A (Really) Modest Proposal

The Modern Language Association has come out with its report on scholarship for tenure and promotion, and it encourages universities to stop “fetishizing” the book. Inside Higher Ed recaps the problem in a nutshell.

Young scholars need to publish books to get jobs and tenure. University presses can’t afford to publish books any more and are raising the bar for publication. Libraries don’t have money to buy the books the presses do publish, forcing the presses to make more cuts, making it still more difficult for young scholars to win tenure.

The question of whether anyone wants to read these books isn’t even in the formula.

The MLA is making the sensible recommendation that other kinds of publications (including digital projects) should count as scholarship. But while the report examines economic pressures facing university presses and libraries, and argues institutions should provide subventions to support publishing, open access is not even raised. Valuing “scholarship in new media” is, but as if it is a new genre, not a model already used extensively elsewhere to provide access to scholarly work at relatively low cost to a wider market. It seems unimaginative to ask institutions to provide subventions for books that will come out in a print run of 250 or less when there are other options for making that research available much more widely.

The MLA has started to wake up to the fact the economics of scholarly publishing have changed, but its proposals seem curiously modest – particularly when their survey shows English PhDs haven’t actually had much trouble getting tenured. They just can’t get tenure-track jobs.

Author: 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.

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