The Truth About Academic Publishing

I like to write. This website is an attempt to share some history directly with the public, instead of publishing in the obscure and strange world of academe.

Many professors, such as in history, publish books (I have published three) But the reality is…hardly anyone reads them. The vast majority of academic books are published on scholarly presses, many of which are ‘university presses’ associated with major universities. These books are almost exclusively published in hard cover, overpriced (in the range of $50-100), and sell overwhelmingly to university libraries.  

Truthfully, academic publishing is kind of a joke, especially when it comes to monographs (narrow academic books). A friend who is Managing Editor at a major university press recently told me that a narrow monograph, badly written (as is so often the case with academics) can expect to sell about 200 copies--180 of them to university libraries. Not many monographs get checked out from university libraries (and the numbers even there are in further and notable decline). 

I published my first scholarly book in 1997. Based on my Ph.D. dissertation, The Mexican Right: The End of Revolutionary Reform, 1929-1940 actually “sold well”—at several hundred copies. Of course the vast majority of those sales were to university libraries, where the book either sat endlessly on a shelf or got lost. Six scholarly journals reviewed the book, nearly all of which were positive (personally, I thought the book had some serious shortcomings of logic and analysis; the writing was rather dry and, I would think to nearly anyone not intimately familiar with mid-twentieth century Mexican history, really boring).

No one contacted me about the book for many years. But one day I sat down at my computer at work and opened up an email. “I read your book,” it read. “It was interesting. But I have some questions. Could you tell me, 1) what is the thesis of the book? 2) why did you write the book?”, etc. I nearly fell out of my chair, I was laughing so hard! What an excellent commentary on the reality of academic publishing! Years had passed, and when someone finally contacted me about my book, it was clearly a student in need of basic answers…because he didn’t read the book and was doing a class assignment on it!

Why publish an academic book? The reason that I published The Mexican Right was to keep my job and get what’s called tenure, or job security. The reason I published a second scholarly book a few years later was to get promoted to what’s call Full Professor. Once a Full Prof, the work and financial motives to publish become much weaker. I do continue to write and publish an article now and then--party because I enjoy writing, but mainly because my employer recquires certain productivity to keep my teaching load lower. These occasional journal articles are mostly invisible. Even on-line academic journals appear to have an exceedingly limited readership (an observation I base in part on lack of feedback from sholarly writing). 

Another reason to put up and maintain this website instead of publish via the academic process to to avoid the censorship inherent in scholarly review. Academics review one another's works for publication (through a process called 'refereeing'). Ostensibly this is about maintaining quality, but in truth it's about consensus and control. Lots of times one can surmise that the referee didn't even read the material word-for-word (i've had academic referees and reviewers who, by what they write, appear to not be fully aware of the piece's content). There is also very much an ideological control process. Most academics are politically correct liberals, and will not tolerate contrarian leanings, or much thinking 'outside the box'. When I did a piece for an on-line journal on Colombia a few years ago, I was told by a referee that it was wrong to refer to Colombia as a "Third World country". What? Colombia is a Third World country, and pretty much every Colombian knows it. Only politically correct liberal academics would deny this basic concept (there's a hilarious scene in Amy Wilentz's Farewell Fred Voodoo--a book I highly recommend by the way--in which she is politically correct and tells a group of Haitians what a lovely country they have. They all immediately whip out their identification cards, and sincerely propose that she help them move to the United States and then take their place!). In the same article, I initially showed that Colombia has not had 'fifty years of war', as the guerrillas groups all but died out in the early 1970s. Another referee insisted this was wrong, obligating me to change it and follow the official academic line. By its nature, academic referring prevents new ideas, correctives, and different ideological and epistomological perspectives from rising into the corpus of knowledge. 

Far more damning is the demand that academics rely upon, and heavily cite, other academics. Continuing with this Colombia piece as an example, I was obligated through the review process to abandon mostly eyewitness and participatory accounts of political violence and instead emphasize academic studies. But are academics the best, most knowing sources? Academics rarely go into war zones or place themselves in danger. They instead rely on government reports, mainstream media coverage, post-event interviews, and each other's books for source material. As a consequence, in my evaluation, actual participants and observers on-the-ground often know and understand more than us academics. Independent and free lance journalists, human rights observers, adventurer travelers (Robert Young Pelton's books are so excellent, by the way), etc., generally have more intimate, on-the-ground knowledge than us. As an academic I am unusual, in that I have ventured into some dicey places on occasion. And in those few cases where I have done so, I have found later academic accounts to be relatively off-the-wall. It's not that I really blame academics for staying safe, per se, but it is deceitful to not go to dangerous places and then posture ourselves as the foremost experts on dramatic political events that we have not bothered to observe.  

It's fun to maintain this website, now (in mid-2018) on its fifth year! More people have almost certainly read the mini-book here than the total of those who have read all of my two academic monographs (this website receives about 3500 hits per year now, with admittedly only a very miniscule fraction of visitors reading the entire mini-book). I will probably undertake substantial expansion and revisions to this website in the next couple of years. I intend to always keep Chapters 1-4 the same, however, since some secondary school teachers are apparently using them. Please take the time to read something like this mini-book. It can invigorate the mind!

"Our addiction to the internet is as harmful as any drug - and what passes for comment these days is often simply foul abuse. The focus on 'surfing' rather than proper reading has impoverished literature."

                                                                                   Robert Fisk, Journalist and Author