Some thoughts on Peter Lang
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the former German practice of privately printing dissertations and depositing a few copies in research libraries has been replaced by a system where they land with revenue-seeking presses, leading to a situation where academic library budgets are crushed in part by expensive published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.