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Overview of Research Findings

Module by: Lawrence McGill. E-mail the author

In September 2005, the Mellon Foundation funded an exploratory research project to assess the state of scholarly publishing in the field of art and architectural history, with the goal of understanding the challenges faced by both scholars and publishers working in this area. From the perspective of university-based art historians, shrinking opportunities to publish scholarly books are experienced as jeopardizing the intellectual vitality of art and architectural history. From the perspective of publishers, increasing publication costs and commercial pressures are experienced as constraining their ability to publish in certain areas of scholarship.

The present study involved seven components: background data collection on trends in art history publishing; background data collection on trends in art history doctorates conferred; focused discussion sessions with art historians; interviews with editors and publishers in the field; a focused discussion session with art history editors; a survey of art history editors on the characteristics of the art publishing programs at their presses; and a summit meeting of authors, publishers, and the Mellon Foundation to discuss the research findings and their implications.

Quantitative data collection

Art history publishing.

To quantify trends in art history publishing, data were collected on the number of art history works published annually by university presses since 1980. A sample of these works was further broken down into the categories of single-author works and museum-related works. Some key findings:

The number of art history books published annually by university presses climbed significantly from the early 1990s to the late 1990s, but has grown at a much slower rate since 2000.(It is important to note that this includes all titles classified as art history, including single-author monographs, multiple-author works, edited volumes, exhibition catalogues, etc.) During the early 1990s (1990-94), university presses published 1,356 art history books, according to the Bowker Global Books in Print database, or an average of about 269 art history titles per year. During the second half of the 1990s (1995-99), the number of art history books published by university presses increased 37% to 1,844, or an average of 369 per year (i.e., 100 more titles per year).

During the next five year period (2000-04), the number of art history books published by university presses increased once again, but at a much slower rate. Between 2000 and 2004, university presses published 1,949 art history books (an average of 390 art history titles per year), an increase of 6% (or 21 more books per year) over the previous five-year period.

Figure 1: (Click on graphic for enlarged view.)
Figure 1 (ArtHistPubs.png)

The number of single-author works in art history increased significantly from the early 1990s to the late 1990s, but declined somewhat during the most recent five-year period for which data are available (2000-04). A title by title analysis of art history books at eight university presses considered to be key publishers in the field of art history shows that the number of single-author works in art history published by these presses increased from an average of 63 per year during the late 1980s to 121 per year during the late 1990s (a 92% increase). Between 2000 and 2004, however, the average number of single-author works in art history published by these presses declined to about 117 per year, a 3% drop.

Figure 2: (Click on graphic for enlarged view.)
Figure 2 (ArtHistPhDs.png)

Art history Ph.D.'s

From 1992-93 to 2002-03, the number of Ph.D.'s awarded annually in art history (and related fields, such as art criticism and art studies, but not including architecture or archaeology) increased dramatically. During the fourteen years prior to the 1993-94 academic year (1979-93), the field had awarded an average of about 156 Ph.D.'s per year. Between 1993-94 and 1996-97 (a span of four years), the field awarded an average of 198 Ph.D.'s per year, a 27% increase over the previous 14-year average. Since 1998-99, the field has awarded an average of 236 Ph.D.'s per year, an increase of another 19% from the mid-1990s, and a total increase of 51% since the 1980s and early 1990s. In the most recent two years for which data are available (2002-03 and 2003-04), there were 260 and 259 Ph.D.'s awarded in the field of art history, or over 100 more Ph.D.'s per year than was typical during the 1980s and early 1990s.

While the total number of doctoral degrees awarded (in all fields) has also increased since 1992-93, the field of art history has been producing Ph.D.'s at a far more rapid rate than the typical discipline. The average annual rate of increase of Ph.D.'s in all fields since 1992-93 has been just under 1 percent per year, while art history Ph.D.'s have increased at a rate of more than 8 percent per year.

