One helpful piece of advice that I received during my doctoral studies came from the late Keith Hopkins: when planning and writing the thesis, think of it in terms of the book that it’s going to become in due course. This shaped my approach in all sorts of ways, and I would say that it worked, both in helping me to produce a more readable and coherent thesis, and in reducing the amount of work needed afterwards to turn it into a respectable book (one reviewer claimed that it still looked like a published PhD thesis rather than a proper book, which I would dispute, and at the very least argue that it’s a lot less like a published PhD thesis than a lot of other published PhD theses…). It has occurred to me since that Hopkins was a rather odd person to be offering such advice, given that most of his own books were collections of loosely-connected studies rather than ‘proper’ monographs, but presumably this was one of those “do as I say, not as I do” things. It does mean that I was, quite without realising it, completely brainwashed into the humanities tradition of privileging monographs over articles, partly because I enjoy writing them (or, to be more precise, I enjoy having written them; the actual process can be a bit painful). Assuming that my forthcoming book on Thucydides and the Idea of History doesn’t hit any unforeseen snags in the production process, by the end of this year I should have as many books as peer-reviewed articles, which from the perspective of any of the sciences or social sciences is really, really weird…
These thoughts have been provoked by the decision of the American Historical Association to call for an embargo on the digital publication of PhD dissertations, for fear that this might reduce the chances of those dissertations then finding a proper publisher, which would then impact on the professional prospects of the authors. There’s been some very interesting discussion of this, particularly on Crooked Timber, albeit much of it expressing incredulity at the bizarre practices of historians (why do we bother with these monograph things at all?) and almost all of it focused on the US situation and the operations of tenure – but I think it’s easy enough to imagine how these issues relate to the UK and above all to the REF. One of the reasons this topic is so interesting is that brings together a whole load of different issues, each problematic in its own way, and tangles them up together. How far this is about the unthinking traditions of the humanities, which over-privilege the monograph at the expense of articles, so that (as with Hopkins, one might think) it’s necessary to put together collections of articles to be published as books in order to gain proper respect in the profession, rather than relying on the articles in their own right (and would this still be the case)? How far is it about the unrealistic expectations made of early-career scholars in an increasingly vicious competition for academic jobs, with monograph publication operating as a filtering system – showing, if not the actual quality of the research, then the student’s connections and patronage network, which may be just as important? How far is it about patterns of research or unconscious assumptions about colleagues’ reading habits – under the AHA proposal, dissertations will still have to be deposited in physical form in a university library, and hence available to anyone who really wants to read them, so the digital embargo implies both that there are lots of other people who might read it if it were more easily available, and that this would then undermine the potential readership for a book version to the extent that publishers wouldn’t bother (n.b. the AHA page does offer links to some evidence that this is indeed the way some publishers think). How far is it about resistance to the digital revolution, and concern for the old models of publication and dissemination (not least as gatekeepers), and how far about genuine concern for young academics?
One of the big differences between the US and UK situations in this respect is that the former works to some extent to a tenure/no-tenure opposition – up to a certain point, you have to play by the unwritten rules in order to stand any chance of moving from one state to the other, whereas afterwards you can then enjoy a bit more freedom in what sorts of things you publish and where – whereas in the UK, with the ongoing evaluation of ‘research quality’ through the REF, unwritten and unvoiced assumptions about the prestige of different sorts of publication remain with all academics until retirement, regardless of seniority and eminence. The most prominent concerns about this have focused on the fact that the REF seems to be based on a science/social science model privileging peer-reviewed articles and implicitly down-grading monographs (by weighting them exactly the same as an article, regardless of the work involved in each, unless you take the enormous gamble of putting forward a monograph in place of two articles and hoping the reviewers share your view of its quality). However, given that the peer reviewers on the REF sub-panel doubtless share the wider historical profession’s view of the importance of monographs as well as (or even over) peer-reviewed articles, pursuing the apparently rational instrumental strategy may not be so clever, and certainly it may not cut the mustard when it comes to applying for jobs or promotion. Are there any UK professors of history or ancient history who have built their careers entirely on articles rather than monographs? It doesn’t strike me as very likely.
