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Friday, June 10, 2022

A fine institutionalist book review

I commend to your attention this review, which will be in this Sunday's New York Times book review. The book, published by Yale University Press, is on naval warfare during World War II, and the reviewer, Ian Toll, scores the author for multiple basic errors (for instance, multiple instances of confusing "ship" and "boat"--truly a basic for anyone writing in this area and something that anyone editing a book in this area ought to be aware of), a failure to really examine the recent literature in the area, and lazy citation practices. An illustrative and also important passage:

In a quick look at [author Paul] Kennedy’s earlier works, no references to boats for ships are found. In “Victory at Sea,” the instances fall into a 70-page section of the book, in Chapters 8 and 9. The question arises: After decades of having used the terms correctly, did Kennedy write the mistaken phrases in this book? Or did he lose control of the editing process? In his acknowledgments, he names eight research assistants, seven at Yale and one at King’s College London. He claims sole responsibility for the final product, “warts and all,” and in a strict sense, he is right to. But with enough research assistants to organize a basketball team, one wonders whether better coaching was needed. At the very least, some part of the collective effort could have been diverted to identifying and correcting errors, for example, by searching Wikipedia.

In a mark of his confidence as a scholar, Kennedy does not gloss over his reliance on that online encyclopedia. He quotes from Wikipedia liberally in the main text, cites it more often than any other single source and regrets that he cannot acknowledge so many “fine though anonymous” authors by name. And indeed, Wikipedia does not deserve much of the disparagement often aimed against it. As a “first look” reference, it is a handy tool; this reviewer even consulted it while writing this review. Wikipedia’s articles on military history have improved in recent years, and many contain information not easily found elsewhere on the web. But, by Wikipedia’s own account, studies measuring its accuracy and reliability have been mixed, and its crowdsourced model means that any page can be edited by anyone, at any time, anonymously. For that reason, Wikipedia “does not consider itself to be a reliable source and discourages readers from using it in academic or research settings.” Many university professors would mark down a student paper that included uncorroborated Wikipedia citations. For a major university press to include more than 80 in one volume may be unprecedented. What on earth is going on in New Haven?

Like Toll, I like Wikipedia and think it does not deserve the amount of lazy sneering it receives from academics. But it goes without saying that 80 citations to it in one volume is odd--and, from a major university press, hard to fathom, if you will pardon the pun.

Toll's review is brutal--tougher than I have seen in the Times for some time, except where the criticism is a matter of uninteresting political or culture-war disagreement. It is as tough as, but less self-regarding and catty than, the tough reviews one sees in the NYRB. I read this review, as I think one can and should, as a sign of respect on Toll's part. Kennedy is a serious scholar and Yale is a serious scholarly press. They both have earned the right to be taken seriously. And that means not simply throwing a book, or author, or press aside as unworthy of interest in the first place, but giving their work a careful look, and condemning error and failure past a certain forgivable level.

I think Toll is quite right to see this as raising institutional questions about the press that published the book and not just the author, although certainly Kennedy gets his full share of criticism. My sense--and I must say that I have a long-dormant and perhaps pulseless book contract with a fine university press, and haven't published with one recently, so it's just a general sense, based on a variety of tangible sources and more intangible evidence--is that in a tough market, and facing financial pressure from multiple sources, including universities that are unwilling to subsidize them as much as they used to if at all, many university presses have sought to adapt and streamline in a variety of ways. And they have become more and more interested in competing at some level with trade presses, or filling a market that trade presses have abandoned to some degree, by increasing their focus on and promotion of so-called "academic trade books," general-interest books by academics or for general but somewhat more rarified audiences. (You can get a sense of this, and some quotes showing a nice mix of enthusiasm and rationalization, in this story.) Kennedy's book has certainly been marketed in that fashion, and it is hardly alone in receiving that kind of marketing effort. May I write something that gets similar marketing attention! But this kind of focus and competitive approach, even if it is survival-oriented, raises serious institutional questions about what university presses should be doing, and what we should expect from them. Not 80 citations to Wikipedia, in any event. It is not clear that a university press that survives by emulating trade presses is a university press that ought to survive, just as a university that survived by shuttering all of its less popular departments and focusing only on departments with a high pecentage of alumni donations would be a university whose demise we ought not mourn. The B-school cliche "Adapt or die" is useful, but it does not tell us which of the two options is appropriate and under what circumstances. 

I'm not qualified to arbitrate the particulars of the review, although I know and admire Toll's recent work. But I can assume it caused some agita here and there. And I very much hope that it occasions some tough meetings and conversations in the offices of major university presses, and perhaps a greater number of critical conversations among academics about the state of those presses.    

(It goes without saying, perhaps, that I imagine that similar conversations could be held by and about law reviews, among other publications--and that this necessarily means that such discussions would be held by law faculty, since the state of those publications is the responsibility of the institutions that support them. If they lose or fail in their purpose, their editors should be only second or third in line for blame.) 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 10, 2022 at 05:40 PM | Permalink


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