17 responses

  1. As a former private school history teacher, I was amazed at depth and breadth of academic discoveries and arguments I was exposed to when attending NYU but completely ignorant of in my classroom career. I’d often feel like a spy on the inside when pushing books and articles on former colleagues I knew would appreciate some of the treasures I’d discovered.

    Secondary school children are a fantastic audience for many of the issues we grapple with and historiographical debates can be made accessible and fun by a talented history teacher. For example, kids would love to know about the Dunning School’s impact on the Reconstruction narrative and on civil rights discussions across the country. A popular opener to my U.S. history course was Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me which resulted in the students constantly questioning the textbook and appreciative of secondary and primary sources to decide for themselves, but beyond that it’s hard to find easy access to much of the excitement happening in our field.

    Of course, my access to academic articles was often limited by paywalls—$50 for a book review?? $80 for a 40-page article?—and required convincing school librarians of their utility and value. I’m sure my public school colleagues have it far worse and are limited to simplistic narratives with little rhetoric.

    • Thanks for your comments, and I think you’re exactly right. Many historians (to speak only for my own field) already do engage on a local level with K-12 teachers and students because we teach at universities that have strong education programs, as does the institution where I currently teach. In that regard we’re working with local teachers and future teachers to talk about exactly those kinds of debates, resources, and so on.

      What my suggestion would address is the more distant enterprise. Someone publishes an article in a paywalled journal primarily read by academics but which would influence how K-12 teachers approach material. How will that new knowledge reach them before it’s trickled through publication and integration into a K-12 textbook … and then the process of getting that book in their hands? We have the ability to make that connection much faster by linking the journals with organizations who could get the findings (if not the entire essay) into the hands of those who could use it.

  2. Excellent points.Historians must disseminate their findings better–and in ways that allow them to control the message. Not all academic books could or should be read by a larger audience. But the public needs to be made aware of the major trends and the SIGNIFICANCE of historical research for understanding the past (and hence, the present). To take a case in point: Shortly after 12 YEARS A SLAVE appeared, Washington POST columnist Richard Cohen wrote a breathless column essentially saying that he never knew slavery was so bad. How was that possible, given the superb scholarship on slavery that has been published over the past four decades? Undoubtedly Cohen must have been operating in some kind of bubble. But historians have a responsibility to make their findings known to a larger audience. Another example: John Judis’s list in the NEW REPUBLIC of the books every American should read. Woefully outdated. The simple measures Adelman suggests would help address this disconnect.

    • I appreciate your comment, it’s a good reminder if nothing else that even our best efforts are for naught if no one is listening. But you’re absolutely right that it should stiffen our resolve to try.

  3. Thanks, Joe. There are some useful ideas here. I’ll be mulling them over for *Early American Studies.* Perhaps editors and authors can collaborate to divide up the work involved in such dissemination. But frankly, given the pressure to address a wide audience to get a contract in the first place, I think it’s book publishers and authors who need to figure out better ways to inform the public of their new work. The models we currently use simply aren’t working. The presses may send flyers about or even copies of new books to major newspapers, but I don’t think anyone on the other end is reading them.

    • I agree with Dallett and Rosemarie; these are excellent suggestions. I especially like the idea of journals having their own blog, one which could serve as a significant web presence beyond the paywall of JSTOR or ProjectMUSE. As it stands now, most journals only presence outside of the databases are very static, non-engaging “home pages” on the publishers’ websites. Beyond just updates, TOCs, CFPs, and the like, a blog would be an excellent opportunity for a journal to insert itself directly into social media discussion and to create a forum (much as we have here) in which readers could engage with the journals’ articles in an informal setting. It would also go a long way toward remedying the increasingly obvious problem of pace that journals have relative to digital forms of media.

      And I think the press release ideas is really interesting as well. Of course, as Rosemarie pointed out regarding book reviews, getting the information in front of newspaper and website editors is not really the problem (though of course it could only help), the real challenge is getting them to act on it. To do that, it seems to me requires changing the way they think about historians (i.e., out-of-touch academics) and our work. In that sense, I guess each press release should not only serve as an abstract of the article but would have to stress why each individual editor’s audience needs to know about it and how they would benefit from it. Thanks for the excellent piece, Joe!

    • Thanks, Dallett. I certainly think authors bear a responsibility to engage in publicizing, not least because we have to be more self-conscious as authors to the audiences we are writing for. And though I didn’t frame it this way in the post, one of the strengths of social media, blogs, etc. is that we don’t need the “legacy” media in nearly the same way we did twenty years ago. We can reach broad audiences on our own.

      I would add that I think the discussion is related to but separate from the conversation about open access. I wholeheartedly support making our full work more accessible, but part of my point above is that most people wouldn’t read a full 40-page journal article, but would be interested in the main findings for various purposes, if they were publicly available.