Qualitative data collection

Three focused discussions sessions were held with art history scholars concerning theirpublishing experiences and those of their colleagues and advisees. The first group was comprised of younger scholars (who had received their Ph.D.'s within the past 10 years), the second was conducted with mid-career and senior scholars, and the third with chairs of graduate art history departments in the northeastern United States.

In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with senior representatives from a number of leading art history publishers in order to hear their perspectives on the problems involved in publishing in this field. Among the topics explored were issues associated with heavily illustrated books; numbers of manuscripts being submitted, accepted, and rejected both before and after peer review; and publishers' perceptions of their audiences, trends in the field, and their strategies for art history publishing.

A focused discussion session was also held with art history editors during the annual conference of the College Art Association in February 2006, and a follow-up survey of art history editors was conducted in order to collect data on the characteristics of the art publishing programs at their presses.

Challenges associated with art history publishing

These investigations revealed a number of challenges associated with the publishing of monographic scholarship in art and architectural history. These challenges might be summed up as follows:

  1. Art history is different.
  2. Scholarly publishing is changing.
  3. Conflicting mandates: specialization versus breadth of appeal.
  4. Where are the subventions?
  5. Is the peer review process working?
  6. How should art historians advise Ph.D. students?
  7. Tenure criteria and library purchasing policies are at odds.
  8. Alternative outlets for publication may better suit some types of scholarship.
  9. How is scholarship being evaluated?

Art history is different.

The "crisis" in scholarly publishing that affects all scholarly disciplines has hit art and architectural history especially hard. The reasons for this are clear: texts in this field require illustrations, and illustrations create costs that don't exist for books in other scholarly fields. Although it may be overstating the case somewhat, one scholar put it this way: "I'm envious of my colleagues in other fields, such as English, where they can churn out books, while I'm searching for funds to cover illustration costs." Another scholar said, "You have to be a good financial manager in addition to being a scholar. The amount of energy is doubled in this field: production costs for images, along with permission rights." Meanwhile, the tenure clock is ticking.

Scholarly publishing is changing.

Sales of scholarly books have dropped substantially. A press that used to be able to sell 2,000 copies of a book in art history may now have to be satisfied with selling 700. Libraries that may have purchased 700 to 900 copies of an art history book fifteen years ago may purchase 150 to 300 today. If it is a borderline decision to "crank up the [publishing] machine" (in the words of University of California Press director, Lynne Withey) to publish a typical scholarly monograph in the humanities that may sell 1000 copies, how much harder is it to justify cranking up the machine to publish an image-laden work of art history scholarship that may sell only 700?

Museum stores used to be important outlets for art history publications. Now, scholarly publications are fighting a generally losing battle against trinkets and souvenirs for floor space in museum stores. MOMA "killed its book section," according to one editor. Another says that, with the exception of the Metropolitan Museum, she "does not consider museum stores to be venues for serious readers anymore."

There appears to be a greater emphasis at university presses on trying to reach wider audiences with scholarly books. There is a growing perception that more cross-disciplinary titles are being published and that marketing considerations play a greater role today in determining how a press's art history list is defined and how individual titles are categorized in terms of subject matter.

There is also a perception among scholars that it is more difficult today to turn a dissertation into a book. While we don't have enough data to test this claim, one editor did say that wholesale distributors (through which the largest percentage of university press titles are distributed) now tend to cull books that have a "revised dissertation" smell about them as they evaluate titles for potential distribution.

Specialization versus breadth of appeal.

This dilemma is succinctly spelled out by a scholar who says, "I'm not clear on what type of book I should be trying to publish as my first book. On the one hand, I have to show that I am a specialist in my field which means my topic has to be relatively narrow. On the other hand, if I submit this [manuscript] to a publisher, it will be rejected for being too narrow or specialized." From the publishers' perspective, many "scholars in art history seem to be writing only for tenure committees and not at all for wider readership."

It should be noted that not all scholars see the movement towards greater interdisciplinarity in publications as a negative. Many find it exciting. But where does it leave younger scholars in the field?

