Reviewing and Publishing


Portrait of a Scholar, Domenico Fetti, C17th

by Alexander Key

I’ve just finished a review of a recent monograph on a mediaeval Arabic scholar in which I noted a few translation and typographical errors, commended the philology involved, and gave a synopsis of the contents. So much, so unsurprising; this is the way my field works. The review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Islamic Studies. This review, however, turned out to be a little bit different, in large part because the monograph in question presented a puzzle. It was exceptionally well-researched and showed evidence of deep familiarity and comfort with the mediaeval Arabic intellectual context in which the mediaeval scholar in question should be situated. At the same time, it exhibited what appeared to be a willful ignorance of the tremendous amount of scholarship that has taken place in the English and European language academy over the last century or so. Both great names of the field and recent PhD theses and monographs, all of which deal directly with the same mediaeval scholar, were ignored in the text and unmentioned in the footnotes or bibliography.

Politics, and Orientalism, would seem to be rearing their ugly head here. Was the author of the monograph engaging in some form of cultural or political resistance against the Western academy and its output? My mind was full of such unproductive and faintly essentialist speculations before I finally (thanks to the librarians at SOAS) got hold of the 2003 PhD thesis that formed the basis for the monograph under review. This thesis was a revelation. All the same depth of research and philological rigor was in evidence – but the engagement with English-language scholarship that I had been criticizing the monograph author for omitting (“disappointing”, “missed opportunity”) was all there! Footnoted. Referenced.

So the author of this monograph had engaged in a critical conversation with pre-existing scholarship on the mediaeval scholar in question. And then removed that critical conversation from the published book. Again, this might well be a publishing dynamic with which other fields are familiar, for better or worse.

But the argument I want to make is twofold: first – our field (the mediaeval Arabic and Persian world) is so under-supplied with basic philological, biographical, and bibliographic studies that we cannot afford to delete the self-referential academic conversations by which it is constructed. The book I was reviewing is the first ever book in English on this mediaeval scholar, and this mediaeval scholar is one of the most important in his century and on his continent.

Second – what was the motivation on the part of the author of the study to de-academize her work for publication? Was it to reach a wider audience? (Laudable). Was it reach a different audience, a nonacademic one? (Equally laudable). The book I read for review was a readable and philologically reliable meditation on Islamic ethics and the themes of love, generosity, and the journey. I can well imagine it appealing to a wide audience that cares about mysticism (Sufism), Islam, and ethics. But it is on sale on Amazon for $90.19 reduced from $92.50, and at Barnes and Noble for $92.50. Those are library and academic-only prices – not the sort of prices that could work for the broader audience for whom the book’s revision may have been intended.

Who are the arbiters for this decision? I am guessing here, but it would seem to me that the author did not determine the price of her book, nor the imprint “Academic Studies” under which it appeared. I assume that she did not have an agent (see the recent posts on trade publishing by Andrew Goldstone and Lee Konstantinou). What is the decision the publishers took going to do for our field? Not much. We have a book that veers towards the nonacademic in exactly the place where we need an academic study. The need for English-language reference on this important mediaeval figure has not been met. The wider audience that the book as written might have reached has been priced, and marketed, out of access to the ethical meditations it contains. Publication has done the author the service of providing professionally verified access to her work, but in doing so the publication process has taken the popular audience away from her – while problematizing her reputation with academics.

This diagnosis of the situation can only put one in mind of open access solutions. And for me, it makes me think of another piece of work I have done recently – the editing and publication of a number of articles on, respectively, art and the Arab Spring (Nancy Demerdash), Iran’s nuclear power industry (Denis Volkov), and how Salafi Islam has surprisingly produced a more liberal definition of citizenship (David Warren and Christine Gilmore). The journal in question, New Middle Eastern Studies (NMES), is online only, focuses on early career scholarship, and has both a double-blind peer review process and rigorous editorial standards (full disclosure: I am a co-founder). NMES also exists on a non-profit, zero-funding, model in which the early career scholars it serves volunteer to do the editing and peer reviewing necessary to get articles into print at the right level of quality.

Could we at NMES have told the author of that monograph I reviewed that a series of articles in our journal would bear the same weight and have the same impact on her career as the book that she has just published? No. Or at least not with a straight face. And the differences between what NMES and the publisher of her book offer – both good and bad – are the issues that confront attempts to re-think the way academic publishing works. Just run through a few of these differences in your mind: access to libraries / reviews in journals of record / access to as broad an audience as possible / quality of copyediting / engagement of editors in the process… – and try to guess which variables might apply to NMES and which to Tauris…

Piece originally posted at Arcade | Creative Commons License