The Quest for Obscurity; or the Weird World of Academic Publishing
June 17, 2011
Welcome to the weird world of academic publishing.
Faithful readers of my blog know that I always seek an expanding readership whenever I publish a book. After all, why publish one’s work if not to attract readers?
It is safe to say that every author dreams of hitting it big with that next book, of earning a big name and an even bigger fortune. Every author wants to be that bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity writer. Otherwise, the endless hours hunched over a keyboard or roaming the stacks at the library offer little return on investment.
The fact that few authors achieve these lofty goals just makes them that much more appealing.
In this posting, I want to discuss an exception that contravenes the general rule about seeking a large readership: Academic publishing.
The old expression “publish or perish” suggests that professors and other academics must perform original, rigorous research and publish the results in prestigious scholarly journals. Ultimately, the research is supposed to advance the course of human knowledge in an incremental way. This is the idea behind Sir Isaac Newton’s oft-quoted phrase, “If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Unfortunately, scholarly publishing is like any other human endeavor: Only so many original, rigorous, creative thinkers exist. Yet thousands upon thousands of journals are published. With thousands upon thousands of academics struggling to advance through the ranks, earn tenure, and impress their colleagues, publishing articles in scholarly journals becomes the coin of the realm — even if the results of their work usually are less than earth-shaking. Pages must be filled and academic reputations must be made.
It may strike the uninitiated as perverse, and perhaps it is, but scholarly publishing wallows in its obscurity. For some academics, “popular” texts are to be avoided, perhaps even denigrated. To make ideas popular, according to this school of thought, is to water them down for the masses, to make them palatable to the least common denominator. The only way to ensure academic rigor and intellectual vigor is to couch the concepts in convoluted prose, to bury core ideas inside turgid scholarly jargon accessible only to one’s academic brethren.
I have had the unsettling experience of finding my work straddling that weird nether region between academic respectability and popular acceptance. My book Coming for to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow, for example, was rejected by some publishers, including the University Press of Alabama, the University Press of Florida, and Oxford University Press, because it was “too popular” and not academically groundbreaking. When I approached literary agents to represent me as I pitched the project to popular presses, they rejected me because the work was too academic for a popular audience. As I discussed in previous postings, it literally took me years to sell and market the book.
Although I prefer to write popular works, I recognize that I cannot completely turn away from producing an academic article now and again. I am not a full-time, tenure-track professor, it is true, but one day I may wish to enter academe full time. When and if such a day comes, it will aid my efforts immeasurably to have amassed a sufficient number of coins of the realm to amount to a princely sum. Such a bankroll will make for a relatively smooth transition.
To that end, I have continued to write and publish academic articles throughout the years. I do not participate to the same extent as my colleagues who seek tenure as full-time academics, but I churn out a piece every year or two. That frequency is about all I can stomach.
As an example, I published an article late in 2011 in The Journal of Medicine & Philosophy. See the link below.
My work usually falls into a category of southern history or political science, so philosophy of medicine initially would seem to be an odd choice for my research. In this instance, however, it was a good fit because my research involved making scientific decisions under conditions of uncertainty. This subject was the topic of my dissertation in public administration at the University of Georgia (UGA) in 2009.
Here is the back story: In 2006, as I completed my Ph.D. coursework in public administration, I wanted to write my dissertation on administrative ethics. I asked Dr. Hal Rainey, a renowned public administration scholar at UGA, to chair my dissertation committee. He agreed to do so with the caveat that he was not an administrative ethics scholar.
The first step in the process is to prepare a research outline, called a “prospectus.” I wrote a dissertation prospectus that Dr. Rainey rejected because it was “not rigorous enough.” I rewrote it from scratch. He rejected it again. After the second rejection, he and I agreed that I should ask a different faculty member to chair my committee. He was nice about it, but this change of heart represented a significant setback in my quest to earn a doctorate.
Dr. Rainey remained on the committee, but I asked Dr. Barry Bozeman to become my major professor, and he agreed to do so. Dr. Bozeman had written about administrative ethics, although it was not his specialty, so at least he was well-versed in the salient literature.
I prepared a new dissertation prospectus for Dr. Bozeman — this was my third version of the administrative ethics proposal — but he, too, thought it was not suitable as a topic for a Ph.D. dissertation. “It might be a good book one day,” he said, “but the topic is not a dissertation. It does not present a defensible hypothesis. It contains too much description and not enough analysis.”
