Academic Celebrity and the Publishing Industry

By Peter Walsh

In the first article of our special section on Superstar Professors, Peter Walsh argues that the brand value of celebrity academics has to be understood in terms of longer term trends in scholarly publishing. 

In March 2014, I discovered that Zygmunt Bauman – regarded by many as the world’s greatest sociologist – had written a book that bore the signs of sloppy research, containing numerous errors of fact and citation. Worse, it included around 5,000 words that appeared to have been copied verbatim and without acknowledgement from Wikipedia and other websites as well as already-published Bauman writings. As a book of under 20,000 words, a quarter of its written content may therefore be said to have been plagiarised.

This was no isolated case. I subsequently discovered with my colleague David Lehmann that numerous other apparently original books and journal articles authored by Bauman contained large quantities of material – as much as 70% of the publication in the most egregious case – reproduced almost-exactly from earlier Bauman writings.

How could such works be published, and by presses held in high regard by social scientists? Could Bauman’s status as an academic celebrity be partly to blame?

In this blog post, I provide a speculative answer to this question by examining the broader issue of the relationship between academic celebrities and the scholarly book publishing industry. I offer it as an invitation to a broader conversation about the topic of academic celebrity, as a glimpse into the kinds of problems which this nascent research field might present, and as a potential avenue for future research.

The relationship between scholars and book publishers is one of the most important in all of academia. It is one of mutual benefit and co-dependence. Publishers rely upon academics for content which is then sold in the form of books. Academics rely upon publishers for the communication of their work to a wider public. As such, books constitute a key source of academics’ reputation, and thereby their professional and financial success. They are hence, also, a wellspring of academic celebrity and a principal means by which it is generated, sustained, and amplified.

The relationship between academic celebrities and scholarly book publishers appears in recent years to have increased in importance. Why? And what are the consequences of this development for academia and scholarly publication? To answer these questions, we must first examine recent changes to the scholarly book publishing industry, limiting our analysis to the Anglo-American context and commercial rather than university presses. My main source of information is Books in the Digital Age by the British sociologist John B. Thompson. Though written in 2005, there is evidence that the main trends it identifies – and certainly the ones mentioned here – have not abated or reversed but continued apace.

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These days, scholarly book publishing is going through challenging times. One trend, more than any other, has transformed the industry over about the past four decades. This is the decline in trade of scholarly monographs. The unit sales of this form of book – typically dry and serious treatises on a specialised topic – are estimated to have fallen by three quarters or more of what they were in the 1970s. In his landmark study, Thompson identifies seven interrelated and overlapping ways in which academic publishers have responded to this trend. Three are particularly relevant here.

The first response of academic book publishers to declining sales of scholarly monographs has been to become more market-oriented. As a result, questions relating to the scholarship and intellectual quality of titles, which had previously been at the centre of publishing decisions, have receded into the background. Correspondingly, marketing considerations, especially the commercial viability of potential books, have come increasingly to the fore.

Consequently (and this is the second response), academic publishers have come increasingly to prefer acquiring, developing, and marketing books that exhibit clearer indicators of probable future success. Perhaps the most important of such indicators is the name recognition of the author. This is where celebrities come in. A name like Zygmunt Bauman functions as a distinctive ‘brand’, a kind of marker of dependability and quality for publishers and readers. Alert to the potential value in academic ‘brand recognition’, editors have sought to prioritise longer-term relationships with star authors, whose books have a track record of higher and more predictable sales. It is not hard to imagine how such a relationship could be perpetuated through a form of positive feedback. Celebrity authors are more likely to have their work published (because of their higher sales prospects), and the publication of their work feeds back into their celebrity, increasing still further their future publication and sales prospects.  (The same development may apply, though to a lesser extent, to university presses, which enjoy external financial backing from their host institution, and are thereby less bound than their commercial cousins by the ‘golden chains’ of the market.)

Academic book publisher’s third response to the plummeting sales of scholarly monographs is the drive to reduce costs: streamlining production processes, lowering royalties, and so on. Particularly costly is the process of editing a book for publication, which requires extensive, highly-skilled labour. Cuts which reduce costs in this area, however, pay a corresponding price elsewhere. They sacrifice the effective scrutiny, editing, and thereby improvement, of manuscripts – with deleterious effects upon the quality of published works.

There are two potential problems with this arrangement as far as celebrities and their less renowned colleagues are concerned.

The first problem is the so-called “Matthew Effect”. The term was coined by Robert K. Merton, the superstar sociologist of his age, and source of such enduring concepts as “unintended consequences”, “role model”, and “self-fulfilling prophecy”. The “Matthew Effect”, said Merton, refers to “the accruing of greater increments of recognition for particular scientific contributions to scientists of considerable repute and the withholding of such recognition from scientists who have not yet made their mark”. The phenomenon is called the “Matthew Effect” after the Gospel According to St Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Merton applied the term to an analysis with Harriet Zuckerman of Nobel Prize-winning physicists, and observed that the laureates benefited from a kind of disproportionate cumulative advantage. These eminent scientists (not much in need of professional recognition), nevertheless attracted greater rewards than the lesser-known (very much in need of professional recognition), irrespective of the worth of their contributions. The “Matthew Effect” was born.

