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Some thoughts on Peter Lang

January 17, 2011

In academic conversations on the topic of “good” and “bad” publishers, someone inevitably mentions the name Peter Lang, accompanied by some awkward gesturing and stammering. Why is this? Perhaps due to the fact that, on the one hand, Lang publishes a large number of titles edited and/or written by eminent scholars. On the other hand, they have unloaded more unrevised or lightly revised dissertations on the academic book market than most other publishers combined (that’s a subjective impression, incidentally, but let’s agree that it is a lot).

Given this, it did not surprise me that the name Peter Lang popped up in the comments to my post on Edwin Mellen. It is not as easy to analyze the role of Lang in scholarly publishing as it is with Mellen, if only for reasons of scale, and certainly far more difficult than stating that publishers such as VDM are entirely without merit. Rather than try to make a definitive case in one pass, this is one where perhaps it is better to peel away the layers one by one.

Recently, I guided the project to republish the journal GDR Bulletin online as an open access title. Among the myriad articles and book reviews found in that journal, I encountered a 1987 review by Alexander Stephan of a Peter Lang title (Kathleen LaBahn, Anna Seghers’ Exile Literature. The Mexican Years 1941-1947). As Stephan puts it (translated from the German): “Edited or not, this dissertation does not become a book that provides new impulses for exile literature or Seghers research.” He goes on to detail its shortcomings, the main one being a failure to consult salient archival resources that would have offered significant new insights into her topic. Earlier in the review, he laments that the former German practice of privately printing dissertations and depositing a few copies in research libraries has been replaced by a system where they land with revenue-seeking presses, leading to a situation where academic library budgets are crushed in part by expensive published dissertations.

It was a prescient criticism, and from the vantage point of 2011, one sees how bad things got, and how bad they are going to get before the dust settles. Library budgets have gone from bad to worse in terms of purchasing power, and anyone in academia not living under a rock knows that book budgets have been hammered by the outrageous inflation rates for journals. In this context, academic titles such as the one reviewed by Stephan are simply liabilities, and given the tonnage created, no library could hope to keep up. In fact, they haven’t.

Academic authors can debate the merits of scholarly book publishers, but while scholars are consumers of their products in the intellectual sense, the oft-overlooked reality is that academic libraries represent the only viable market for these products. Libraries cannot possibly buy all the scholarship produced, but the idea behind publishers such as Mellen, Lang, and many others is that every book deserves to be printed and sold to libraries. It’s not really a business model with much of a future. We will see contraction in this area as the market breaks apart. What scholars need to do is stop wringing their hands and discussing how to assess other forms of scholarship besides peer-reviewed articles and monographs, get over their silly lingering aversions to the digital medium, and throw their weight behind finding other ways to communicate their research. Some have gotten the open access message, but not nearly enough, and that needs to change.

Perhaps Peter Lang just fills the role of messenger in this scenario, caught between academic libraries and scholars. Still, our money goes to the publishers, so if we have to use financial means to bring about this evolution, so be it.

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11 Comments
  1. Andrys Onsman permalink
    February 6, 2011 17:27

    Dear Dale, Another well-reasoned post that stimulates thought. Perhaps the harbinger of the (possibly) inevitable move to digital publishing is that academics generally have no problem with accessing on-line journals. Maybe there is an element of leisure in books – the notion of taking time to read and ponder – as opposed to the instantaneousness of research papers. Maybe Kindle, i-books and such like will be the way forward after all. Cheers, Andrys

    • Dale permalink*
      February 7, 2011 15:16

      Thanks, Andrys, both for reading the post and saying kind words about it. My goal here is to stimulate discussion so that we can share experiences and views in an open forum rather than at a conference with the publisher in the room.

      Interesting idea about the difference between journals and books. You must be right, my gut tells me, that we “consume” texts differently based on format and approach, among other things.

      I was glad you said “generally have no problem” to describe scholars’ access to online journals, since I would take issue with an unqualified statement of this nature. In the US at least, there are certainly have and have-not institutions, and we all know that there are plenty of have-not nations where libraries do not have licenses for journals from Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Cambridge, et al. Even if one has access in theory, the methods various scholars must use to get a copy of an article vary, from easy and transparent to Byzantine and frustrating. This is one of the places where libraries still play an essential role in bridging the gap between scholars and their texts, and is one of the key reasons that librarians are generally strong proponents of open access, which takes ability to pay out of the equation.

