Fears grow over rush to publish

November 3, 1995

Huw Richards, in the third part of our series on the Research Assessment Exercise, examines book production.

A deluge of new books is likely in the first quarter of 1996 as publishers respond to the academic imperative of getting work into print before the research assessment census-point of March 31, 1996.

An editor with a relatively conservative academic publisher said: "Normally we'd have about eight books in February and March. Next year there'll be about 20."

The view confirms what literary editors, copyright librarians and all those compelled to take notice of academic books have feared. Publishers prefer not to discuss what will happen if a routine production jam leads to a few days slippage and Dr X's magnum opus, the product of six years' research and the cornerstone of his/her department's hope of an extra point on its research rating, only makes it into the shops a week late on Easter Monday.

There is nothing new about pressure to publish. The "publish or be damned" mentality hit United States universities long before research assessment was ever thought of and has as mesmeric an effect on them as research assessment does on their United Kingdom counterparts.

The funding councils recognised concern that earlier exercises were too crudely quantitative when, in their first circular about the 1996 exercise, they dropped the requirement that submissions include a departmental publications count. And even the fiercest critics of the process concede that four publications in four years - six years in the arts - is not too much to ask of an academic seeking research funding.

These refinements were only announced in June 1994, more than half way into the four-year RAE cycle. Iwan Williams, professor of astronomy at Queen Mary Westfield College, London, is not alone when he says: "While the rules may have been changed, I wonder how far the message has got through."

Perceptions of pressure still remain, with many stories of young academics with a book and two major refereed journal articles already published being badgered at job interviews about their fourth assessment entry. One social science professor says: "It isn't the only criterion, but it is probably the main one. And people who come in half way through the cycle are still under pressure to generate their four publications." Nor is quality necessarily the only criterion determining publication. Jeremy Black, professor of history at Durham University, says: "Publishers have their own strategies and priorities, however strictly academic their remit."

Publishers have become as familiar with the importance of March 31 as academics. Alec McAulay, publisher of Scola Press, says: "There have been a lot of phone calls seeking reassurance that books will definitely be out before then." One academic sought a contractual commitment to publish in time.

Journal editors come under the same pressures. Ron Johnston, editor of Political Geography, says: "I haven't had a fiver in the post, but publication date is uppermost in the mind of most contributors."

Institutional concern over publication was shown by department head who offered to pay for camera-ready copy to ensure publication of a staff member's book by March 1996, and another who furnished Mr McAulay's lasting memory of the 1989 RAE by offering his own highly desirable book, on condition that a work by a less starry department member was also taken.

No publisher admits lowering quality, but some will comment on the quality of the offerings received. As deputy editor of the Lancet, David Sharp receives a dozen submissions for every one he publishes. He says: "What I have noticed is that academics are often in a hurry to publish where they would once have been happy to wait another year or two and produce a definitive study."

The multi-authored article has become much more common, while "salami-publishing", breaking a study into several papers rather than one all-encompassing version, was a logical response to the crude quantitative methods of the first three RAEs. Journals have proliferated - although this is an international phenomenon - while Mike Power, professor of accounting at the London School of Economics, points to the mushrooming of working paper series. Mr McAulay has no doubt that many academics are dashing for publication. "We are getting an awful lot of unsolicited manuscripts that are nowhere near ready. Our return postage costs have become quite an issue."

Finding people to decide whether a book or article is fit for publication has also become problematic. Hugh Willmott, professor of accounting at the Manchester School of Management, says: "Refereeing has been one of the major unseen casualties of RAE."

Also the sort of books being written may also have been affected. Alan Jenkins, professor in the Educational Methods Unit at Oxford Brookes University, says: "There is no recognition for textbooks or teaching software packages. These are important for developing mass higher education, so is it really sensible to have a system that deters the highest-rated researchers from producing them ?" But not everyone is in a hurry. One Scola-published historian, secure in possession of four strong publications already, is keen that his next book should came out after March 31, ensuring a good start to the next cycle.

* Tudor Jones is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Leicester, not Bradford as we reported last week.

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