Publisher's recycling of theory textbook leads to fears of 'Wikipediaisation'

Scholars say rehashing of material shows that quantity trumps quality. Melanie Newman reports

July 2, 2009

Academics have warned of the "Wikipediaisation" of scholarship following allegations of plagiarism and an ethos of "quantity over quality" in US academic publishing.

The controversy stems from the publication of a textbook by Routledge that drew heavily on material from one of its earlier guides.

The first text, Theory for Religious Studies, was published in 2004, when the authors signed a contract giving Routledge the right to use the material however it wanted in return for credit and royalties.

However, when the authors - William E. Deal and Timothy K. Beal, professors of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University - spotted that much of a later book, Theory for Performance Studies (2007), was identical to their own, they complained to the publisher.

Both the author, Philip Auslander, professor of literature, communication and culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the publisher denied plagiarism, arguing that the reproduced matter was little more than standard background information, such as biographical details, not original scholarship.

But after pressure from academics, Routledge withdrew the book and pulped its remaining stock.

A planned series of introductory books, dubbed Theory 4, which was to use the religious studies guide as a template for exploring other fields, has been discontinued.

The case has sparked a number of academic analyses, including a paper by Richard Schechner, editor of the journal Drama Review, who claimed the case was not an isolated incident.

"We need to see Theory 4 as something systematic, not incidental," he writes, describing the series as "a new level of no-shame academic publishing for profit".

"What makes a piece of scholarship significant is the addition of new materials and/or insights and/or critiques of existing works."

He says that Theory 4 would not meet these criteria, and that the reliance of Professor Auslander's book on material in the religious studies textbook was incongruous given that its focus was on a largely unrelated field.

"The key theorists of performance studies are not identical to those in religious studies," he writes. "The Theory 4 series is part of the Wikipediaisation of scholarship."

Responding to the criticism, Routledge said that the contentious series, which was ditched earlier this year, was meant to address pedagogical rather than scholarly needs. It added that it was "an isolated example of our publishing" that would not be repeated.

Professor Auslander has declined to speak about the case. A brief remark in the US Chronicle of Higher Education cites him as saying, "I don't consider this to be my fault." He did not respond to Times Higher Education's questions.

In an open letter, Peggy Phelan, professor of drama and English at Stanford University, implores him to speak out. "All who are accused of professional misdeeds of this sort have ... an obligation to explain their side of the story," she writes. "If senior scholars ... are driven to choose quantity over quality of publication, then we have a bigger problem than your particular case suggests."

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