  4. Joseph, I agree with your comments. In fact I will go so far as to say that academic historians have a responsibility to share their research with the general public in understandable language because most, or at least many, academics receive funding through public sources. As a museum professional I and my colleagues grapple with the disconnect between the historical insights that we want to share with the public through programs and exhibits and the level of understanding about history in the general population and this goes double for primary and secondary school teachers. For example, take the Enola Gay exhibit debacle at the Smithsonian several years ago when a draft exhibit text reframing the meaning of the Enola Gay as a symbol of the beginning of the nuclear age instead of the end of WWII found its way into the hands of veterans’ organizations and the general public. Cries of “revisionism” resounded, multiple professionals lost their jobs, and the entire exhibit was scrapped. Now the Enola Gay is exhibited with only the barest identifying information and no interpretation at all. The general public and many school teachers still see history as immutable truth and view it primarily through one perspective only. In my experience minority history, especially American Indian history, as taught in public schools, is at least 40 years behind present scholarship.
    I firmly believe that many academics spend too much time speaking to each other and not enough time speaking to the general population. Two examples of scholars who do work to share current scholarship with the public, and do so in delightful ways, are Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces in Great Britain (history) and Dr. Alex DeGrassi (science). We should all strive to share our research, theories, and conclusions with the general population through teaching, publicity, and other means. Otherwise, what really is the point?

  5. Pingback: Remembering That It IS a Big Deal to Publish a Book | One Solid Comfort

  6. Most academic history journals are not easily available to the general public. To read such journals, members of the public need to subscribe to journals or pay high prices per article through JSTOR. Very few history journals are available at most public libraries, and those few cannot be checked out. Are there other options that I’ve missed?

    If academic historians want to make a bigger splash in the public sphere, their academic articles need to be as easily accessible as mass-market newspaper and magazine articles now are.

    • But as noted above, academic articles are framed to address a specialized academic audience (I would add that annual history journal subscriptions are actually much cheaper than those of newspapers!).
      So the solution would be to encourage historians to write more for mass market periodicals, and to learn to translate the significance of their findings in a convincing way for the different audience. Meanwhile, we should respect and applaud each others’ efforts (including at tenure and promotion time) to do so.

      • Of course academic articles are framed for an academic audience, and that won’t change. I agree that it would be good for the public if historians were published more often by mass-market periodicals. But many historians have long been eager to get their work published by mass media. Unfortunately there aren’t enough opportunities. Those opportunities won’t increase just because we agree it would be a good thing.

        On the other hand, making articles available on the internet to anyone who wants to read them, at no cost, is totally feasible. This is done routinely by other academic disciplines. If History departments, or historians, around the country cooperated in establishing some common websites for this purpose, historians could have a broader public audience for their work. When the mechanism is in place and historians have the means to put their work in front of the public, many will gradually learn to write or re-write in a style that will better engage the enormous number of people who have an interest in history.

        I’m simply suggesting that historians as a group do in an organized way what many individual historians are already trying to do through their blogs; take advantage of website technology (like WordPress) to put historical work in front of a wider audience, without waiting for traditional publishers to do that for them.

        • “…making articles available on the internet to anyone who wants to read them, at no cost, is totally feasible,” Ah, therein may lie the rub. As a journal editor, I’m keenly aware of how much collaborative labor goes into the development of good articles. Some of this is free, that is, donated (the author’s initial work, peer’s reviews), but some is not (the time and input of editors and copy-editors, as well as costs to the –mostly non-profit, in history–presses, whether to publish in print or online or both). So my fear is that the pretty cost-efficient historical society journals (subscriptions to libraries less than $100,/yr.) will go down the drain, and the enormous value-added to scholarship lost, if there is no reason to subscribe to these journals.At least that’s what the WMQ and AHR found when they put too much material online, for free.
          Maybe you had something else in mind, but I’ve responded in this way because I find that lots of folks overlook the difference between ms. submitted and articles published in journals–a difference that comes at a modest, but real, cost.that must be considered when folks talk about putting stuff online, for free.

    • Thanks, Ted, for your comments, and the discussion that you and Dallett have had. I’d like to add a few things myself.

      First, there are two things at issue here. One is whether historians write enough for public audiences. I think I’d disagree with you that historians aren’t doing that outreach, whether through magazines and newspapers (especially The Atlantic, to name just one), blogs such as this one, or other means. We’re out there in various ways to be read. The second issue is whether academic research published in peer-reviewed journals is making it to the public. On this question I think that’s less clear.

