After billions of years of accumulation, a technological breakthrough allowed all of the material to be stored, in subatomic format, in a single drawer. Not to give too much away, but it isn't always easy to remember where you filed things.


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