The Point of Academic Publishing

An (apparently) non-academic writer, Sarah Kendzior, has an article in the new “Vitae” project of The Chronicle of Higher Education called “What’s the Point of Academic Publishing?” Is hers a good question?

I am not sure, for I am not sure what  “academic publishing” means. Not any longer. Today, I believe it is becoming something of a distinction without real difference behind it. Which leaves us with the question, “What is the point of publishing?” Something else, entirely.

Perhaps the Chronicle understands this, for the picture accompanying the article is of a newspaper printing press of a type rarely seen since the middle of the last century. This type of press has little to do with “academic publishing,” not by any definition and certainly not today… though it certainly has a lot to do with publishing.

On the other hand, there is, certainly, a type of publishing that retains the appellation “academic,” but it is becoming less and less important to scholarly communities. It is based in peer-reviewed journals of smaller and smaller distribution thanks, in part, to corporate ownership interested in keeping work behind paywalls. For this same reason, it now has minuscule impact on the public sphere–and is, therefore, merely a pale reflection of what academic publishing once was, when academic journals were readily available in libraries and scholars’ homes and when there were, quick frankly, only a few of them.

Yet there is another, more expansive type (or definition) of “academic” publishing, and it is on the verge of consuming the old one. Most of us in scholarly communities know this and are adjusting to it–both in our own writings and our judgments on the efforts of others. After all, we are involved in it, in blogs, in open-access publishing, in the use of social networking, in all sorts of things that are making academic publishing quite a different creature from what it was even a decade ago.

To put it simply, Kendzior is only seeing a part of the picture–and in a dichotomy of black and white. Academic publishing and non-academic publishing. She even quotes a professor who is giving up on blogging because it takes too much time away from the ‘real’ work of an academic. Neither she nor the professor she cites seem to see the changes that have been going on this past decade and more, the expansion of academic publishing into new and vigorous venues along with the shrinking of the importance of traditional academic publishing venues. Scholars in all fields are struggling to find ways of bringing the new publishing possibilities into hiring, tenure, promotion and re-appointment decision-making in a coherent fashion–and most of them are already considering them as valid parts (in many cases–there are problems arising from the changes, too, after all) of scholarship.

There is also, within many contemporary college and university administrations, a growing recognition that the most important scholarship is that which extends beyond a narrow cadre of specialists. The institutions are looking for people who can publish in a wider variety of venues than their older colleagues ever considered. Yes, traditional academic journals still hold an important place within ivory towers, but those towers themselves are beginning to fall, the distinction of inside and outside fading just as divisions in types of publishing do.

To me, the most problematic of Kendzior’s comments is this:

Most scholars hesitate to take this approach [“a hybrid approach that combines academic rigor with public accessibility”] even when their writing has had proven appeal, for it appeals to those who do not “count”.

That might have been true even a decade ago, but it is not really true today. We scholars have learned a great deal as a result of the digital revolution, including that there are not very many people who do not “count.”

The point of academic publishing today is to reach as many different audiences as possible. In differing ways through distinct venues and language appropriate to each audience, scholars are expanding how they present their information, which is also changing how they think about what they do and have done.

5 thoughts on “The Point of Academic Publishing

  1. I wish I could be as optimistic as you are about recognition of blogs, gray-literature production, etc. I think Kendzior is right to observe that there are plenty of corners of academe where that’s not the case, even if the reason for that is not always stodginess (though many times it is!).

    Kendzior’s an anthropologist. You can see an interview about her doctoral program and her early career at

      • Perhaps my experience is relevant. First, I am not as a high school teacher an “academic” in the normal meaning of that term. Second, while I have done some writing that might fall under the rubric of academic writing, most of what I have had “published” (to paper) or publicly distributed (online) is of a different approach. If the intent of writing is to influence the public discourse, then I think my writing in the latter category is relevant.

        It is especially relevant here. Just about one year ago a piece that you “commissioned” (albeit only in the sense of requesting, not compensating monetarily) for Academe went live on this blog. When requests were made to crosspost it and permission was granted provided a link was provided back to the original here, it wound up on Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post, where it went viral. While I do not officially know the number of page views, it received over 142,000 Likes on Facebook, and I received (and surprisingly continue to receive) several hundred direct communications from all sorts of people – professors (surely qualifying as academics), parents, school board members, students (college and high school), social commentators, etc. It led to my being interviewed 9 times for radio shows and several times for other purposes, and to appearing as the keynote speaker for the faculty of the mandatory freshman seminar at a prestigious elite college.

        “Academic” publishing should have as one part of its purpose the advancement of scholarship in particular fields. I think it should also consider how it affects the larger public discourse if that scholarship is not going to be confined to a narrow academic silo.

        Although my post was not “academic” in the sense of being heavily footnoted or primarily research based, it blended real world experience with some observation of the data that was available. It was intended to offer one person’s point of view as a starting point for a broader and hopefully deeper discussion. In that sense, the thousands of comments at the Post website indicate that it touched some kind of nerve.

        I am an experienced blogger. While I write most often on educationally related topics, I am broad enough in my interests to qualify as something of a “public intellectual” even as I would not present myself as an “expert” in anything save my own classroom experience and the research I follow related to my role as a teacher.

        I would argue that what I do has as much impact upon the shape of public discourse, if not more, than does the vast majority of so-called “academic” publishing of the traditional kind.

        I am not demeaning traditional scholarship. Far from it. Much my writing is dependent upon what I read in traditional scholarship and research.

        I am suggesting that colleges, universities, academic departments, need to seriously think how they want to use their scholarship and their ability to communicate to influence the world in which they operate. That of course will depend heavily on how widely they wish to define that world.

        Just a few thoughts from someone who while not an academic somewhat straddles the academic and the blogging worlds.


  2. You offer compelling insight into this topic, Aaron, as someone who so ably walks both sides of the “academic” and “general audience” fence. I think the challenge is not in “who” counts, but what publications other scholars/academics consider to “count,” as in count as important. For example, I know many education profs whose work only “counts” if it is in first tier scholarly ed journals. Thus, while the nation’s K-16 students wallow under standardized management regimes, many of the brightest minds are fighting tooth and nail to get into walled-off journals that no one outside specialists read.

    My friend Andrew Herrmann calls this “the International Journal of Two Readers” syndrome. We exert so much effort and energy getting published in these kinds of journals, with few readers, b/c those ahead of us on the academic food chain exert that this is what “counts.”

    The underlying challenge is that tenure is shrouded in mystery, rumor, and personality clash. The rules that exist are mushy and subjective, thus scholars look to guidance from tenured faculty that may or may not have any real insight into what is meaningful research — they have just survived in the system.

    For example, why are university press books considered to “count” more than others, just b/c one or two scholars have read the proposal or manuscript? Everyone in academe has experience with reviewer reports that demonstrate the person either didn’t read the thing thoroughly or took some personal issue with some minute point contained within. Not to mention that university press books are vastly overpriced and often poorly marketed (if at all).

    The structural problems are deep to the point that one might find it impossible to fix as it currently exists. However, I appreciate your work in illuminating these kinds of issues, which might seem “inside baseball” to many people, but have large scale repercussions across society and culture.

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