Hostages

In a Chronicle article, publishers at university presses weigh in on the MLA report we talked about earlier – the one that says maybe English professors shouldn’t be required to have published books with university presses in order to get tenure. (To which my immediate personal response was “no duh!”)

What’s troubling, though, is that the blame keeps being passed around. Professors blamed presses for not publishing their work. Presses blamed professors for using book publication as the filter for tenure, rather than actually assessing the work of their colleagues themselves. But turns out it’s librarians that are to blame. Sanford Thatcher, director of the Penn State UP and soon-to-be president of the American Association of University Presses told the Chron –

the report fails to address fully just how much power those libraries wield over presses and scholars. “It all goes back to librarians and their preferences,” he says. “We’re all held hostage to the way those librarians operate.”

I don’t know what that means. That quote comes on the heels of a critique by another publisher that, when universities require that dissertations be put online, its hard to sell books based on those dissertations. So is the problem that libraries tend to support open access? (Which, by the way, means we support scholarly communication that doesn’t make us gatekeepers or powerful brokers.) Admittedly, the editorial process dissertations go through on the way to becoming books can make them better – tighter, more focused, more accessible. But in most cases is it really worth it to sell copies of the improved book to a few hundred libraries – or to make the rougher version available to all?

Or is “the way those librarians operate” simply that, as journal subscriptions and electronic databases eat our flattened budgets, we buy fewer books? That’s not our preference. Sure, we have more demands on our budget and our space than before, but we’re not anti-book. (Are we?) It’s just that we don’t have enough budget and it’s much harder to get faculty on board to cancel journal or database subscriptions than to simply not buy as many books.

So it seems we have a hostage situation. But which of us is hostage to which? And when is a negotiator going to show up?

posted by Barbara Fister

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

6 thoughts on “Hostages

  1. Since I am the target of this criticism, allow me the opportunity to respond. It appears that my quotation has, in some quarters, been interpreted as anti-librarian. I can understand how such a misreading can occur when the context is a short article in a place like the Chronicle, where subtleties usually get flattened out. But let me say what I said yesterday to a fellow press director who also misread the quote:

    You’re taking this out of context. Anyone who reads the article will see that it applies specifically to the decisions that librarians make not to buy books based on dissertations, which (according to a statistic Helmut Schwartz from YBP gave me years ago) resulted in a reduction of 40% of such books being ordered by libraries through their approval plans. This is how I explained the problem in an article titled “The Future of Book Publishing in Political Theory” in this month’s issue of PS (the newsletter of the APSA):

    More universities (including Penn State) in the past few years have joined the movement associated with the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD), founded at Virginia Tech in the mid-1990s, which has the noble goal of making dissertations in the future more readily accessible worldwide for scholarly use through the Internet. Meanwhile, ProQuest (formerly UMI) has encouraged submission of dissertations in electronic form, and a number of universities (like Penn State) have mandated that all dissertations be submitted as eTDs in the future. With graduate students having few options to opt out of this kind of system, they may find that as junior faculty they have limited their opportunities for publishing revised versions of their dissertations as their first books. Libraries, which can readily tap into the NDLTD network and can subscribe to the ProQuest database, may think twice about spending scarce resources on books when they know that they can access the original dissertations either through the NDLTD or ProQuest. In fact, as reported by Yankee Book Peddlar, there are a substantial number of libraries that instruct the vendors who handle their approval plans to inspect newly published books to find out if they started as dissertations and, if they did, to exclude them from their orders. At the very least, the desirability of substantially revising a dissertation to turn it into a book has now become a necessity, and junior faculty should not be surprised at being queried on the nature and extent of revision before an editor will invite submission of their manuscripts. I issued a warning to this effect in a letter-to-the-editor of PS: Political Science & Politics (January 2006, p. 1), the APSA’s main medium for communicating with its membership.

    It doesn’t help, of course, that ProQuest recently announced an agreement to sell its dissertations through Amazon.

    This is indeed a matter that librarians control. I’m not aware of any faculty or department chairs instructing or urging librarians not to purchase monographs deriving from dissertations. In fact, quite the contrary. But I can also understand why some librarians are adopting this policy. After all, with funds for monograph purchases so limited, they have to make hard choices, and this is one way of cutting the cake. Still and all, this pattern does impose extra burdens on junior faculty and on presses that want to publish the best work coming from the up-and-coming scholars.

    P.S. I think the AAUP might be able to help measure how serious a problem this is if we all agreed to make a separate count of dissertation-based books we publish when we supply information for the AAUP annual statistics on titles published. We do this now for some other categories, like translations.

    I would also point you to a very interesting post today on Lib-License by Colin Steele from Australia, which ends with this paragraph:
    “As mentioned in our DEST report all elements need to be linked in
    the scholarly communication process including innovation
    outcomes,, but have been rarely addressed as such. Engaging the
    academic community in ownership of the process is essential. The
    signs in 2007, for whatever reason, are a little more optimistic
    than they were, ie in addressing the issues holistically rather
    than simply reacting to a ‘serials cancellation crisis’.”

