Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What's wrong with academic publishing?

An article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education reports that academic publishers have cut costs by outsourcing copyediting and reducing proofreading (big surprise), but it also suggests that the field of academic publishing is the humanities is suffering from success: too many scholars produce too much academic writing. Another article in Inside Higher Ed reports on studies suggesting that scholars make mistakes in citation and often misrepresent the content of cited articles; although these studies focus on the sciences, they indicate a trend toward sloppiness also apparent in the humanities.

I have seen ample evidence of these problems in my recent reading, but I wouldn't mind wading through the massive mountain of scholarship on my topic if the writing weren't so uninspired. I really don't understand how scholars who immerse themselves in literature written by some of the world's greatest stylists show so little awareness of the rhythms of the English language: surely surrounding one self with great writing ought to have a discernible influence on one's own style.

And sloppiness of style goes hand-in-hand with sloppiness of citation. I recently read an article in which a scholar offered a biting critique of factual errors in Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days, which draws historical figures into a work of fiction. Now I would love to enter into a discussion about the finer points of fictionalizing historical figures: how much should the author depart from verifiable fact? If a work of fiction includes factual errors about a historical figure, what kind of error is that, exactly? What effect should it have on our assessment of the work as a whole?

But I can't really focus on that interesting topic because the article in question, even while criticizing Colson Whitehead's factual "error," refers to the author as Colin Whitehead. And then when I go to the citations to locate the source of a quote from an online article, I find that not only is the url inaccurate, but the citation lacks the additional information that would allow me to locate the article without the url. So instead of entering into a scholarly discussion on the fine line between fact and fiction, I'm off on a wild goose chase.

No one asked me what's wrong with scholarly writing, which is probably just as well, because instead of griping about how bad it it, I need to focus on producing some good stuff myself. My research is done and I've written about half of the article, which means I should have a complete draft by the end of next week if not sooner--but you'd better believe I'll get some skilled readers to look it over before I release it to the world. I would hate to be guilty of perpetrating yet more awful academic writing.

1 comment:

Joy said...

As soon as I saw "factual errors" I was waiting for the other shoe to drop!

I miss your wit and sarcasm!