Chapter 7 -- Publishing: How to Do It | Pierre van den Berghe

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[Author's Note attached to chapter title: This chapter was first published as an article in Mawazo, 2, 1969, and permission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged.]

Publication of research, we are told, is the scholar's main contribution to science and society. With rare though notable exceptions, scholarly publication does not have any beneficial consequences for anybody except the author and his nuclear family, a handful of typographers and printers, and the shareholders of paper mills. These conditions explain both the low quality of the printed output, and the popularity of publication among authors, especially college professors. In fact, publishing has become a compulsion. The average academic author does not write because he has something to say, because he hopes to contribute to knowledge, or because he has fun doing it; rather, he writes and publishes in order to improve his vita. This document is frequently the only thing about him which his colleagues will ever read; it is the passport to academic success; and, beyond the routine acquisition of a Ph.D., published titles are the main ornament of a vita. Scholarly publication is thus an extremely elaborate and patient exercise in vita construction.

The gamesmanship of publication involves a set of difficult dilemmas which lurk in the subconscious of many players, but are seldom explicitly stated. Let us turn to some of these problems:

1) Quantity versus Quality

For most people, of course, this problem never arises, because quality is beyond their reach. But insofar as a real dilemma exists, the optimum strategy of Scholarly Status Maximization (SSM) is clear. Rush into print, at least in the early stages of your professional career. For one thing, you have no reputation to lose. For another, most people who are instrumental in hiring or promoting you will never read anything you wrote besides your vita. Consequently, quality of publication is almost completely irrelevant to career chances.

There are three partial exceptions to this strategy, however:

a) A profession of concern for quality can be advanced as a rationalization for not publishing at all. This can be a very useful time-buying device for hard-pressed young assistant professors, because most academics still recognize the theoretical possibility that masterpieces occasionally take a few years to write. But the effectiveness of this device decreases drastically after three or four years, and at best it carries the assistant professor over the hump of his first contract renewal. Almost any department prefers you to publish trash rather than not publish at all. As a deterrent against publishing manuscripts which lie dormant in your filing cabinets, concern for quality is laudable in the abstract but foolish in practice, except in the two following special cases:

b) Publishing beyond a certain amount can be regarded as excessive. The best SSM strategy is to adjust for the average productivity of the department where the author hopes to stay. If his rate exceeds the departmental average by a substantial and painfully embarrassing margin, pressures against "rate-busting" are brought to bear against him. Arguments are then advanced that if you publish so much it cannot possibly be any good, and you may have to change jobs. The prudent untenured faculty member should thus endeavor to publish only slightly more than his competitors, or, should he be a rate-buster, he should conceal the fact and use his "excessive" publications only for purposes of negotiations with outside schools. This may require the production of a special toned-down vita for internal consumption.

c) The marginal utility of any given publication for SSM decreases as the size of your bibliography increases. E.g., while your first book, even if it does not sell, probably adds at least $50,000 [Editor's Note: $306,000, in 2015] to your life income, your fifth book will have only an imperceptible effect on your salary. It follows that once you have attained the status of full professor on the strength of a sizable bibliography, the marginal utility of further publications is minimal. In fact, if you attain national stature, it is probably best to stop publishing altogether, on the ground that your reputation can only decline by further exposure to intellectual scrutiny. Your own graduate students may lull you into a false sense of security by loudly proclaiming your infallibility, but younger colleagues at other universities can make a career out of attacking you, and by now you have become a tantalizing target. Further publication thus becomes dysfunctional to SSM.

There is also an intellectual reason for discontinuing publication by the time you are a full professor. By then, the chances are that your IQ has seriously deteriorated. This should not be a cause for undue alarm; with the proliferation of administrative jobs, you can still serve a useful and decorous function as chairman or dean.

