That tricky first book: trends from the job market

I’ve seen a lot of early-career academic CVs recently: more than 200 of them, in fact, in the process of my Department appointing to five lectureships. This has prompted me to reflect on the nature of competition for lectureships, and the expectations and demands weighing upon those seeking to transition from life as a doctoral student to life as a lecturer. I’ve looked at these issues from different perspectives in other blog-posts (e.g. on the job market, and the teaching-only job). In this one I want to focus on publishing: in particular, I’m interested in the first book of an academic career in the humanities.

Looking back a generation or two, there was rarely any expectation that someone applying for a permanent lectureship would already have published a monograph. A well-placed article and a PhD from one of the ‘right’ universities was usually adequate. The expectation was that a monograph would take time. Indeed North American universities still commonly write such expectations into tenure-track requirements, requiring a book after about five years. In the UK, where probation requirements have typically been less stringent, monographs did not always emerge at all. But when they did, they often demonstrated the adage that good work takes time.

Over the past 25 years or so, however, there has been an acceleration of expectations in early-career publishing. This has been fuelled by successive RAEs and REF – or, more accurately, by a systemic over-reaction to the requirements of these exercises. I see two interrelated patterns here. Firstly, while there are undeniable pressures to publish (quickly) on those who emerge from a PhD in the year or two preceding a REF, these pressures seem to have become entrenched in the system, to the extent that most early-career researchers now set themselves similarly punishing schedules. Secondly, while the REF actually sets relatively benign expectations in terms of quantity for early-career academics, a competitive drive towards (over-)production is often hard to resist.

The whole business of academic publishing has evolved in parallel with these systemic changes. More monographs are being published than ever before. According to HEFCE’s Monographs and Open Access (2015) report, the numbers of new monograph titles published per year by the four major UK academic publishers roughly doubled between 2004 and 2013. And that’s just the four biggest publishers; I think we’ve also seen an expansion in the overall number of publishers. My interpretation of this situation is that academic publishing has become cheaper and more efficient – often, notably, by cutting back on peer review and copy-editing – so some publishers are building business models based more on quantity than quality. I suspect the same is happening with journals, but that’s another story.

What has this meant for early-career academics? Others have looked more carefully at the attitudes of ECRs towards publishing; here I want simply to consider the evidence presented in applications for lectureships. The table below, derived from the job applications I’ve reviewed in our current round of appointments, requires some initial comments. Firstly, the jobs were in Film Studies as well as English. (Some publishers lean obviously towards – or away from – each of these disciplines.) Secondly, the Film Studies job attracted a lot of applicants from continental Europe. Thirdly, the English positions were all in specific areas, some of which (e.g. digital cultures) don’t have an established presence in the lists of the more conventional academic publishers. Fourthly, I’ve tried to list only first academic monographs, so I’ve excluded some items which didn’t appear to fit this category.

Across all applications that we received, 51% listed a first monograph as either published, forthcoming, contracted or under review; another 34% made no mention of a monograph, while the final 15% was composed of applicants still completing doctoral study.

Status of ‘first books’ listed on CVs of applicants for lectureships, Exeter English 2015

Publisher Published Forthcoming Contracted; preparing Under review
Palgrave 12 6 5 4
Routledge 8 3 2
Ashgate 1 4
Cambridge UP 1
Oxford UP 2
Manchester UP 1 2
Edinburgh UP 2 1 1 3
Other UK academic presses 9 3 4
Other European academic presses 20 3
US publishers 3 1 1 3
Totals 57 23 13 12

What might we learn from these data? Firstly, they appear to confirm an impression of career-acceleration. Secondly, they confirm the importance of publishers other than the big British university presses. Thirdly, they raise questions about the brand of the academic monograph: or, in other words, about the impact that this line on a CV might be expected to have on a potential employer. At a shortlisting stage, panels are forced to look for proxies of quality. When so many monographs are published, however, it can be difficult at this stage to separate the excellent from the exceptional.

There are lessons here for employers as well as potential employees. Point one: a lecturer appointed to a first job in September 2015 will almost certainly require just three items for REF2020ish, and that might include a double-weighted monograph and at least one item that has not yet been written. So why do panels commonly ask candidates for their four best items? That question won’t necessarily help to identify the best candidate. Point two: one of the lessons from REF2014 was that many monographs were graded lower than four-star, while many other items were graded higher than three-star. So why our fixation on the monograph? Many of us, it seems to me, have some thinking to do about how we manage appointment processes, and what preconceptions we bring to the table.

So how many of our appointees have monographs? Not all of them, actually: a monograph doesn’t guarantee a job, nor does lack of a monograph preclude appointment. But most of them did.

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One thought on “That tricky first book: trends from the job market

  1. On the business of academic publishing, this blog-post is really interesting:
    http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/sep/04/academics-are-being-hoodwinked-into-writing-books-nobody-can-buy
    It’s all anecdotal, and it would help to know the author’s discipline, but it’s evidence of what many of us have long suspected: that there are publishers out there making money by publishing lots of academic titles at short print-runs and high prices, but with low production values. To return to a theme from my own REF blog-posts, many of us are learning the hard way that there are books and there are books. Peer review matters more than ever: both within the publishing process, to ensure that publishers maintain standards and reputations for quality; and again when we get to the business of research assessment. And ditto job selection processes, for that matter: it’s surely more important than ever – and fair to the candidates – that we make time in the process to read very carefully the research that applicants have produced. CVs can be deceptive.

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