Scholarly Books

The Coin of the Realm of Knowledge

by Peter Givler, Executive Director, AAUP
This article originally appeared in
The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, 1999.

Scholars, the press, and publishers have expended a lot of time, angst, and ink in recent years worrying about diminishing support for scholarly publishing.

To take just one recent example: Andre Schiffrin, writing in The Chronicle last summer, argued that meager university support forces university presses to focus on the familiar and shun the controversial. If that continues, he said, universities and their presses risk violating a fundamental public trust: pursuing and disseminating knowledge, be it culturally unfashionable, politically unpopular, or commercially unprofitable.

That charge deserves serious thought. Have university presses been compromised by university cutbacks? Yes. Are presses less willing to publish new and controversial ideas as a result? I don’t think so. In my opinion, the damage is worse than that.

In the past, university support freed presses from the need to completely recover the costs of publishing from sales, and allowed them to publish books primarily selected for academic merit. Recently, though, support has lagged behind inflation, while the costs of publishing have ratcheted steadily up. As a result, many presses now question their ability to publish books of high scholarly worth but low commercial value.

University presses aren’t alone in feeling the effects of reduced funding: Everyone in scholarly communications is being squeezed. Research libraries have watched their purchasing budgets dwindle, while the portion they earmark for scholarly books has gone down as journal prices have risen. According to the Association of Research Libraries, in 1986, the ratio of its members expenditures for books to those for journals was 44 per cent to 56 per cent; in 1998, 28 per cent to 72 per cent. Locked in a vicious spiral, publishers attempt to recover costs from dwindling markets by charging more, as the price of scholarly books balloons past the reach of all but the most determined buyers.

All that means that university presses are finding it difficult to fulfill their basic mission. The mission under threat, though, is not publishing controversial books, but publishing what—for university presses, at least—has always been the ordinary and familiar: the book-length reports of scholarly research on a closely focused topic in the humanities or social sciences. And it’s far harder to generate sympathy for that than for publishing controversial books.

People outside the university find it easy to dismiss scholarly books, criticizing them as pompous academic fol-de-rol: recondite topics, Orphic titles, pedantic references, obscure footnotes, unspeakable style. If such books disappeared tomorrow, who would miss them?

Inside the university, of course, scholarly books are the coin of the realm. In the humanities and social sciences, they are commonly required for tenure and promotion. What is often forgotten in the wave of public derision, however, is that more money and better jobs are personal rewards for professional conduct that affirms the core purpose of universities: the search for knowledge. Viewed one by one, scholarly books are specialized, and often sharply limited in scope. Collectively, they shape the complex, many-storied edifice of what, at any given time, we think we know.

All scholarship is built on the conviction that, while the writing of books may be a lonely activity, the construction of knowledge is anything but. It is a public work-in-progress, a vast collaborative enterprise in which many people sift facts and ideas in a ceaseless quest for significance and meaning.

Nothing about scholarly methodology—respect for facts, commitment to logical argument, acknowledgment of the work of others—guarantees that it will lead unerringly to "Truth." It does insure, though, that the search for truth will take place through a process open to scrutiny and analysis, and that provisional truths, however improbable or speculative they may appear, will nevertheless be anchored to what we already know. For society at large, scholarship is a bulwark against the confusions of error and unsupported opinion, of ideology masquerading as fact, magic as science, and prejudice as theory.

We often identify seminal ideas with books and the people who wrote them—Darwin, Freud, Mead, Arendt—as if those figures had produced by sheer force of individual genius. But we know that none of them worked in a vacuum. Our geniuses may have been smarter—or faster, or luckier, or more ambitious—than others, but the materials that nourished their ideas were already there.

That is why the financial strains on university presses and research libraries deserve concern. They are weakening the entire system of scholarly communications, and its vital substrate of scholarly achievement that nourishes important, groundbreaking work. Financial pressures have already compelled more and more university presses to cut—or abandon—their lists in a small number of fields. University presses refer to those areas as their "endangered species." None of the fields is extinct yet, but the list is growing.