2) Prestigeful versus Obscure Outlets

The neophyte would hardly consider this a dilemma. Does it not stand to reason that he should try to place his prose with the most prestigious journals or publishers? For the beginner, this strategy may commend itself. Your colleagues will rarely read your prose, but they will often weigh your bibliography in terms of the prestige of the journals where you publish. Beyond your first faltering steps as an assistant professor, however, the optimum strategy calls for publishing in obscure journals (POJ). At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the reasons for the POJ strategy are as follows:

a) Nowadays, anyone who can tell an IBM card from a Social Security card can practically be assured of getting articles published in "prestige" scholarly journals. This means that little prestige accrues from publishing as such. What counts is whether other people quote you. If you do publish in "prestige" journals, you are almost inevitably quoted, but this deflates the prestige value of the quotation. Although being quoted is more prestigious than merely publishing, reference to a well-known journal clearly confers less prestige to both the quoting and the quoted author than reference to a recondite source. After all, even college sophomores now read the leading journals, but only real scholars publish in and read the Proceedings of the Jamaican Society for the Advancement of Science. The more obscure the quotation, the more prestigious it is to quoter and quoted alike.

b) What happens, you may ask, if you do not get quoted? You still win. The odds are heavily in favor of somebody else writing the same article, or at least one on a closely related topic, within five years. If he writes the same article and does not quote you, you write a rejoinder to the journal where he published his piece, and you kill two birds with one stone:

1) You expose him as a plagiarist and establish yourself as a superior scholar.

2) You add a title to your bibliography.

If the person who does not quote you merely writes in the same area but differs with you in his approach, you follow the same procedure and merely substitute for the charge of plagiarism one of poor scholarship or incompetence. This can also be quite devastating. Foreign language journals have an added advantage besides obscurity. If your colleagues ignore them, they are obviously ethnocentric philistines, and, though this label aptly describes many American scholars, the charge is still regarded as a serious one. Most of your colleagues have once passed their language exams and thus regard themselves as cosmopolites, while delighting in having somebody else exposed as an untutored boor.

In addition to SSM, POJ also has some monetary incentives. Obscure journals often still indulge in the charmingly obsolescent practices of sending their contributors an honorarium, free subscriptions, and free reprints.

3) Articles versus Books

The number of books published in a given field is inversely related to the intellectual sophistication achieved in that field. Very few books are written in physics, mathematics, or chemistry; a great many in political science, sociology, education, and home economics. This fact should not deter a scholar to write books if he belongs to a discipline in which many books are written. In fact, SSM dictates a prolific and verbose output if such is the characteristic of the field.

Especially useful in this connection is the inflation of an article into a book. Once upon a time, scholars condensed their 500-page dissertation into one or two ten-page articles, usually with little if any loss in content. Now, the successful academic in the verbose fields blows up a ten­ page article into a 500-page book. However, this practice is not as bad as it sounds, because in many cases he will also publish under different titles half-a-dozen articles which repeat each other as well as the content of the book. One still needs to read only one article, or its abstract, if that much. Should the professor in a verbose field yet have to publish a book in order to get tenure, he always can (and usually does) resort to assembling the works of his colleagues into a book of readings. In doing so, he flatters the ego of the persons whose works he reprints, increases his reputation, and earns royalties. Books of readings always have an assured market: They are widely assigned in the classes taught by the authors whose works are republished. But, as we shall see presently, one should be wary of writing best-sellers.

The professor who belongs to a discipline where book writing is frowned upon, should, of course, refrain from doing so himself, or use a nom de plume to protect his scholarly identity, or wait until late in his career, if vanity impels him to sign his own name to his book. An aging mathematician or physicist who is no longer bright enough to contribute crisp little two-page gems to the professional journals may be excused for writing lengthy books on nuclear disarmament or high-school education. Physicists and mathematicians even derive a malicious pleasure in noting that colleagues in their dotage often write better books in fields outside their competence than expert social scientists, "educationists," or humanists do at their prime in their own specialties. Bertrand Russell once remarked that, as his intelligence gradually deteriorated, he successively turned from mathematics, to physics, to sociology, and finally to politics. Of course, it might be said in defense of statesmen that they are generally well past their prime when they achieve power. By the time they write their memoirs, they have typically attained the absolute nadir of human intellectual achievement.

