by Phillip W. Magness
Scholarly publishing is a world of maddening inefficiencies. It’s also an unavoidable part of scientific discussion, and it remains one of the only features of academic life that offers some semblance of a meritocratic measure of a scholar’s contributions to the field. “Publish or perish,” as the adage goes, and publishing means dealing with publishers.
Yet every step of the typical academic publication process is fraught with practices that would quickly drive away the customer base of almost any other industry.
For the uninitiated, the step toward publication usually begins by selecting a prospective venue. For scholarly articles, this means one of the thousands of academic journals that curate research on highly specialized subject areas. For books, it usually means a university press or one of the major commercial presses that specializes in scholarly works.
Once you select a suitable option and send out your paper (for journals) or proposal (for books) for review by the venue of choice, you then wait. And wait. And wait some more. In fact, waiting is by far the most common feature of publishing, and it can take months or even years to hear back from anyone. There are a few rare exceptions to the rule, but interminable waits are the norm at almost any venue. I even advise publishing novices to send off their work and essentially forget that it’s in somebody else’s hands now. Move on to another project, or continue improving the current one in a new direction as you wait because it will likely be months before you have any guidance or answer from the journal or press.
The major, but not only, reason for the wait is other scholars. Your paper or monograph is likely sitting somewhere in an email inbox or on a desk of another specialist, ostensibly in the same subject area, waiting to be subjected to peer review. It is also likely very low on that person’s list of priorities.
Academics have peculiar habits about how they spend their time. According to survey data, for the average professor a little more than half of their time goes into teaching — but only during the roughly 32 weeks of the year that comprise the fall and spring semesters. The remainder is split almost evenly between administrative duties and their own research. The productivity of that research is another story, as the median academic in the U.S. typically nets fewer than one publication of any type in a given calendar year. But whatever that research entails, it almost certainly takes precedence over the mostly unpaid task of writing up a report on your article or book.
Parkinson’s law normally kicks in soon thereafter, or specifically the informal observation that “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.” Reviewers, therefore, procrastinate as a norm. Even if a paper only takes a couple of hours to read and critique, you can expect months to pass by and a quickly approaching deadline from the journal before this process even begins. Every academic discipline is afflicted but the wait is usually the longest in the humanities, even though professors here produce less research on average than most other fields.
Keep in mind though that a finished referee report is not necessarily a quality referee report. Some scholars are conscientious and submit pages of helpful and detailed notes to critique or improve your work. Others are lazy and hammer out a few sentences that reflect a skim reading at best. And more than a few are outright mendacious in that they will blatantly misrepresent your work to the journal editor.
Having successfully navigated this process dozens of times, I’ve encountered the latter two types of referees with alarming regularity. I’ve had referees that offer helpful suggestions that greatly improve a paper, referees that completely miss the central thesis and submit reports that read as incompetent or unqualified, and even referees that break the unwritten ethical norms of the process, such as endeavoring to circumvent the anonymization of the review or leaning on the editor to reject work that poses a challenge to their own arguments.
Anyone who publishes with regularity knows these patterns all too well. But the problem is that bad behavior by referees, whether laziness or something worse, is seldom if ever penalized. At most, an editor will simply decline to use that person in the future — which may even be seen as a welcome blessing, given that it absolves them of the unpaid task. And since editors themselves are usually senior scholars with severe constraints on their own time, all but a rare few will simply punt the decision to publish to a consensus of the referees. In competitive and highly ranked journals and presses, this means the lazy or mendacious reader has a de facto veto over publication, in addition to the ability to draw out the decision process through months of inaction.
Editors can also succumb to the same dual forces of laziness and malice. Even though the review process is usually anonymous, an editor has virtually unchecked discretion on the selection of referees. Suppose an editor opposes the political implications of an argument, perceives it as a challenge to the work of a friend, or even personally dislikes the submitting author. Easy fix: send it to hostile referees and bury it in negative reports that nobody will ever scrutinize. True, the author will likely submit the same piece elsewhere but now he’s wasted the last six months waiting with nothing to show for it.
Sheer editorial incompetence is even more common. More than once, I’ve encountered editors who have lost a submission midway through the process, and others who have forgotten to send it out for review despite claiming they had done so. Any business that regularly lost its customers’ property for months on end would be driven from the market by the poor reputation it acquired. Yet in academic publishing it is the norm, and again the entire cost of an editor’s incompetence is transferred onto an author in wasted time.