Something similar applies to academic publishing. Because the space for publication by a prestige press is limited, competition between authors is fierce. But due to publishers’ preference for star authors, and the positive feedback loop that secures such scholars’ places at the apexes of publication and university hierarchies, the “Matthew Effect” results: celebrities are able to enjoy a continued prominence within the intellectual attention space with all that this implies – greater prestige, fame, financial reward, and so on – while keeping from publication contributions from lesser-known scholars whose work may nevertheless be of greater scholarly (if not commercial) value.

The second potential pitfall of the celebrity-publisher relationship is a reduction in the quality of celebrities’ books. If celebrities are producing books of lower quality than might be expected for figures so revered – and this does appear to hold in Bauman’s case – why?

Bearing in mind the general drive to cut costs, and the observation that editorial costs are particularly heavy, one argument might run as follows. The bigger the star, and the longer their relationship with a publisher, the more the former will be trusted by the latter to produce high-quality scholarship. As such, publishers may scale back costly editing work on celebrity manuscripts. Where this trust is misplaced because celebrities are no longer producing work as good as they once did – due to complacency, or deterioration in intellect, creativity, motivation, or whatever else – a weaker book is the probable result. The same outcome may transpire via other routes. The high prestige of celebrities may soften editor criticism or heighten credulity, via a bias that leads readers to think that a celebrity’s work is better than it really is (a kind of ‘halo effect’). Or editors may lack the confidence to criticise the manuscripts of highly celebrated (and perhaps assertive or intransigent) authors.

Take the example of Jean-Paul Sartre. He apparently wrote his 1960 treatise The Critique of Dialectical Reason while consuming ten times the recommended daily dose of ‘corydrane’, a mixture of aspirin and amphetamine. It has sometimes been argued that Sartre’s writing bore the influence of speed. Consider the following fairly typical passage from the 835-page first volume of the Critique (a second 467-page volume was published in 1985), in which Sartre presents his definition of a common sociological term, structure (though it must be noted that here Sartre is providing a novel definition of the term):

We shall therefore refer to the function of the sub-group or of a member of the sub-group as structure, in so far as its concrete exercise through the free praxis of the agent reveals it as a specification of the totalising rearrangement of the whole by itself. It should be clear that the word expression here refers to a fundamentally practical relation, that is to say, a reciprocity of constitution: free, individual praxis realises the previous totalisation as a positing of limits; it pursues the totalising operation by concretely objectifying itself in a concrete result which signifies the totalisation of results which are in the process of being objectified. Meanwhile the organised totalisation designates and solicits individual action, as function, as its inevitable concretisation; it constitutes a power and an instrumentality for it.

As the above (fairly characteristic) passage suggests, what Sartre says in the Critique is frequently mysterious. Whether or not this was the result of him blasting his neurones with amphetamines we cannot be sure. But what is perhaps clearer, and thereby safer on which to speculate, is the negative effect his celebrity status may have had upon quality control at his publisher, Gallimard. In her book The Intellectual Enterprise (1988), Anna Boschetti confirms the reasonable suspicion that by the sixties Sartre’s writing went from pen to printing press virtually unedited. How else could such writing find publication?

It seems equally plausible that a lack of appropriate editorial attention may be responsible for allowing sentences like this one by Bauman – a usually graceful prose stylist – to afflict the pages of Does the Richness of the Few Benefit Us All?:

And no wonder: the incurably asymmetrical model of the subject–object relation, once taken over and recycled by the consumer market in the likeness of the client–commodity pattern, shows itself to be singularly unfit to guide and service a human togetherness and interaction in which we all play, simultaneously or intermittently, the subject’s and object’s role.

Thus, if and where it exists, the inadequate scrutiny and editing of celebrities’ manuscripts, whether through publishers’ misplaced trust, the ‘halo effect’, or editors’ fear of criticising a revered figure, threatens the quality of celebrity scholarship.

My speculative account of the relationship between academic celebrities and the commercial scholarly book publishing industry is summarised in Figure 1.

I wish to conclude by making it clear that it would be unfair to blame academic book publishers for their reliance upon star authors. After all, this is the reasonable response of an industry adapting to worsening economic circumstances where publishers must, as businesses, sell books to survive. In times of increasing financial pressure at publishers, allied to the seemingly growing imperative for researchers to ‘publish or perish’, and the averred march of ‘celebritisation’, including into the halls of academe, it behoves us all to maintain our critical scholarly vigilance, a vigilance that shows little deference to authority, and which demands, as ever, the rigorous search for, and clear communication of, the nature of the social world.

Originally published 13th May 2016.

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