4) Commercial versus University Presses

The obvious solution would be to favor commercial publishers on the grounds that they offer higher royalties and reach a wider market because they are actually interested in selling books, which university presses are not. But this is a very naïve view of publication gamesmanship. On at least ninety-five percent of all books published by professors, the author earns far more in increased salary than he ever will on royalties. A first book is worth at least $2,000 [Editor's Note: $12,000 in 2015] in annual salary increment until retirement age, while royalties seldom bring in more than $500 [$3,000] to $1,000 [$6,000] a year for two or three years. Thus, considerations of royalties and distribution are secondary. To maximize the sale of your book can even be dangerous. Indeed, there is an inverse correlation between how widely a book is read and how highly it is esteemed by your colleagues. Should your book be so unfortunate as to become a best-seller, your colleagues will debunk you as a journalist, an amateur, a dilettante, or---and this is a very damaging insult---a "popular" author. University presses will effectively protect you against this fate through a combination of prohibitive pricing, lack of advertisement, and absence of distribution.

If you cannot refrain from writing something which others might enjoy reading, use a pseudonym. It is the appropriateness of this strategy which lends any plausibility to theories that Francis Bacon would have used a pseudonym if indeed he ever penned such frivolous pieces of mass culture as Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet. Why indeed should he have wanted to compromise his solid reputation as the author of the Novum Organum, a work sublimely beyond the grasp of all but a few hundred of his contemporaries? By the same logic, the authorship of Gone with the Wind may be attributed to Einstein in the 24th century.

There is one exception to the taboo against writing best­sellers, namely textbooks. A successful textbook adds little to your scholarly status, and even less to the sum of human knowledge, but it can add a great deal to your income, and it seldom damages your reputation. To be sure, some haughty academics sneer at textbook writers, but such people can be dismissed as envious of the man who just financed a swimming pool, a third car, or a 30-foot yacht by writing The Fundamentals of Home Cooking and Budgeting. Textbooks escape the scholarly opprobrium of other best-sellers because they are in fact a very special kind of best-seller. Unlike all others, they are not bought by choice or for pleasure.

Textbooks are academically respectable because they are so tedious, and because the superficially incriminating sales figures in no way reflect the popularity of the book. The most successful textbooks are those written by teachers of large introductory courses at multiversities. With enrollments at your own school running into the thousands each year, and royalties averaging one dollar per copy, your book will do quite well even if no other professor adopts it. Text book sales in the tens of thousands typically mean that twenty to fifty professors like the book, or that, in the absence of any good textbooks, they picked one at random. Surely, no sane person would misconstrue this as a measure of popularity. Confronted with a malevolent colleague who accuses you of being a popular writer, you will always be able to quote a review of your textbook which perceptively notes that your work is dull and pedantic.

5) Concentration versus Dispersion

The common-sensical thing, of course, would seem to be to spread one's publications in many different journals so as to reach a broader public. This might be termed the "hippopotamus technique" after the winning habit of these pachyderms to mark their territory when on land by quickly rotating their tails while defecating, and thereby spreading their telltale droppings. Early in one's career, this technique is not efficacious, due to the overabundance of scholarly hippopotamuses. Besides, publication dispersal may open one to charges of eclecticism, marginality to the discipline, and the like. By contrast, the "rhinoceros technique"---i.e., the rapid accumulation of a strategically located pile---is frequently more visible in early career stages. The hippopotamus technique, like POJ, is introduced later in one's professional existence.

