University presses as rentiers

By: | Post date: November 11, 2017 | Comments: 6 Comments
Posted in categories: Academia

In days of yore, before computers, books were how knowledge was disseminated. And a knowledge economy had developed in the humanities, that went like this:

  • A humanities scholar got tenure in a university by producing one or more published monographs.
  • Because published monographs are still goods, there had to be suppliers and consumers of the monographs.
  • The consumers were university libraries, which were budgeted to buy monographs.
  • The providers were university presses, which were budgeted to produce monographs.
  • The point of the published monographs was to circulate contributions to knowledge. It was not to satisfy market demand, which would prioritise only certain kinds of knowledge.
  • So this was not a laissez-faire economy of knowledge production, with commercially competitive presses and competing libraries. This was a natural monopoly, and a command economy. The limited print runs involved kept monographs out of the purchasing capability of mere mortals (they cost hundreds of dollars), but the system was considered fit for purpose.
  • As an incidental benefit, the scarcity of the published resources required some gatekeeping from the universities themselves, to guarantee that what was being published was not crap.

Like so much, this economy has been disrupted by electronic media. So while XKCD has just discovered that libraries are the best way of preserving knowledge

—university libraries have gotten out of the buying books business. Their funders (the universities themselves), enthralled by the shininess of digital resources, don’t see the point of funding the purchase of dead trees.

Since there is no longer a natural consumer for print monographs, the providers of print monographs have lost their market. Therefore, they will now only print monographs if they can be guaranteed a market for the monograph outside the vanished university library purchasers: the monographs have to be sellable to the general public. Which means they have to be commercially viable.

Hence the lamentation from an erstwhile assistant at Oxford University Press in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that academics cannot write a book proposal to save themselves, and that they write in unreadable convoluted jargon that the general public would not want to buy.

Ah, but she can help, by helping junior academics write good book proposals and more legible prose.

Now, I will concede that academics do have a responsibility to communicate their research to the public; the dearth of the public intellectual is an indictment on Anglosphere academia in particular.

And I will concede that academic prose can be needlessly obfuscatory. Chomsky is notorious for this in linguistics, but only because linguists don’t suffer from that malady as badly as other disciplines in the humanities. (Partly because linguists don’t regard themselves as being in the humanities to begin with.)

But Toor’s article is the plea of a rentier, and it profiteers from the noxious survival of an expired arrangement.

(And to think people actually say that is the problem.)

The point of the ecosystem in days of yore was not to make money for Oxford University Press. The point was to disseminate knowledge produced at Oxford University, or any number of other Universities. And it was to disseminate any knowledge—not just the knowledge that was currently in fashion or that was crowd-pleasing and telling people what they want to hear (which is what the market is going to favour).

If that ecosystem is disrupted, then the universities have the responsibility to come up with an ecosystem which still satisfies its ground requirement—the dissemination of knowledge.

Which can be met by PDFs, on, or if you prefer on an institutional repository.

If they want the gatekeeper function for quality, fine, put that on the institutional repository.

But my god, don’t go telling academics that the only way they should earn promotion is by writing a sexy book proposal. The point of academic promotion is not to make rentiers a profit.

Of course, the academic enterprise is compromised to begin with: you don’t get a competitive research grant unless you are researching something sexy and popular (as judged by your peers), and you don’t get a job as an academic unless you are researching something sexy and popular (as judged by your peers). The university presses aren’t selling to the command economies of university libraries any more, but they are selling to your peers. So in fact the current state of affairs is more of the same. And universities, as ossified and self-serving institutions (like all human institutions) are not going to be agile enough to see through the flaw in the knowledge ecosystem: they’re still expecting a dead tree published by a university press.

That doesn’t make it justified. The fact that the peers mostly used to act in collusion with the State, and often now act to critique the State, doesn’t make it justified, either.

And it doesn’t make me have any affection for Toor’s argument. Particularly as she compares the lean times of university presses to the lean times of the Houston real estate market—as if laissez faire capitalism benefiting university presses should always be the metric by which academic promotion should be established.

But the argument that academic promotion should not be conditional on a sexy book proposal is hardly the argument that a rentier is going to make, is it.

I’m filled with misanthropy from this. This species really does deserve a Carrington Event.


  • John Cowan says:

    I missed the comment about Houston real estate the last time. Dude, it’s not an accident that we call people who make money by hindering other people from using what the law arbitrarily calls “theirs” rentiers. The comparison is precise.

    “The widow is gathering nettles for her children’s dinner; a perfumed seigneur, delicately lounging in the Oeil de Boeuf, hath an alchemy whereby he will extract the third nettle and call it rent.” –Carlyle

  • John Cowan says:

    I think it will stand until the current generation of tenured academics dies off or retires: they too are rentiers, and don’t see why the up and coming generation shouldn’t have to stand the heat too (and never mind that the conditions are completely different, with adjuncts having to work three jobs at different universities just to stay above water).

  • John Cowan says:

    The problem is that humanists can’t get tenure or promotion unless they can publish monographs that a reputable publisher (who may or may not employ peer review) has accepted. Publication in a repository, global or local, doesn’t satisfy that need. What is more, in the U.S. only about 4000 monographs a year by U.S. scholars are published as things are, and there’s some indication (though not definitive yet) that that market is shrinking.

    • opoudjis says:

      … Which surely means that arrangement, of requiring publication in book form with a reputable publisher, will not long stand. Sexy-sounding book proposals are inimical to what humanists are supposed to be doing. The academic and their department do not benefit from that; only the publisher does. (Which is why I chose to speak of rentiers.)

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