Where are the subventions?

Publication costs in art history are rising and it isn't clear whether subventions are keeping up. Some presses maintain established relationships with subvention providers, while others are concerned that subventions are more difficult to obtain than they used to be. Meanwhile, the burden of identifying funding sources and obtaining subventions falls largely upon the shoulders of authors, a burden that weighs especially heavily upon scholars seeking to publish their first book. How might this burden be relieved?

Is the peer review process working?

Some of the more senior scholars with whom we spoke expressed the concern that peer reviews are sometimes ignored, resulting in the publication of manuscripts of questionable merit. Since reviews take time for which reviewers are not well-compensated, what is the incentive to do a review if it may not have an impact on the process of manuscript revision and publication?

How should art historians advise Ph.D. students?

This is related to the point about "specialization versus breadth of appeal." Here's the dilemma: The purpose of a dissertation is to advance knowledge in one's field, which requires specialization. To achieve tenure in one's field, one must publish at least one and possibly two books. Publications "count" more towards tenure if they are published by prestigious presses. All things being equal, prestigious presses would prefer to publish books that will have broad appeal. So, what should art historians tell their advisees about choosing a subject for and approaching the writing of their dissertation? Or, as one of the younger scholars put it, "If both scholarship and reaching a wider audience are deemed important, does that mean I have to publish on two different tracks at once?"

Tenure criteria and library purchasing policies are at odds.

Even as tenure at many institutions still depends upon the publication of single-author monographs, one of the most important drivers of scholarly book sales, namely libraries at institutions of higher education, is drying up due to budget pressures. In short, the demand for scholarly monographs has dramatically decreased, while the pressure on scholars to publish monographs has not changed.

Alternative outlets for publication may better suit some types of scholarship.

Some scholars argue that the focus on producing single-author monographs (in order to achieve tenure or secure a promotion) may be counterproductive for the advancement of a field. In some subfields, for example, the exhibition catalogue may be the dominant form of publication. In archaeology, the field moves forward not just through the publication of scholarly monographs, but through fieldwork, curating shows, and creating databases. In newer subfields, journal articles may be the only viable venue for disseminating scholarship.

There is also the question of how to "publish" dissertation research, a question that grows more pressing as traditional publishing opportunities seem to be narrowing. How might digital publishing play a role in the dissemination of dissertation research?

And what additional opportunities might digital publishing open up for the field? Are hybrid publications (with both print and digital components) a sensible option for some types of scholarship? Is the field looking for ways to take advantage of new opportunities presented by the digital publishing option, such as searchability, interactivity, and hypertext capabilities?

How is scholarship being evaluated?

Because "art history is different," the evaluation of scholarship in art history is arguably more complicated than it is in other disciplines. Art historians not only publish books and articles, they also curate shows, write catalogue essays and do fieldwork. If those activities are done well, many would contend that they contribute substantially to advancing scholarship in the field.

Art history is also a field with many subdivisions. The audiences for specialized scholarship in some subfields are, arguably, not large enough to warrant "cranking up the machine." One scholar said, "I would like to see universities be more reasonable about what they expect from scholars who choose to work in areas that perhaps might not be able to support the publication of a book. I wrote a book, but I'm coming to find out that my book is actually a bunch of articles in terms of the interest that exists in the area I've spent my career working in. Many of us have a small sphere of interest. So, we need to reconsider how to evaluate scholarship in terms of how well it has been done, regardless of who publishes it."

Summit meeting of authors, publishers, and the Mellon Foundation

Recognizing that the issues affecting scholarly publishers and art historians are flip sides of the same coin, a summit meeting of scholars and commissioning editors was designed as the final element of the research project. To forge a productive strategy for dealing with the issues that affect both art history scholars and publishers, the summit meeting was conceived as a way of systematically sharing and discussing the preliminary research findings, and defining and prioritizing the steps that need to be taken next to deal effectively with these issues.

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