Ten years ago, many thought the Internet would provide the solution: Electronic facsimiles of books would be delivered at virtually no cost to readers virtually anywhere, distribution costs would vanish, and publishing would be liberated from the dead hand of publishers. We’ve learned a lot since then. University presses, often in collaboration with their libraries and generously supported by foundation grants, have searched vigorously for ways to harness the new technologies to make scholarly communications more efficient and more accessible. But so far, we’ve found that electronic publishing has increased the overall cost of scholarly communications, not reduced it.

Publishing electronically can eliminate the cost of manufacturing books as printed and bound objects and greatly reduce the cost of storage and shipping. Unfortunately, those savings, if realized, introduce significant new costs of their own: adding and training staff, upgrading hardware and software, providing new technical services, grappling with fresh questions about contracts, copyrights, licensing, and other legal and business-related issues. Moreover, at least for the time being, the costs of electronic publishing must be added on top of all the existing costs of print publishing. As electronic publishing has waxed, the desire for print hasn’t waned. Thus we face the burden of maintaining two parallel systems for disseminating scholarship.

Most scholars still believe electronic publishing is less prestigious than print and will be given less weight in tenure-and-promotion cases. In addition, most do not want to read even short articles on screen, let alone entire books. Although screen technology and resolution continue to improve, many user studies have shown that, while scholars are increasingly willing to use the Internet for research, they prefer to borrow a copy of a printed book from a library or buy it themselves rather than to print out the text from their P.C.—even when they can do so for free.

Finally, many scholars regard electronic media as inherently unstable and short lived, not suitable for long-term preservation of the scholarly record. Anyone who has had a hard drive fail, or who has had valuable work trashed by a malicious virus, has learned the hard way that electronic files are vulnerable creatures.

One popular idea for easing the stresses on scholarly publishing calls for university presses to publish more books for general audiences—and to use the income from those books to underwrite the cost of publishing scholarship. It’s an attractive theory. For university administrators, it offers the prospect of presses no longer dependent on university support. For university publishers, it holds out the promise of independence from university budgeting processes, with their labyrinthine politics. The theory also has adventurous appeal: taking from the riches of commercial markets to give to poor scholars.

As a practical strategy, though, it has proved shaky. Commercial markets offer potential revenue, but only at increased financial risk: higher advances, larger printings, heavier marketing costs, towering returns, greater discounts, more price resistance, faster shifts in audience interest and taste—and that’s just the beginning of a long and daunting list.
Some university presses—they tend to be the largest, with the best access to capital—-have successfully developed high-quality publishing programs for general audiences. But for many presses, trade publishing has allowed them to do little more than run in place, while at the same time exposing them to a business environment where the losses on one book gone wrong can be catastrophic. University presses have good reason to publish for general audiences, since reaching out to the general public is an important part of the mission of most universities. But financially, publishing for general audiences, in an effort to generate money for scholarly publishing, is a little like playing high-stakes poker to win back what you just lost at blackjack.

Does it make sense for the scholarly world to bet the advancement of knowledge on such gambles?

The cutbacks in university support for scholarly communications haven’t caused a failure of nerve. They have caused a shortage of money—and the web of scholarly knowledge is starting to show rips and tears.

Money for higher education is tight, and everyone in the university suffers from cramped budgets. But budgets set priorities as well as divide resources, and ultimately the question we have to answer is this: Just how important do we believe scholarly communication is? Will we make the investment to maintain it and adapt it to the future, or will we continue to let it struggle, insisting that a system barely able to make ends meet from day to day can absorb the new costs of electronic publishing, becoming in the process less and less able to support serious scholarship in more and more fields, until the whole system sags into terminal decay?

If that happens, society will lose a great deal more than the capacity to publish new and controversial ideas. We will forfeit the background of hard-won facts and closely examined ideas from which new and controversial ideas arise, and against which their real significance can be judged.

Surely the future deserves better from us. Surely we deserve better from ourselves.