Monday, December 28th, 2009...5:54 pm

Blogging MLA: Day Two

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Council of Editors of Learned Journals Meetings

At the conclusion of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ) awards ceremony today, outgoing (in both senses of that term) CELJ president, Bonnie Wheeler (editor of Arthuriana), addressed several recurring questions of journal editors in recent years, particularly related to ownership and credentialing.

What constitutes a “learned journal,” she noted is “ontologically perplexing” with varied periods of publication. Some journals are also published as books (with both ISSN and ISBN numbers). There are also diverse business models in learned journals: some are independently funded, others owned by universities or scholarly organizations, still others commercially published.

The much vaunted po-mo “death of the author” is only the first gambit in a game that may lead to the “death of the editor,” and with it the value of scholarly publishing. Not all scholarly journal editors are scholars. Editorial work is not credited as scholarly activity but only as a community service activity (whose presence won’t earn you tenure and whose absence won’t prevent your earning tenure). Scholarly editing is a distinct class of academic work.

In examining the two pressing matters of ownership and credentialing, Wheeler recommended Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, to be published in book form by NYU Press but available on line in an open access version through Media Commons Press.

Who owns the scholarship? Does the funder own the scholarship? The National Institutes of Health require open access for federally funded research. However, the briefer the interval between the acceptance for publication and its open access, the greater the erosion in library subscriptions to journals, a model that is likely to migrate from medical and nursing research to the humanities. Author ownership is also compromised. Increasingly squeezed financially university presses are selling their entire journal lists to digital aggregators in order to subsidize book publication (whose sales numbers are declining).  A rebirth of the author may mark the death of the editor.

Peer review, Wheeler noted, is the bedrock value-added of scholarly publishing. In sciences peer review begins at an initial stage (reviews of applications for research funding), but in humanities it occurs only after the scholarly article has been composed. In the humanities, peer reviewers are unpaid and often unacknowledged or professionally unrewarded (not contributing toward tenure or promotion, and indeed taking up time and effort that might be spent more profitably in advancing one’s own research and publication). As a result, there is an increasing unwillingness on the part of specialists to serve as peer reviewers.  It is also difficult to secure reviewers to write book reviews, despite the longstanding value that reviews add to scholarly conversations (not to mention, to scholars’ books’ sales).  Wheeler also suggested a generation gap: Junior scholars, whom we have shielded from unrewarded work while they develop their tenure portfolios, may now be less likely to accept these professional duties once they have been tenured.  Lost is a professionalism that transcends personal professional gain.

Wheeler concluded her address with several questions: How can we remake our systems to encourage the younger scholar to accept these responsibilities? If, as Fitzpatrick suggests, our current modes of peer review will hobble us, should we adopt post-publication review (the emerging model of the sciences)? And what about the significant scholarly work of reading, which is time consuming (and competes with other professional work)? Are we witnessing the disappearance of our scholarly capacity to read?

Following Wheeler’s address, a discussion with audience ensued that raised other questions and concerns. How can junior scholars learn to write if published articles are not peer reviewed exemplars of scholarly writing?  Might we institute as part of earning scholarly credentials in order to publish a requirement to participate in the peer review process?

The monetizing economy of the natural and applied sciences is now driving all institutional decisions about scholarship. To make matters worse, tenure committees often only read evaluations of the scholar’s work, not read the scholarship itself.

This discussion continued after the session during the annual business meeting of the CELJ. On the final day of the MLA meeting, CELJ will host a panel discussion on the related topic, Ranks, Brands and the Editorial Process, on which my contribution, “In Media Res: Browsing, Grazing, and Googleizing Scholarly Knowledge,” is available here.

Later this day . . .

No attendance at MLA is complete without a pilgrimage to the exhibit hall of book publishers. Alas, this year it is much diminished, held in the Marriott’s cozy exhibit hall instead of the Philadelphia Convention Center’s vast exhibition arena. Fewer publishers, perhaps, but also clearly smaller exhibit booths for even the major publishers, who typically in the past would have occupied considerable landscape. A reflection of the recession, perhaps, but also the erosion in scholarly publishing, and even trade publishing. While there I ran into the novelist Sarah Schulman, whose work I discussed in my 2005 book, AIDS and American Apocalypticism.

Later still . . .

I’m now attending another session, arranged by the MLA Division on Nineteenth-Century American Literature, entitled Book History Matters, whose three presenters (Meredith McGill, Rutgers; Patricia Crain, NYU; Martin Brückner, U Delaware) examined the material conditions of the production and use of the high tech medium of another century, the mass-produced book.

4 Comments

  • […] Journals, who has, it turns out, not only been reading Planned Obsolescence but has also been talking about it in really exciting ways. We talked at length about the ways that the issues I discuss in scholarly […]

  • […] Journals, who has, it turns out, not only been reading Planned Obsolescence but has also been talking about it in really exciting ways. We talked at length about the ways that the issues I discuss in scholarly […]

  • […] Blogging MLA: Day Two (a report from the presidential address at the Council of Editors of Learned Journals meeting at the Modern Language Association conference, during which Bonnie Wheeler discussed Planned Obsolescence at some length) […]

  • […] Blogging MLA: Day Two (a report from the presidential address at the Council of Editors of Learned Journals meeting at the Modern Language Association conference, during which Bonnie Wheeler discussed Planned Obsolescence at some length) […]

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