Signs Taken for Wonders

Reading through some of the commentary on the Mellen/Askey case, I ran across a comment from the ACRL Board of Directors’ statement of support for Askey:

I find this whole debate to be nuts. Every book is a unique product. Some are good and some are poor. The actual publisher is no indication of quality. Every book needs to be judged on its individual merits. I know of some excellent books published by EMP which have had excellent reviews in leading scholarly journals.

The person who left it obviously wanted the point more broadly known, because he left the same comment at Slaw and Annoyed Librarian. In response to a critical comment on the latter post, the person claims to be an academic who has published with Edwin Mellen, which would make his sensitivity to Askey’s criticisms and librarian support for Askey understandable.

Regardless of who this person is, we can look past the biography and examine the claim on its own merits, just as he would have us do with books. That “every book needs to be judged on its individual merits” seems so obvious as not to need defending. Just as we say one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we shouldn’t judge a book by its publisher, and in an ideal world we might not. Ideally, we wouldn’t take the signs of quality for the wonder of true quality.

However, to say that “the actual publisher is no indication of quality” requires some argument, because anyone who knows how academia and scholarly publishing work would be unlikely to agree with this immediately. The actual publisher might not be proof of quality, but it is certainly an indication of the quality we are likely to expect from the book, and everyone in academia, from graduate students to faculty to librarians, knows it. If you tell an academic you published a book, the first question is often, “which press?” It matters, and everyone knows it matters. At a university like mine, filled with top scholars in every field, the expectation is that they will publish with the top presses. We see evidence of this in the Leiter Reports post that inadvertently led to the now viral campaign to free Dale Askey. That reports the result of a survey among academic philosophers as to how they would rank scholarly presses. Oxford is the first by a wide margin. In the full survey, Edwin Mellen Press is last by a similarly wide margin. “34. Edwin Mellen Press loses to Oxford University Press by 407–1, loses to Peter Lang by 73–39.” In academic philosophy, there is no doubt that a book from Oxford or Cambridge would automatically get more respect than a book from Lang or Mellen.

There are numerous reasons for this expectation, perhaps not all of them fair. Over time one can see that the recognized top scholars in that field tend to publish at the top-ranked presses. Also over time, the quality of the books generally coming out of the presses builds the expectation that if a book comes from OUP, it’s probably good of its kind. That could be an unfair assumption, and I can think of one recent philosophy book from OUP that has come in for some serious criticism from numerous reviewers. That book, though, is published by someone who is outstanding in his field and has published numerous high-quality works in the past, so even if it isn’t good (and I haven’t read it so have no opinion), people would expect it to be of high quality.

Which brings us to another sign of possible quality, the reputation of the scholar in addition to the reputation of the press. The top scholars and researchers in any field generally gravitate to the top-ranked presses and journals for their field, but they might very well publish with a less respected or even unknown publisher and their name would still be an indicator of what to expect. What’s more, there are good reasons sometimes for scholars to do this. An argument I’ve read regarding publishers like Mellen, and that I have no reason to disbelieve, is that they might be more willing to accept work that is pushing the boundaries of the discipline in ways that make mainstream scholars uncomfortable, and thus make the likelihood of publication with the top publishers in their field less likely.

The reputation of a press or journal or scholar developed over time are signs of quality, and it might be unfair to consider them as wonders of genuine worth. That reputations are indeed developed over time is a good reason to take the signs for wonders, though, even if it turns out the signs sometime mislead. We see the process at work very concretely with scientific journals as well, where instead of informal polls or blog posts, we have things like impact factors that are supposed to judge the relative impact of the journals, and which are judgments that librarians and researchers take seriously when deciding what to purchase, where to publish, or what counts for tenure. How often things are cited is another sign of their relative quality, and one that it makes sense to take seriously, even if “high impact” journals might occasionally publish awful articles and even if journals no one reads or cites publish the occasional gem. And the researchers who publish lots of articles in high-impact journals are more likely to get tenure than the ones that publish in low-impact ones.

That’s the argument for why it makes sense to take signs for wonders, even if the signs are sometimes wrong. It’s not perfect, and it’s not always fair, but generally it works.

However, it doesn’t really matter if it works, because it’s what all academics do anyway. Academia fetishizes signs and takes them for wonders. We’ve seen how it works with presses and journals, but it works with everything. Consider the rankings of universities and colleges, or the academic programs within those colleges. The US News and World Report rankings are notoriously used as signs of relative quality among schools, with thousands of students applying to schools merely because of their high rank. The lower-ranked schools sometimes complain about the rankings and their flaws, and they’re right. But that’s the way it works.

The same philosopher who conducted the survey for philosophy publishers also surveys philosophers on philosophical graduate programs for the Philosophical Gourmet. If you got a PhD from the programs at the top of that list, you’d be more likely to get a tenure track job at a good college or university than from programs at the bottom, or that didn’t make the list at all. Why? For one thing, when search committees are looking through huge stacks of applications, where candidates got their graduate degrees is going to be a way of weeding them. Is that fair to the brilliant candidate from the University of Nebraska who is competing against candidates from NYU, Rutgers, Princeton, and Harvard? For that matter, is it fair that New York investment bankers would rather have graduates from Princeton than the College of New Jersey? No. But that’s the way it works, and everyone knows it.

Or consider the very existence of the PhD. The PhD is a research degree that over the decades has become a prerequisite for academic positions for which little to no research is expected, from teaching at small colleges to academic administration positions. PhDs usually aren’t required for librarian positions, but they’re often still considered a sign of some kind of quality, and candidates with them will have a leg up even if they are otherwise thoroughly mediocre. For the non-research positions, the reputation of the graduate program often doesn’t even matter. The PhD from anywhere is a sign.

So there are good reasons why we might take signs for wonders and the practical reality that we do in fact do this all the time in academia. For libraries in particular, there might not be anything else we can do. Tenure and search committees might be able to read all the publications of a candidate up for review, even though they might also just rely on the reputations of the publishers and journals as a sign of quality. But librarians can’t read all books they buy, especially in larger libraries. I might firm order several hundred philosophy and religion books a year, with hundreds or even thousands more coming in on approval. Other than by direct request, there’s no way other than signs of possible quality for me to set up approval profiles or firm order books en masse. To say that presses can’t be judged on their reputations or that each book should be judged on its own merits, is, from the standpoint of library collection development, naive, just as it is from the standpoint of who gets hired, promoted, and tenured.

The unpleasant truth is that the phenomenon I’ve been describing isn’t just how academia works, it’s how everything works. People want themselves and their publications to be judged on their inherent qualities, but the overwhelming amount of judgment people receive is based on external factors. Where you live, where you work, what you do, where or if you went to school, how you dress, how you talk, what kind of car you drive, and where or if you publish: the majority of people judge you by these signs regardless of what they reveal about your “true” self and its quality. Sometimes that’s the only thing they can do.

[Update: a Postscript to this post.