6) To Quote or Not to Quote

Quotations and footnotes are generally regarded as prima facie evidence of scholarship. So there is no question that one should use footnotes.[9] An additional advantage of quotations and footnotes is that they are the least expensive way of flattering the ego of your colleagues, thereby, through the operation of reciprocal narcissism, greatly improving their evaluation of you. Through a process as yet imperfectly understood, references almost invariably come to the attention of the quoted author. (One plausible explanation is that many scholars spend much of their time scanning journals and book indices for references to their works.) [Author's Note 9: I take this opportunity to report that the editors of five scholarly journals rejected this chapter when I submitted it for publication as an article. Lack of space was the most commonly mentioned ground for rejection, with the implication that a serious journal should not waste its precious columns of fine print on frivolous pieces such as this one. Scholarly prose, obeying a Parkinsonian Law, expands to fill the space provided by journals. I would also like to think that, according to a Greshamian law, bad prose drives out the good.]

The neophyte must, however, be warned of the danger inherent in referring to the works of others. You enhance their status and hence exacerbate competition. Therefore, excepting references to your own work, footnoting must be strictly limited to persons who are clearly your seniors or your juniors. The latter are, interestingly, the more efficacious source of quotations for three reasons:

a) Your juniors are likely to be unknown, and the footnote thus becomes positively loaded with obscurity value.

b) By quoting, say, from a doctoral dissertation written under your fatherly guidance, you establish your relative seniority.

c) Over-quotation of your own mentors is often regarded as an indication of lack of independence and unsatisfactory resolution of the academic Oedipus complex.

7) Readability versus Jargon

In theory, jargon is a useful, indeed an occasionally elegant, shorthand device for the precise expression of complex ideas. In practice, it is most frequently used as a mask for intellectual pedantry and poverty. This is the sense in which jargon is a precious adjunct to most scholarly careers. Three caveats must be introduced, however:

a) Sometimes even the most skillful use of jargon cannot protect vacuous statements from embarrassing exposure by ill-disposed colleagues. In such cases, a more readable statement might, to be sure, have aroused their scorn but not their sarcasm.

b) Excessive use of freshly coined jargon is sometimes interpreted as a mark of the neophyte's youthful enthusiasm for the cult language. This, of course, shows lack of maturity. The more mature scholar only uses well-established, seasoned jargon, which frequently is not quite jargon anymore.

c) If you do have something original and important to say, and if you are still capable of saying it in readable form after undergoing graduate training, your writing is bound to attract attention through its novelty. The difficulty, of course, is that you are a poor judge of whether you have anything important to say---in fact, the odds are against you. A skillful use of seasoned jargon is the most prudent course.

8) To Plagiarize or Not to Plagiarize

The printed output of academics falls in four broad and overlapping categories:

a) Tediously footnoted rehash of the works of others. This probably accounts for 6o percent of the output. Such books and articles comprise a category which is accepted as both legitimate and competent, but it has the drawback of being excruciatingly boring.

b) Unwitting restatement of other works. This type of writing accounts perhaps for another 30 percent. It is regarded as poor scholarship if detected.

c) Outright plagiarism. This accounts perhaps for some 9 percent of the printed output. Plagiarism was once completely accepted. Bach, for example, shamelessly pirated Vivaldi, but then he was under tremendous publication pressure, having to produce something like a concert a week. Besides, he had many sons to feed, and it was some years before they started helping him out. Today plagiarism is frowned upon, but undetected plagiarism can be quite useful to the less imaginative professor who wishes to establish a claim to creativity.

d) Original ideas. These take at best 1 percent of the printed space, and may be disregarded here as an insignificant residual category to be mentioned only for the sake of completeness.

Actually, the practice of plagiarism is not as risky as many beginning students may think. The dangers of plagiarism are inversely proportional to two factors: the academic seniority of the plagiarist, and the obscurity of the plagiarized source.

The second point is obvious. Only very stupid people plagiarize from well-known sources. Such people are likely to be eliminated from academia when they receive an F in their Freshman English Composition class. Quoting from extremely well known sources, however, is not considered plagiarism. One may lift passages from the Koran, the Bible, or the Declaration of Independence with impunity. If you are accused of anything it will not be of plagiarism, but rather of uttering clichés. Student papers, skillfully used, are the safest source of plagiarism, but, alas, they are seldom worth the trouble.

