I’m very honored to join the coterie of Scholarly Kitchen chefs. I’m a regular reader and I’ve learned a lot from my fellow chefs. But, it was only after I joined that I fully realized I was the only person writing from the humanities and social sciences, and the first from the point of view of a university press book program (though, of course, Joe Esposito writes insightfully about them all the time). Because of this unique opportunity, I hope to use this blog to write largely to represent and explain issues key to the world of scholarly publishing I inhabit, while also making links, comparisons, and points of similarity and difference to chefs who occupy different kitchens.
There are a lot of practices and prescriptions for academic publishing that assume all publications are like STM ones, or all are basically alike. Those mistaken assumptions have big consequences. They can undermine well-intended but unsustainable models for open access or lead to ill-devised modes of evaluating scholars by employing impact factors or journal ranking in fields in which they make little sense. I’ll try to bring out some of the differences apparent from where I stand, while attempting not to replicate such generalizations in the other direction.
One of the most marked differences is in the relation between research and publication. At Duke University Press we publish several math journals, and, through Project Euclid, distribute many more. My journals colleagues often remark that by the time an article is published in one of the math journals, everyone in the author’s subfield has seen it. The publication is still an important last step for many reasons, including citation, but the reading has already occurred.
A few years ago, Phil Davis wrote a blog post about the delicate balance researchers face between secrecy and sharing. In a recent conversation, David Crotty noted how increasingly rare it is for biomedical researchers to present unpublished research at meetings, most likely out of fear of getting scooped (and how often one sees audience members taking pictures of talk slides or posters).
In either case, the research and the publication have a very close relationship. In humanities and social science, the research itself can be more-or-less concluded five or ten years before the publication. That alone is unremarkable, I suppose. The kicker is that the research can be of minor importance as originally presented or published, compared to the influence of the eventual publication. What gives the work its importance is the author’s argument, the smart and useful understanding they produce. The argument or its interpretive, theoretical framework is usually the feature of a work that makes it widely read in and across fields. It can also be the last element to arrive.
I had a very graphic example of this a few years ago. A book I helped shape from a dissertation through several rounds of peer review and revision over three or four years was finally brought to our faculty board. They liked and approved the book but thought we needed a better title. The title the author and I devised at that last instant became the central claim of the author’s revised introduction. That idea is now what the book and author (now a full professor) are known for. The research itself was available on Proquest and at the author’s university the whole time. There is doubtless more raw information there. But without the argument it is like raw film footage that hasn’t yet been edited to tell a story; of value to only a few researchers in the field. The argument that accompanied the title is what made the book a hit, rather than something that went straight to cable.
Dissertations present much of their author’s research. Cultural anthropologists report back on their fieldwork, describing what they found, analyzing it in the language of the field, offering preliminary insights, and reviewing existing scholarship and putting their work in that context. The literary critic reads a set of texts, exploring each in turn, chapter by chapter. Each scholar is demonstrating to their dissertation committee an ability to perform the core practices of the field. The difference between this kind of object-centered interpretation and having an original argument that can organize and sustain a book is huge.
It’s a rare dissertation that I would send out to reviewers. This isn’t only because of the dissertation features (like a literature review); it’s because the author is usually only at an early point in developing her or his own argument. A major function of peer review in the humanities and social science, especially on these first books, is to encourage the author to develop and own an argument, to center it, to organize the rest of the work more clearly around it. Helpful peer reviewers walk the author through this process step-by-step, suggesting where a paragraph is needed or how different parts of the argument could be articulated together.
This process takes the publication further and further from the research itself. The research is cast in a new role. It is not merely filling in a gap in knowledge (and of course many humanities objects — a work of Kant or set of novels — are already well known) or demonstrating the scholar’s ability to perform the work of the field. The research provides its value as the grounds for making a scholarly argument in a publication that gains traction in and beyond the field.
It’s an odd but telling mistake when libraries make a budgetary decision not to buy books based on dissertations for just this reason. What could have more distance from research to book than something that started as a dissertation? A senior scholar’s fifth book is far more likely to be presented in a recognizably nascent form in a journal article than an author’s first book would be found in a thesis.
Publication in the humanities and social sciences isn’t the reporting of research. It’s the production of a compelling argument, based on a combination of research and interpretation. Those in a field may watch a scholar develop an argument in talks, but it generally only comes into being in writing, whether print or digital, journal article or book. It’s not the recording of research but the forming of the argument that takes time and has lasting value. That means we need different mechanisms for editorial review, process and publishing than the sciences might need.
I am not arguing that we must maintain the same forms of scholarship or scholarly publishing. What I am arguing is that the differences between how we publish and why in different fields must be kept visible if we are to support those differences as we move to new forms. For the humanities and interpretive social sciences we need to start with a realistic account of the value of argument and its relation to research.