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Geography's Cultures of Publication

November 01, 2012

Eric Sheppard

In many ways, Geography mirrors the western academy as a whole, which is why we often seem like misfits within the disciplinary boxes used to organize this academy. How we publish is one of those ways. Our cultures of scholarly publication range from multi-authored highly abbreviated articles summarizing scientific results (particularly physical geographers), to conference proceedings (particularly in GIScience), longer sole- or joint-authored articles, and books of various kinds. Each approach makes perfect sense for the sub-culture involved, also as a way to communicate geographical scholarship effectively to cognate disciplinary clusters (physical science, computer science, social sciences and humanities). Yet what seems natural to some of us puzzles others. Further, geographers’ choices of how to publish are shaped and incentivized by a multitude of forces over which we have limited control. This can pose problems for individual geographers, and the discipline.

Consider, for example, the National Research Council’s  (NRC) decision about what constitutes geographical scholarship, when it ranked U.S. graduate Geography programs in 2010. The only geographical publications that counted for the NRC were refereed journal articles for which Web of Science citation data are collected—and for which each author gained full credit on every co-authored article. Of course this favored departments with a multi-authored journal publishing culture, ceteris paribus, disadvantaging departments with a more cultural focus. (These controversial rankings were revised, but this decision was not.) Behind this was not only a blinkered view of the nature of Geography (as an earth and social science), but also the limitations of Web of Science as the selected publications database. Only recently has ISI Thomson extended their database to include books and conference proceedings, and their rules about what to include differ from others such as Scopus and Google Scholar. 

The publishing industry has its own priorities, incentivizing publication cultures in other ways. New journals have proliferated, as journals with modest circulation numbers are now profitable. Publishers also offer inducements to edit survey books, encyclopedias, companions, handbooks, etc., also currently deemed profitable. Geography thus has put significant effort into boutique journals (great for energizing a newly emergent scholarly community, albeit at the risk of balkanizing larger-scale communications networks), and state-of-the-art edited collections (helpful for students, but sapping scholarly energy from original research and often duplicating one another). Yet scholarly monographs, particularly by less well-known and marketable geographers, are increasingly difficult to publish. University presses, under market-oriented pressure to become financially self-sufficient, increasingly find themselves thinking and acting like the for-profit industry.

Such pressures concatenate through departmental and disciplinary cultures, as we try and game the ranking systems we increasingly are subjected to and evaluated by. I hear from faculty about chairs suggesting they desist from publishing books, and from authors with papers under review in a journal where the editor asks them to add more citations to that journal (boosting its ISI-defined “impact factor”). 

The popularity of journal articles aligns with a contemporary merit evaluation culture that incentivizes short-termism: “fast” scholarship (more frequent, shorter publications, in journals with high citation counts) rather than the “slow geography” of major monographs. The Annals has followed this trend. Its book review editor Kent Mathewson calculates that the number of books reviewed annually in the Annals has fallen from 60 to 25 since 2008, as the backlog of accepted articles lengthened.

Book publishing must remain central to maintaining the diversity of scholarly excellence that is Geography’s hallmark. Indeed, those geographers who have had the greatest impact beyond the discipline frequently achieved this through their books. Within the contemporary academy, much is made of the fact that journals utilize double-blind reviews to ensure quality control. Yet the refereeing process is far from perfect, as some spectacular faux pas in the sciences remind us, and the different vetting process for books can be just as effective. Book editors, with their reputations at stake, can be more exacting than an over-worked journal reviewer. Academic publishers, before investing in a scholarly monograph, solicit multiple anonymous reviews from top scholars prior to issuing a contract (ten in all, for my recent book prospectus). 

The AAG is undertaking a new initiative to reinvigorate Geography’s book publishing culture. Working with Taylor & Francis, in spring 2013 the Association plans to begin publishing the quarterly AAG Review of Books (ARB), an online journal free to members. Like Contemporary Sociology and Reviews in Anthropology, the ARB will be devoted to reviewing and debating books of interest to geographers and fellow-travellers. If geographers can induce the NRC to value the diversity of publishing essential to our discipline, bring more attention to geographical monographs from in and beyond the discipline, push the citation counting industry to broaden its remit, and reinvigorate respect for academic book publishing in all areas of Geography, these will be steps in the right direction.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

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