Scholarly Publishing and Major Scholarly Presses

Dimitri Nakassis doesn’t post very often on his blog, but when he does, it’s worth reading. Earlier this week, he published an interesting piece on the publication patterns in Aegean Prehistory and argued that most of the significant publications came from specialized rather than major presses. 

There’s a lot to unpack in Dimitri’s post and I’m not necessarily qualified to unpack it all, but his major points are interesting. 

First, it would seem that his definition of significant scholarship involves two thing: (1) new data, and (2) significant new analysis of old or existing data. 

Second, this means that most of the significant publications in the field of Aegean prehistory are either (1) primary publication of archaeological data (particularly articles from journals that specialize in publishing archaeological data) or (2) conference proceedings and book chapters from specialized presses. Dimitri enumerates this in his blog post.

Conspicuous by their absence are books published by major presses. This includes Oxford and Cambridge, as well as their American equivalents, Princeton, California, and Chicago. Of course, one reason for this is that Dimitri’s dataset is mostly drawn for an article in Archaeological Reports that considers new archaeological discoveries and few major presses specialize in primary archaeological publications. They also only rarely publish conference proceedings which likewise represent a major place for the dissemination of new arguments and data.

A lack of interest from major presses in publishing conference proceedings and new archaeological data is understandable. This kind of specialist literature tends to have a small audiences, in the case of conference proceedings, or high costs, in the case of formal archaeological publications (or, as is often the case, both). This also means that this kind of publication tends to require significant subventions from scholarly organizations, grants, or the state.

Most of the top academic presses do not deal with subventions and operate with the expectation that they can sell enough of a particular title to recoup a significant part of their cost. As a result, they tend to publish the kinds of books that are likely to generate a wider readership than a specialized conference proceeding or the primary report on an archaeological site. They also increasingly publish high profit library fodder (e.g. Handbooks and Companions) and lower margin, but higher volume popular and short works that have a wide appeal.

As Dimitri observes, the high profit and high volume publications – especially the Handbook and Companion type volumes – serve as significant secondary conduits that point to the publication of archaeological information in their footnotes and bibliographies. These presses also specialize in the conventional academic monograph, which are often revised dissertations, that also tend to re-examine and synthesize existing bodies of published archaeological data. As a result, these examples of “adaptive reuse” of archaeological knowledge attract a wider audience and achieve a wider distribution than the original, typically more specialized publications.

As academic publishing continues to adapt the changing funding landscape, I suspect that the division between major publishers specializing in work that is more synthetic and interpretative and smaller publishers who rely on subsidies to publish primary data and preliminary analyses will continue to grow.

It’ll be interesting to see how conventional scholarly monographs fit into this landscape. Historically, they have relied on library purchases to offset the cost of publishing. I would guess that at present, as library resources continue to decline, the costs of monograph publishing are increasingly offset by popular and generalist works (e.g. Handbooks and Companions) some of which are made available by digital subscriptions. Whether this model is sustainable is hard to say. 

I suspect more specialized presses will continue to draw on subsidies, subventions, and grants to publish narrowly specialized works. What’s more, as national funding bodies exert greater pressure on researchers to make their data publicly available in open formats, it would appear that presses prepared to lean into subvented publications would find a significant new revenue stream.

This shift is significant as it marks a pivot from a model of publishing that expected the consumer to fund the cost of publication to one that expects the researcher or institution to subvent the publication of their work often with grant funds (or as part of a large funding “scheme”). A couple of years ago, I mused about the relationship between research and publishing narrowing in our digital age, especially with digital publishing venues for, say, archaeological data, and the rise of scholar-led publishing. One wonders whether this tend will continue to shape the character of consumer-driven, more generalist work from major publishers and more-specialized researcher funded work from less historically prominent publishers.

Considering the key role that traditional monographs from major publishers play in (what’s left of) tenure and promotion decisions, these trajectories could curiously invert the typical trajectory of scholarly publishing. Historically rather narrow dissertations produced specialized dissertations and while this mostly continues to be the case, the need the sell books to offset the cost of publishing monographs from major presses might already explain why Dimitri reckons major presses are having less of an impact in the field. Are we seeing a trend in dissertation-based monographs (and dissertations) toward less narrowly focused and therefore somewhat less incisive work?

As grant funding publishing tends to be something that happens in mid-career and later, will we see a trend toward more impactful and specialized scholarship appearing later in a scholars career, at the very point when historically a scholar might decide to address “big picture” problems in the field?

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