Let’s assume that you have a paper or a book that satisfies the referees and editor, whether on first pass or after several rounds of revision. Guess what happens next?
You get to wait again. And wait. And wait some more.
Eventually your project will be placed into a queue with a scheduled publication date. For the typical journal, this usually means about a year at minimum (although a few have moved to the practice of getting materials online at about six to nine months after acceptance). Some highly competitive or smaller journals may have a backlog that extends for two or three years.
Book publishing is even slower. Once accepted, you will be given a publication date that is usually a minimum of one year after the delivery of the manuscript. And even the “best” scholarly presses delay that on a whim. Perhaps the fall catalog was looking too crowded. Or perhaps the production editor decided to go on vacation right around the time your book was scheduled for typesetting, causing it to miss the catalog entirely. Next thing you know, your expected November release date is bumped to next June.
You may be wondering what the journal is doing during all of that time between now and the release date. The answer is: probably not much. Your article or manuscript will eventually undergo some sort of copyediting, but only after it advances through the queue to that stage.
There are exceptions, but in my experience the practice of “professional” copyediting is almost always a let-down and it seems to be getting worse with each passing year. Eventually, you will receive a marked up “proof” of your article or manuscript containing a list of queries and corrections. Many of these are done haphazardly, and by people who do not understand the subject matter of your work. To give one recent example from my own experience, I had a copyeditor who took it upon him/herself to change every reference I made to the “Chicago School” — as in the school of economic thought associated with the University of Chicago — to “Chicago schools” — as in the K-12 public education system of a large metropolitan region situated on the shores of lake Michigan. In another instance, the copyeditor actually added a half-dozen or more new spelling and other typographical errors that were not in the original article. In a third instance, the copyeditor systematically de-capitalized all of the cited book titles and several author names in my footnotes.
With norms such as these, you should even consider yourself lucky if the only queries on your proof consist of an interminable list of bibliographic updates to ensure that your reader is apprised of such crucial information as a Cambridge University Press book is in fact published in Cambridge, UK, or that Boston is in the state of Massachusetts. Practically speaking though, it also means that the average copyeditor will not catch many typos. Some will actually add new ones that you are expected to catch and revert yourself.
And to top it all off, the journal will often insist that you complete your copyedits on a strict 48 or 72 hour deadline after receipt of the proofs — or risk having your article bumped another six months, or your book failing to make its release date. They may have sat on it for a year, but if it arrives in your email box while you are on vacation you must still get to a computer and turn it around to meet this surprise deadline. And that sudden rush to finish, combined with the general uselessness of the services thus far provided, inevitably means some typos will slip through into print, no matter how hard you try to catch them. Perhaps you were rushed, or tired of pouring over the manuscript, or distracted when you reviewed a specific sentence with an error. That’s why copyediting, in an ideal world, is supposed to be outsourced to skilled specialists whose job it is to catch such things. But good copyeditors are rare, and journals seem to be cutting corners here so you’re more or less on your own.
This frustrating set of circumstances will improve slightly when your work finally makes it into print, but even there the maddening inefficiencies of scholarly publishing persist. If your piece is in a journal, it will likely go out behind a paywall that requires an expensive service to access. If it’s a book, don’t expect it to be priced at bookstore prices. The norm is actually a print run of a couple hundred copies, and those can be set at a hundred dollars or more apiece.
Both derive from the dinosaur of a business model that dominates most of the academic publishing industry. Most likely, they are not selling your article or book to get it into the hands of consumers who will read and use it — they are selling to libraries who automatically maintain a subscription to their journal service, or who automatically purchase the standard catalog of new books from a given press -both of which are decisions that they make based upon their host institution’s annual budget allocations. And that, in turn, dampens any price signal that might emerge from normal and competitive exchange based on consumer interest in your work.
Markets still exist here, but they are thin and distorted by a library-centric purchase model. And that, in turn, means your product will likely reach only a small reader base that’s determined almost entirely by library budgets, in addition to taking many years longer than you expected.
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Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.
Photo “Academic Articles” by Denise Chan. CC BY-SA 2.0.