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Stop judging scholarly books by their publishers


National lists of prestigious presses don’t work—instead, encourage openness, says Eleonora Dagienė

The debate around reforming research evaluation revolves primarily around how journal articles are treated, particularly the importance of using peer review combined with responsible metrics. But books remain critical to scholarship in many fields, especially in the social sciences and humanities. And in some EU countries, processes for evaluating scholarly books are arguably even more of a mess than they are for articles. 

Finland, Lithuania, Norway, Poland and Spain have encouraged researchers to target certain publishers by creating lists of those presses deemed most prestigious. Funding and professional advancement are tied to publishing in these outlets: in Lithuania and Norway, government research funds are allocated via metrics-based assessment; while in Spain, publisher lists influence promotion decisions. The general aim is to encourage excellence and make research systems more international. 

Prestige problems

Lists are typically based on what publishers researchers are already using. They tend to combine international, anglophone imprints, such as the Cambridge and Oxford university presses, with the most popular domestic, own-language presses. Criteria for inclusion include use of peer review, presence of an editorial board, international authorship and use of book ISBN identification codes. 

There is little transparency, though, in determining whether book publishers meet these mandatory criteria—rigour of peer review, for example, varies a great deal, and several publishers listed also feature on lists of suspected vanity publishers. 

Lists have also created perverse incentives for institutions and researchers to game the system in search of funding—salami-slicing their work, for example, so that it appears in as many different volumes as possible. Concerns about gaming led Denmark to abolish its list of journals and publishers in late 2021.  

Schemes fail even by their own criteria. Lithuania has had a list of prestigious publishers since 2006, aiming to increase the international reach of its research. My analysis, however, has found that in that time only half of the 5,000 books with Lithuanian authors that have earned their institutions state funding appear in online catalogues. 

The results are likely to be similar for books published in other countries where researchers publish mainly in local languages other than English. In essence, these are books meant to be published, and to earn their author a promotion or title, rather than to be read.

Policy push

A book’s quality should be judged by its content, not its publisher. But while lists based on prestige are unhelpful, there is scope for policymakers to guide the practices of both researchers and publishers by creating incentives and evaluation processes more suited to 21st-century academia.

Instead of notions of prestige, funders should encourage researchers to use presses that have kept up with good practice in scholarly publishing. At present, for example, the books of many domestic small and medium-sized commercial publishers, university presses and learned societies appear only in print, with no digital formats. 

This is unacceptable. Machine-readable digital formats would ensure international visibility for even local research. The same goes for open-access publishing of digital books; encouraging this should be another priority. 

Research assessment policies, in other words, should encourage researchers to focus on issues such as digitisation and dissemination. And national evaluations need to add more criteria for books than just peer review or publishers’ rank. 

The EU has a role here, through initiatives such as its open-access publishing platform Open Research Europe. The UK is also a leader in this regard: online metadata are accessible for over 90 per cent of books submitted to the 2014 and 2021 Research Excellence Framework assessment exercises, and the country hosts many initiatives developing best practices for publishing open-access monographs and monitoring and evaluating progress, such as the Open Access Monographs group run by the vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK. 

Any policymakers who are compiling publishers’ rankings, evaluating publishers or designing research assessment should pay attention to such initiatives. They are contributing to an emerging body of quality standards and technical guidance.

Scholars seeking to make their research findings more visible also need to be more aware of and engaged in publication practices from the outset of their careers. Scholarly presses rely on attracting authors—and if academics knew what would help their books find an audience, publishers would respond. 

Eleonora Dagienė is at the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands

This article also appeared in Research Europe