Rumours of a death that may be true

December 10, 1999

The scholarly monograph's print run can be fewer than 150. Is its end, hastened by the internet and the RAE, in sight? Harriet Swain reports.

Decline, death and crisis are terms that have come to be linked with the scholarly monograph as a matter of course. More than 20 years ago, Geoffrey Elton initiated a move by the Royal Historical Society to publish a set of monographs, concerned that young scholars were finding it harder and harder to get into print. Now, threatened by decreasing university and library resources, the impact of electronic publishing and pressures on young academics' time, the monograph is discussed as if it should hardly have survived so long. Next week - at an Institute of Historical Research conference in London, "Is the Monograph Dead?" - historians will try to find out whether it has any kind of future.

There is some evidence to suggest that its death could be imminent. Earlier this year, Cambridge University Press announced it would be cutting the number of monographs it publishes by 15 to 20 per cent over the next three years. Other publishers' catalogues are also looking thin, although figures showing the precise extent of the decline are hard to come by. All agree that history has been particularly badly hit.

Cash is a key factor. Library budget cuts mean editors of university presses can now count on selling only half the number of monographs to libraries that they did 20 years ago. Individual academics, the other main market, can hardly afford to pay the Pounds 40 or so cover price of many monographs, which rarely appeal to a wider readership, although university presses in the United States are urging academics to write in a more popular and saleable style.

This is a tall order when pressure is mounting on young academics to produce fast. In the US, tenure is dependent on publication. David Cannadine, recently returned from the US and now director of the IHR, is concerned the same may soon happen in the United Kingdom. While he says the essential starting point for anyone wanting to be a historian is to write a book, he suggests the research assessment exercise may have increased the pressure to produce them too quickly and on too obscure themes.

Michael Prestwich, chair of the RAE history panel, disputes this. "We are asking people to put forward four of their best publications in six years - books or articles - which is not too demanding," he says.

Like many others, he suggests new technology may prove the solution, making cheaper and smaller print runs possible. One day academics may be able to download a monograph from their computers, he suggests. Far from killing it off, this could mean a new lease of life for the monograph.

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