As mentioned, I rather like the monograph-scale project (albeit mostly resulting in the sorts of polemical but sketchy monographs, exploring an idea or two rather than developing them in depth, that probably isn’t going to impress the REF assessors so much as something more solid and scholarly). I also like developing ideas through conference papers, even over a series of them, and would consider that some of my better ideas are to be found being worked out in the course of a number of different chapters in collected volumes over a period of time rather than consolidated in a monograph or peer-reviewed article – which is even more useless from a REF perspective. I do feel the implicit pressures of the REF system quite strongly – and have tended to respond not by stopping the things I actually want to do, but by writing additional things that seem more likely to meet the expected criteria and so allow me to make a reasonably adequate contribution to the departmental profile. This is really not rational, but the alternative would be to stop accepting invitations to interesting conferences and/or then refusing to allow the organisers to make use of my paper in their publication, which seems even less attractive as an option. In other words, my response to the REF is to get cross about it and work harder, rather than actually change my practices.
Much of this, I’m sure, can be traced back to my formative years, and my sense of the sorts of publications that most inspired me to attempt emulation – and if I try to come up with a Top 10 of inspirational works, my guess is that they’ll be a mixture of polemical but sketchy monographs and papers in collected volumes (Abrams & Wrigley, Towns in Societies comes instantly to mind), with at the most one or two journal articles (Hopkins’ ‘Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire’, of course). Maybe this is now a thoroughly dated perspective on how one contributes to the development of the subject, in which case I can simply plead that at least I’ve also sought to embrace blogging as an even more informal, polemical and sketchy form of academic discourse – actually that may not be such a sensible line of argument… It is, I have to admit, certainly problematic from the perspective of open access and the digital revolution; for all the problems with making journal articles available in some form, it does seem to be easier than doing the same with monographs or with contributions to collected volumes (where I feel I’d be undermining the efforts of colleagues to get the thing published if I also made my paper freely available).
Leaving aside my own moral and ideological qualms, however, there is a serious question about the impact of this situation on doctoral students and early career academics, which is where the APA debate began. The logic is clear: insofar as getting a proper job requires a monograph (regardless of whether this is a good thing), then anything that undermines this is bad (including making the dissertation accessible). This situation is of course bad for open access and open scholarly discussion – but it also has knock-on effects on the dissertations themselves, or should do. If this is the world in which we live, then every PhD student needs to be following Hopkins’ advice and thinking of the future book as they write their dissertations – but more, they should be thinking of the future book when they conceive of their project rather than just when they’re writing it up, or how can they know whether it’ll end up as a worthwhile monograph? But as the time available for the doctoral research gets ever tighter, and the number of different skills the students have to acquire during this time gets ever larger, the possibility of tackling the sort of large-scale project that will actually make a decent monograph becomes ever more remote for all except the truly brilliant, glib and workoholic. And in any case the need to knock out a couple of articles to have a chance of getting a postdoc position – somehow, without undermining the viability of the thesis as a monograph despite the fact that chunks of it have already been published – makes it even more impossible.
In an ideal world, the PhD dissertation would be considered as a masterpiece in the old sense: a bit of work that offered proof that the student had mastered the necessary skills of research, understanding etc. so that they could be considered a scholar in their own right rather than an apprentice. The work would not have to be perfect, let alone publishable in its own right, but simply to offer adequate evidence of this mastery; and the original project would be chosen as a suitable means of developing and testing these skills within the time available, rather than being shaped by the need to be a publishable project by the end. To be fair, the regulations of many universities more or less establish this principle, requiring e.g. that the dissertation should contain work capable of being published rather than that it should actually be publishable – but in practice, I suspect, we expect and demand far more from these students; partly because most supervisors and examiners (even now) were formed under a different system where doctoral students faced far fewer pressures and so could potentially achieve more, and partly because we are all too well aware that a plain ‘masterpiece’ simply isn’t enough today – the new scholar isn’t now going to have the leisure to practice their skills and produce more polished work, they need to be producing perfect and publishable research now simply in order to have a chance of getting further opportunities to practice their skills.
I’m tempted to say that digital publication of the dissertation is probably the least of such students’ worries – but, since any other approach to the problem will involve trying to change the mindset of an entire profession and the whole bureaucratic and financial organisation of global higher education, it’s obvious why the AHA should have focused on this aspect…