Deadline culture dogs pure research

September 16, 2005

Academics are facing tighter deadlines, smaller print runs and more pressure to "dumb down" if they want to get their work published, according to research.

Jon Nixon and Jerry Wellington of Sheffield University carried out a survey of senior commissioning editors at seven major UK publishing companies in a bid to gauge the health of academic publishing.

Although the research, published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education , focuses on the publishing of books on education studies, Professor Nixon said it was likely that the conclusions could also be applied to other academic disciplines.

Professor Nixon and Dr Wellington found an "increasing tendency towards a restricted view of authorship, readership and editorship", with the demand for academics to write textbooks rising, and that for pure research shrinking.

A "good" academic author, according to the publishers they surveyed, is one who "delivers on time, writes to an agreed length and helps to market the book - for example, by recommending it to students - and is organised and communicative".

But the publishers also thought that a "good author" was one who "engages and sympathises with our business aims and the financial pressure we are under to publish successful books".

According to Professor Nixon and Dr Wellington, the research assessment exercise also "tends to skew the (academic) author towards particular forms and styles of writing that sit uncomfortably with (publishers') views of a 'good' book".

Professor Nixon said: "As the publishing industry has become increasingly exposed to market-driven corporatisation, so higher education has become increasingly subject to government-led accountability.

"The space for serious academic authorship has thereby been significantly diminished. Academic authors are caught between the conflicting demands of the market and the RAE.

"The temptation to dumb down, speed up and target a market niche is very strong, if one wishes to publish in book form through the commercial publishing outlets."

But Robert Parker, editorial director of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said that the survey's conclusions might be less relevant to academics in the sciences.

"This is one where there is a probably a significant difference between the arts, social sciences and the sciences," he said. "In the arts and social sciences, people people tend to publish their results through books.

"The exception is in the US, where to some extent there can be necessity to write a book to get tenure. But that is not the case in the UK, where there's not an awful lot of advantage to (a scientist in) writing a book, unless it is one that will really enhance your reputation."

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