  2. Andrys Onsman permalink
    February 10, 2011 18:12

    Hi Dale – your comments are illuminating and make me really appreciate my university’s library and its staff. Those guys do a great job and I have access to just about everything I need electronically. I’d never thought about others in less fortunate situations. Just yesterday I received an email request for a couple of my articles from an academic in Germany (Hamburg). I wondered why he didn’t simply access the journals – both are A ranked. Perhaps this is why. Cheers, Andrys

    • Dale permalink*
      February 11, 2011 08:19

      You’ve hit the nail on the head here, Andrys. Even in wealthy, industrial nations such as Germany there are libraries not serving their users well. I include the US in that statement lest anyone think I’m picking on German libraries.

      Part of the particular problem in Germany is a very restrictive and business-friendly copyright law that cripples interlibrary loan. But beyond that, self-service online services lag behind at many universities. For example, at the HTWK Leipzig where I just spent three semesters, to request an interlibrary loan article I had to submit a paper request in the library and then pick up a paper copy and pay a fee. That’s just silly in 2011. Moreover, the university lacked a link resolver, which in plain terms is the button that most researchers see when using a database (such as Web of Science) that, when clicked, will identify a digital copy of the article if available. These things are often called Get It or some variation on that, but behind the button there is a library standard that can take a citation and search for appropriate copy.

      In other words, even if the library can afford the publications, it does not mean that users can actually easily access them from any vantage point. This is a persistent problem in libraries, and often overlooked in favor of other more easily solved (and flashier) problems.

  3. Stephen permalink
    February 23, 2011 18:02

    I first came across Peter Lang when I received a flyer from them advertising a book in my field. I ordered the book. It turned out to be a PhD thesis, highly specialized and couldn’t really be described as making a particularly memorable contribution to the subject area.

    Nonetheless, when I had a new book ready and those who had published my earlier work weren’t interested, I turned to Peter Lang. They asked me to nominate two established scholars in the field to provide references and they also asked for a subsidy. I’d never contributed anything to the publication costs of anything I’d written before and wasn’t really happy about this – but managed to get half of what was asked for (£600)covered by a grant. Peter Lang also asked for camera-ready copy – which, for those who can’t sort this sort of thing out for themselves, pushes up the cost for the author.

    The book appeared about three months after I submitted camera-ready copy. They offered me a choice of covers and responded to emails quickly. The book has had some fantastic reviews and I am really proud of it – it is the best book I have written. But I don’t think it has sold very well – in the end to get it into research libraries I donated copies I had bought.

    Peter Lang appears to have a mixed reputation. On the one hand, in Europe, they do attract some highly regarded authors. On the other, it was suggested to me that a leading US journal wouldn’t review my book because it was brought out by Peter Lang. And, undoubtedly, they publish far too many dissertations.

    Would I use them again? No … I don’t believe in paying to have my scholarly work published.

    • Dale permalink*
      February 24, 2011 09:43

      Many thanks for relating this, Stephen. Your experience comes from a different perspective than mine, but we seem to share a certain unease with Peter Lang. The resistance of some journals to reviews due to the imprint is something that one should consider when publishing with Lang and others with similar reputations.

  4. Noam permalink
    May 25, 2011 08:28

    Thanks for your discussions on EMP and Peter Lang.
    I find that there is lack of systematic info on academic publishers. its amazing that something serious scholars consume so thoughtfully are actually done with very litte customer information at their disposal.

    I have a suggested. I think you, Dale, are in a unique postion to establish a systematic ranking system for academic publishers.
    what do you think?

    • Dale permalink*
      May 25, 2011 08:48

      I tend to agree, Noam, that there is a lack of systematic reviews and information on academic publishers. The focus is entirely on individual titles, and rarely is the output over time considered as a relative indicator of purchase desirability.

      The problem with a ranking such as this would be to establish criteria. It’s fairly easy to say, publisher X is a stellar publisher that rarely puts out subpar work, while publisher Y rarely puts out a gem, but the middle ground between is difficult to establish.

      Interestingly, many of the companies that supply books to libraries do have internal systems for ranking publishers. They more or less have to, or they would not be very effective in their role as filter/winnower.

  5. renkin permalink
    April 11, 2013 11:39

    Hi Dale,

    This is an excellent website and I have been able to make some great decisions after reading about the publishers. I had a quick question about Mcfarland in North Carolina. They have agreed to publish my recent authored book but I am not entirely convinced. I know they have an excellent list of books, but how are they seen in terms of being an academic publisher?

    • April 11, 2013 11:43

      Sorry, can’t comment on that publisher, as I am not familiar enough with their output to have a nuanced opinion.

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