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Is short the answer to scholarly publishing?

In a recent piece on the Chronicle, writer Jennifer Howard suggests that we need to “ditch the monograph.” Her answer, along with many others, is to go short and go electronic. Here’s why her argument is wrong on all counts.

1. The first problem is the long versus short binary. Howard suggests taking the Kindle single as a guiding example. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. I myself have just written a short book. The problem is when this becomes the only model or the leading model for academic publishing. Do we really want to give up on longer books because they take longer to write, review, or read? From popular works like Robert Caro’s recent massive trilogy of Lyndon Johnson to scholarly books like Adrian Johns’ very long The Nature of the Book, long books do important work. We don’t want to lose them anymore than we want to suggest they should be the only form that counts. But frankly I’m also not convinced that shorter books should count as much as longer ones for tenure or promotion. Those categories are based on research output (among other things) and the more significant the output — quality and length being equally important here — the higher we value someone’s contribution to the field. We are all familiar with a particular genre of short books: they’re dissertations that haven’t been rewritten. They’re short, with less evidence.

2. The second problem is with the notion of “short” itself. The “single,” defined as about 35,000 words, is actually on the long side. Short actually means medium here, or maybe medium long. We have a whole range of lengths of scholarly forms, from the long (monograph), to the medium (short monograph), to the short (article), to the very short (blog), to the ridiculously short (tweet). All of these forms are useful in a scholarly context, but so far only two count as a medium of “research”: the monograph and the article. It may be that shorter monographs might be better at isolating a problem better than longer ones and they can do so more capaciously than articles, or a series of articles. But I can’t imagine tweets and blog posts counting as “research.” They simply don’t have the space to articulate complex ideas and the details of evidence, exploration and argument. There is a reason the monograph and the article have been the two gold standards of scholarly research. Some fields, like the natural sciences, only believe in one because they feel their problems are best addressed more piecemeal. The humanities still puts emphasis on synthetic arguments and that requires more space and more evidence. Again, the short book can be useful, especially when the issue tends to be more theoretical. But when it comes to tackling larger historical problems, short books don’t work as well.

3. The next problem is the assumption that publishing shorter books in a more timely manner will solve the problem of scholarly attention. First, the reason books take so long to come out is not exclusively related to length or medium, but human capital. Peer-review and production (copyediting, marketing, coding and/or typesetting, and proofing) take time. There is a window that can’t be surpassed there, especially when you’re talking about non-profit presses and academics with too much on their plates.

But the second problem is just more intuitive: publishing less more quickly isn’t going to solve the problem of your research getting attention. It just means you’re going to be fighting for attention with everyone else doing the same thing. Less more quickly = more less often. It’s the same amount of information being fed to the same amount of people. Shorter academic books aren’t suddenly going to open the floodgates of readers (or reviewers — sadly I speak from experience here…). Yes, Stanford may be trying this, but look at the title they’re leading with: porn studies. Talk about stacking the deck in your favor. Not everyone is going to be working on porn (no asides necessary here). Add to this that you have to write a very different book if your aim is a broader audience. There are lots and lots of sacrifices that come with that. This is a very good idea for expanding the audience of your ideas, but not a good idea if it were to become the sole basis of communicating scholarly research. Book Was There to me is another kind of scholarly writing, not the sole kind.

4. The last point is simply the electronic as the solution to print’s lethargy. Again, I don’t think the medium inherently produces more speed. People do. And as I’ve written in my book, I think the losses of jettisoning printed books as one of our primary means of intellectual communication is a huge loss. But more on that in the print and ebook versions. I don’t have the space here.

So there you have it: I’ve written a short blog post (very quickly) about a short article in a semi-popular newspaper that is mostly read online. That’s not research, but it is an important conversation. We need to be thinking about these things far more ecologically. How will the ecosystem of scholarly knowledge add up to more than it has in the past?

The answer there has to be diversity rather than brevity.

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