      What I tried to suggest in the post above is that we can facilitate that move from journal to public sphere through a little bit of better marketing. Most science journals contain language that would never be described as accessible. Yet I learn about new developments in cancer research, physics, astronomy, chemistry. Why? Because journals such as Nature and Science put out press releases detailing the findings of the jargon-laden articles they contain.

      Historians are getting better at that, but it’s a separate issue from the first one. As Dallett noted, within the profession journals offer certain services that verify quality (and improve it!), ensure the right academic audience, and others. I think there’s a place for both, and I don’t think the public is well-served by gaining access to large swaths of specialized history journals.

      • I’m glad to be reminded of your suggestion about press releases, Joe. Reporters don’t seem to have the time even to look at most of the books they are sent to review, but perhaps they’d make use of some engaging descriptions of new trends in historical research. Phila. is a good place for this. The HSP already produces a good stream of stories for the Inquirer and reporters do pay attention to developments related to the local landscape (like the recent story on The Woodlands). But the burden is on us to provide the “hook” of relevance to the public–of course that’s not a bad test for our work in the first place!

      • Thanks Dallet and Joseph for your serious and thoughtful responses to my suggestion. It is obvious that you both are much more knowledgeable about these issues than I am. However, I’d like to take one more stab at this, speaking as an unofficial representative of those members of the public with an interest in the work of academic historians.

        Costs of producing a journal: Dallet made the important point that somehow the costs must be covered for editing, reviewing and publishing a journal, whether print or online. I agree costs must be covered, but note that the lion’s share of costs associated with producing a print journal disappear if a journal converts to an open access electronic site. No more printing and shipping costs, and sharp reductions in marketing and administrative workload associated with having customers and collecting fees. I would think that the copy-editing workload would have been greatly reduced over the years, since all authors could and should be using word processors that produce publication-ready documents. However, there would still be a workload associated with managing a site and working with authors, and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

        Public access to journals: Joseph said, “I don’t think the public is well-served by gaining access to large swaths of specialized history journals.” I can’t imagine why the public would not be well-served by that. It is a great potential benefit. Possibly the risk you see is the probability of attacks by right- or left-wing ideologists. I think that risk exists, but should not be exaggerated.

        Costs of academic journals: Here’s an article from Library Journal (Apr 11, 2014) about the cost to libraries of subscriptions. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2014/04/publishing/steps-down-the-evolutionary-road-periodicals-price-survey-2014/#_

        Table 8 indicates that, in “Ebco Academic Search Premier”, the average cost to university libraries for each History journal last year was $343. “Academic Search Premier” lists 220 journals in the category of history. Is it possible that university libraries around the country are each spending $75,000 per year for electronic access to history journals? Widespread open access to historical research would make many of these journals redundant and free up those subscription funds for managing open access web sites.

        On the same site, just under Table 8, is a passage about Open Access. It is mentioned that Congress passed an Open Access mandate in 2013 or 2014. This is a first step to ensure that organizations which receive public funding start making their work available to the public online for free. That principle certainly applies to universities, both public and private, although apparently they are not yet covered by the legislation.

        Just fyi: Here’s a site, that I think is Green Open Access, for research in medical sciences: https://pubpeer.com/

        I note that this issue of Open Access was rather hotly “debated” at last year’s AHA Annual meeting. I wonder if any historians are working on this. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/06/historians-clash-over-open-access-movement

        Academic journals are a multi-billion dollar industry. All the people making money out of the current system won’t surrender them easily. However, a better and more cost-effective system for delivering research to audiences has been developed, and is ready to replace the old system.

        • Ted, you are still overlooking the modest but real costs of editing, copy-editing and preparing journals, even for online only publication. Just ask anyone who has tried to do a good job of this without some release time or other support. You’d be amazed at how important copy-editing is, even today. Also, you have fallen victim to the conflation of science journals with humanities journals that corrupts the Open Access debate. Most history journals are low-cost and produced by non-profits. When you say Open Access will take care of “redundancy” in journals, what I hear is that less scholarship will be published.

          You are also overlooking the importance of audience in writing. I agree with Joe and others that there is a crying need for scholars to translate their work into useful knowledge for the public. But good research builds in careful ways on what came before, and must first be vetted by specialists before being disseminated more broadly. In this one respect historical findings are like scientific findings.

          I appreciate your comments on this issue, as I fear there is a lot of misunderstanding about how historical journals operate. I don’t know any of my editor-colleagues or our presses that are “making money out of the current system.” You are talking about the big for-profits that the scientific societies regrettably sold out to. Going whole-hog for open access will throw many innocent (and cost-efficient) historical babies out with the bathwater.

          I have nothing against new ideas or new systems. I embrace digital opportunities. But I’ll continue to fight measures that I think will result in the degradation or dimunition of historical scholarship.


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