He turned out to be correct, at least about the book. After he rejected it, I sent the prospectus to a well-known academic publisher, Praeger. Eighteen months later, it became my fourth book, Public Administration Ethics for the 21st Century.
That was all well and good — I never say “no” to publishing a book — but I still needed to produce a dissertation if I wanted to earn my degree.
Ideally, a dissertation is a book-length exploration of a ground-breaking subject that contributes in some small way toward the production of knowledge. In reality, it is a long, generally turgid piece of research that is good for earning a degree and slipping through the university as expeditiously as possible. If the author is fortunate and has chosen a good, interesting subject (“interesting” being a relative term here), he or she can subsequently transform the dissertation into a book or an article.
I told Dr. Bozeman that I had my heart set on writing about administrative ethics. Since my ideas so far had been unacceptable, and since I had eaten up a year trying to determine a suitable topic, I was open to suggestions.
Taking pity on me, he rattled off a list of topics he believed would fit well with my personality and research interests. Most of them were not to my liking, save one.
Dr. Bozeman is very interested in figuring out how and why people reach scientific decisions, especially under conditions of uncertainty. He told me about the literature and the challenges, which I understood immediately. If I could not write something about administrative ethics, scientific decision-making would fit the bill.
I needed to assemble a committee of at least four UGA professors to oversee my dissertation. Along with Dr. Bozeman and Dr. Rainey, I added Dr. J. Edward Kellough to my dissertation committee:
With my four-member dissertation committee in place, I immediately knew how I would proceed. My good friend Dr. M. Christine Cagle works at the United States Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). I felt certain she could help me find scientific decision-makers.
As it turned out, Chris introduced me to several CDC officials who eventually recommended that I use the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) as a case study. The ACIP is a fifteen-member group of physicians that meets periodically to review data on vaccines licensed for use in the United States by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Group members make recommendations to the CDC on vaccine uses and doses for specific populations by developing written recommendations for routine vaccine administration to the pediatric and adult populations, along with vaccination schedules regarding appropriate periodicity, dosage, and contraindications. ACIP statements are official federal recommendations for the use of vaccines and immune globulins in the United States, and are published by the CDC.
I eventually decided that the ACIP was a strong case study since group members invariably make a multitude of decisions under conditions of scientific uncertainty. In the ensuing months, I interviewed 13 ACIP members on the telephone. I discovered that where a high degree of technical consensus exists about the evidence and data, ACIP members make decisions according to a clear decision rule. If a high degree of technical consensus does not exist and uncertainty abounds, the decision will be based on a variety of criteria, including readily available resources, decision-process constraints, and the available knowledge base, among other things. In short, ACIP medical decision-makers employ a variety of heuristic devices and techniques, thereby relying on a pragmatic approach to uncertainty in medical decision-making.
This realization became my thesis for the dissertation. I wrote a new prospectus to this effect, and Dr. Bozeman accepted it. The committee agreed with his assessment.
I was on my way.
The committee approved the prospectus in May 2008. I wrote the first draft from May 2008 until November 2008. Dr. Bozeman provided me with comments in December 2008. I produced a second draft from December 2008 through February 2009. Dr. Bozeman approved the changes and submitted the second draft to the committee in March 2009. I defended the dissertation in person in April 2009, and earned my Ph.D. in May 2009. It was a long process. I completed my Ph.D. coursework from August 2002 through May 2006. It took me from August 2006 until May 2009 to complete the dissertation. From start to finish, this chore consumed almost seven years of my life.
By the way, here is a copy of my dissertation from the University of Georgia:
Okay, the dissertation got the job done, but it was not the epitaph for my tombstone. I considered it a decent, but hardly groundbreaking effort.
Fortunately, I was able to revise it a bit and publish an article based on the dissertation in The Journal of Medicine & Philosophy. Yet even that process was difficult. I submitted the manuscript to the journal in May 2009. In January 2010, the editors asked that I revise and resubmit the text. I did so. Once again, the editors asked for revisions, this time in July 2010. I complied with their request. In August 2011, the journal finally agreed to accept the manuscript for publication. And it only took 27 months!
How many people will read this article when all is said and done? Not many. Yet there it sits, parked in a lonely cul-de-sac in a far-flung corner of academe.
It may not help me gain an audience, but this type of academic publishing has helped me snag a part-time position teaching at the University of Georgia. I now labor alongside my former dissertation committee members.
Bob Dylan once wrote about “a funny old world that’s coming along.” He was correct.
As I said, welcome to the weird world of academic publishing.