The dangers of plagiarism are also inverse to the academic seniority of the plagiarist. This is of little comfort to the beginning student who runs the highest risks when he stands to benefit most from the practice. To plagiarize with impunity is one more prerogative of rank in the age-graded groves of academe. For the older professor in the throes of senile psychosis, plagiarism from the doctoral dissertations of his students can literally be a godsend. But even younger professors can safely plagiarize from their brighter graduate students. Should the student be foolhardy enough to confront his professor with the evidence, the charge is almost sure to boomerang. It will be assumed by all professors that the student got the idea from the professor in the first place. To facilitate plagiarism by professors, students are urged to make blanket intellectual acknowledgements to their teachers in the preface of their theses.

9) Book Reviews

This last important topic falls, strictly speaking, outside the scope of this chapter. Given the universal academic prejudice against authors writing critiques of their own books, those reviews about which one cares most fall largely outside one's direct control. This is unfortunate and could be remedied by initiating, for example, a system of self-criticism along Communist lines. Within thirty days of publication, say, each author would have to submit to the official organ of his discipline a critique of his book, which would be turned down by the editor until it reached an appropriate level of self-flagellation.

Under the present system, the control exercised by authors over reviews of their books is at best indirect. The safest strategy calls, of course, for the generous dispensation of undeserved praise in your reviews of colleagues' books. Generally, your colleagues will reciprocate. It is difficult not to think highly of somebody who thinks highly of you. At the very least, his judgment must be sound. Thus the foundations are laid for what historians of science call "schools of thought." Most fields of specialization are small enough for cozy little incestuous relationships to develop, wherein A reviews B's book and vice versa within the same issue of the same journal.

Nasty reviews are, of course, much more amusing to write and to read than complimentary ones, and they have the added merit of greater validity. However, the fear of retaliation restrains all but the most brilliant and senior academics. Most professors restrict their attacks against colleagues to the safety of their classrooms. All too seldom, a homeric battle of titans cutting each other to shreds with their devastating wit enlivens the pages of journals to the delight of graduate students who find in it invaluable material for their comprehensive examinations. But generally, alas, book reviews are nearly as dull as other genres of academic writing.

The victim of unfair reviews (and most truly witty reviews are unfair) should find solace in the fact that book sales seem unaffected by the quality of reviews. Bad reviews are better than no reviews at all. In the words of Chairman Mao, "the absence of attacks from the enemy is a bad thing." In the long run, everybody wins except the impecunious student who has to buy the blasted books.

Let us summarize the main rules of the publishing game. Like chess, the game can be broken into the opening, middle, and end phases:

a) Assistant professors should publish, preferably in prestige journals.

b) Associate professors should continue to publish, but preferably in obscure journals.

c) Full professors would often do well to become deans and stop publishing altogether.

A word of warning must be said, however, concerning "premature" publication by graduate students. This is a very touchy subject. Many professors regard premature publication by their students as an impertinence, unless the manuscript has received their imprimatur, and in most cases the addition of the professor's name as senior author. This practice is so common that, in coauthored papers where the order of the names is not alphabetical, the general presumption is that the "junior" author is in fact the sole one. The practice thus becomes self-defeating. Perhaps the day will soon come when professors will insist, for their self-protection, on their names appearing in alphabetical order.

The pressure on professors to publish is often said to create anxiety, to stifle creativity, and to encourage the production of a vast amount of trivia or worse. Journals are like proliferating repositories of academic night soil, which, far from fertilizing the ivory tower, slowly drown it in a steadily rising tide. It looks as if the hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses are slowly suffocating in their own waste. Stifling conditions, however, are not so much created by the quantity and quality of the output as by the deadly seriousness with which most professors take their publishing. Viewed as a game, publication is at least as entertaining as chess and no more unproductive. The present chapter, written at considerable risk to the author's reputation as a serious scholar, is a modest contribution in that direction.

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