    That is my point exactly: what librarians decide to do with their book budgets, in light of the availability of ETDs, has a major impact on junior faculty’s ability to publish their first books, which in turn affects the system of P&T and which then has a feedback effect on the production of new scholarship, etc. Each part of the university is acting “rationally,” but in isolation; the consequence for the system as a whole, however, is counterproductive. I specifically address the dissertation problem in the ninth paragraph of my 1997 essay, “Thinking Systematically about Scholarly Communication” given at a conference co-sponsored by ARL: http://www.arl.org/scomm/epub/papers/thatcher.html. If you read this, you’ll better understand “where I’m coming from.”

    We’re all in this boat together, and we need to work together to make sure we don’t all sink!

  2. Thank you so much for commenting. I didn’t mean it as a criticism so much as honestly not being sure from the article if you were referring specifically to dissertations or to librarian behavior in general. As I’ve said elsewhere, librarians are not always thoughtful about the impact of the decisions we make. And I couldn’t agree more that we need to work together to make sure we don’t sink.

    On another note, I’m not sure why young scholars whose dissertations are available to the world online are feeling they are being stymied by this practice. Yes, it may mean that a book that is very similar is a tough sell, but their ideas are already out there. If tenure and promotion committees didn’t see a book version of their dissertation as more valuable than the dissertation text (which is partly what the MLA is talking about – not requiring a book for tenure, or “fetishization of the book” as they say) then what, apart from the (admittedly significant) editorial improvement is gained? It seems a very expensive way to produce a somewhat better version of a text that already has a much wider audience. And then presses could focus on scholarship that adds more to the record, not simply an improved version of something already out there that someone needs for tenure, not for readers or the scholarly record.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts – and I apologize if it seemed I was attacking you. I’m really just trying to figure this out.

  3. Thanks for the clarification! I also mis-read your comments, but I do think there are some issues still here.

    First, while you may have not meant your comments to be “anti-librarian” (and I believe you), I have attended a handful of publisher programs aimed at teaching faculty over the past few years that have been – either openly, or implicitly.

    I have been concerned, in particular, by comments I have heard made for faculty audiences that specifically target some of the core arguments in favor of open access. We really are “all in this together,” and I can only imagine the confusion that results when busy members of the teaching faculty are given conflicting information about SC issues from their equally respected (I hope!) colleagues in presses and libraries. We need to approach scholarly communications instruction (for current and future faculty, as well as for campus administrators) in a coordinated fashion or else the impact of very critical messages about our collective future will be lost.

    Second, as a former collection manager, I know that I always made a distinction between a monograph that was basically a re-packaged dissertation, and one that originated as a dissertation [consider the difference between the dissertations written by Lawrence Veysey and Kenneth Teitelbaum, and the books they eventually became: “The Emergence of the American University” (U Chicago Press, 1965) and “Schooling for Good Rebels” (Temple U Press, 1993). The former can easily be replaced by digital dissertations, while the latter cannot).

    As for me, my dissertation is available freely as an ETD, but I still got 2 peer-reviewed journal articles and one published Proceedings paper out of it 🙂

  4. These comments are an excellent example of much-needed communication among librarians and university publishers.

    As a former university press editor, now a librarian starting a Center for Digital Publishing at the NCSU Libraries, I have several perspectives on these issues. I completely agree that we’re all in this together, and while I don’t want any of my colleagues to “sink,” I would like to suggest that we broaden our conversation. For me, our joint goal is to facilitate better scholarly communication–both better scholarship and more effective distribution of it.

    The exchange above about dissertations and their potential transformation into books is focused more narrowly, on the impact of digital scholarship on the press’s bottom line. While it is valuable to understand those complex interactions, to spend much time there strikes me as unhelpful. Long-term trends clearly indicate that monograph sales will continue to decline. Shoring up a business model based on the market for specialized scholarship is not, in my opinion, the primary task. (And I realize that it’s easy for me to say so, given that my salary no longer depends on that market!)

    What is the primary task? Why not put our efforts into tapping the combined skills of librarians and publishers to transition to more efficient means of scholarly communication? In my still-hazy vision, this would involve taking advantage of the ease of online distribution, moving away from efforts at selling scholarly books to a retail market, recognizing what it costs to shape and develop scholarship as well as to collect and point readers to it, and having libraries and publishers collaborate on those tasks. This will require a good deal of re-education among ourselves, as well as demonstrating to faculty that digital scholarship is tenure-worthy, and to university leadership that its creation, distribution, and preservation is efficient and worth paying for.

    I am not suggesting that the presses should sink — rather, that their energy be put into improving scholarship rather than chasing after its ever-diminishing markets. One of the biggest challenges of this will be finding ways to pay for what university publishers do. But I suggest that it is not helpful to help them pay for printing books that are warehoused and shipped a few at a time to far-flung customers.

    This is a very short comment on an enormous project, not intended to denigrate any of the important efforts already underway (at Sandy Thatcher’s Penn State, for one). I’d be interested to hear what others think.

  5. I was briefly employed by YBP, and I assume Mr. Thatcher is referring to the nearly legendary Helmut Schwarzer, not Schwartz.

    A few comments:

    1) Libraries have been excluding dissertations on approval for some time–a fact which Thatcher admits in his comment, but fails to mention in the quote from his PS article. Most did not adopt the practice because “more universities…in the past few years have joined the movement associated with the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations.”

    2) Libraries purchase titles they have excluded on approval.

    3) In the big picture neither #1 nor #2 matter.

    I agree that we’re all in this boat together, and I’m glad this conversation is taking place.

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