Scholarly Roadkill

Mitch’s Blog

Is There a Future for Scholarly Publishing?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

It was almost the last question, from the always perceptive Ruth Tringham: “This all sounds so depressing. Is there no hope for a future for scholarly publishing?”

Until then, I thought I was out of the woods. I had been invited to speak to the Berkeley archaeologists about changes in the publishing landscape as part of my role as a new Research Associate at the appropriately named Archaeological Research Facility, ARF.

I thought I had done well, dancing through industry consolidation, the growth of aggregations of content for sale, the “Big Deal” publishers jousting with library consortia (no, not jousting,…

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An Amazon Adventure

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Amazon adventures of the 19th century are legendary. I am reading a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, the German polymath, and his experiences traveling the tributaries of the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in 1800. His journals refer to herds of 15-foot long crocodiles, endless boa constrictors drifting by their boat, unexpected encounters with vicious jaguars, and piercing screams of unknown creatures in the night.

Amazon adventures of the 21st century are somewhat different.

It began at Left Coast early in 2015 with the good news that an 800 page reference book had quickly sold out and required reprinting.…

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I Was A King Once

Friday, March 10, 2017

I was a king once. Four days a king. And I didn’t even remember it until last week.

It was in the journal I kept in 1975 during my archaeological fieldwork in Afghanistan. Reading it after 42 years, I got to the entry for October 6, where I was in my fourth day of sitting in a desert encampment in the Registan (“the land of sand”) surrounded by boxes of food, jerrycans of water, and mounds of field equipment, “guarding the goods.” The truck we had hired to carry these supplies got this far before miring itself in sand dunes for…

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Dancing Through China

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

There’s a large plaza before the soccer stadium in Khotan built for the 2008 Olympics. A large urban park leads away from the Jiaotong University, just outside the ancient walls of Xian. A small square is nestled by the roundabout featuring Marco Polo’s statue on West Street in Zhangye.  Centennial Park in the center Aqsu consists of an endless expanse of stone tiles. Traveling through the burgeoning cities the Hexi Corridor of Ganzu Province and the string of desert oases of Xinjiang Province—the Chinese end of the ancient Silk Road-- offer a consistent diet of large public spaces. And they…

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Garage Archaeology in Pasadena

Friday, March 03, 2017

“Want me to grab you a couple of bottles of wine from the garage before I go?” I asked Bill. We had just finished three days of poring over draft descriptions of seventeen Parthian sites on the Malakhan Plain. I was ready to head back to Northern California.

“There’s wine out there?” asks Bill, incredulous.

“There’s lots!” I reply.

I knew this for a fact because I had been through his garage several times in the past year looking for field notebooks, photographs, slides, maps, plans, and photocopies of research articles with titles like “Notes on some volcanic and other…

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The Meaning of Life

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rome 1969. July. Heat wafting up from the cobblestones. The smell of rotting vegetables. Sultry. Hot. Flies.


I was in the streets all day, my first day in Rome. Walked from Via Veneto to the Spanish Steps. No shade. No place to stop. An occasional ice cream. But now a moment’s rest along the Tiber. I captured a spot on the stone wall. How many legionnaires and senators and popes and dukes had walked over these same stones. Open-eyed farmers, wizened grandmothers, woodcarvers with scarred palms, children liberated from school or convent. How many had also stopped for a…

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Don’t Look Now But You’re Probably Writing for a Database

Thursday, February 23, 2017

My friend Ann is probably stewing this week after having received a very mixed review of the book she coedited, the Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant. The review spent two paragraphs congratulating the authors and editors and the subsequent seven criticizing what didn’t appear in its 58 chapters and 900 pages.  I was not part of this project, but have been publisher of many other handbooks— on Sociology,  Rock Art Research, Gender in Archaeology, even one on White Power, among others —and know that creating a handbook is a five year process involving endless work…

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The Monograph is Dead! Long Live the Monograph!

Friday, February 17, 2017

It’s been going on for a while, proclamations of the death of the scholarly monograph. Too expensive, no audience, not sustainable economically. Here, I’ll try to explain some of the reasons for this obituary and some of the workarounds scholars, universities, and publishers have been using to try to keep it afloat. This is prompted by a report released last Friday by ace publishing consultants Joe Esposito and Karen Barch and funded by the Mellon Foundation. The report tries to estimate how many scholarly monographs are published annually by American university presses.

What is a scholarly monograph? The…

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A Year Later

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Transaction Publishers closed its doors this month. Lost in the political din of alternative facts, illegal orders, and Superbowl commercials, this fact is a verifiable one, and a sad one. Founded in the early 1960s by sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz, Transaction existed as an independent social science press for over half a century, publishing thousands of important books and journals before being sold to Routledge in December.

It was exactly a year ago that I locked the door on the second floor suite on San Miguel Drive for the final time, walked next door and handed…

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College Textbooks: The Next Generation

Friday, February 10, 2017

Remember those big college textbook publishers? They’re gone. Cengage. Pearson (once upon a time Prentice-Hall). McGraw and his sidekick Hill. In their place are companies that provide learning solutions.  McGraw is a “learning science” company, Pearson “the world’s learning company,” Cengage “educational content, technology, and services company.” In the words of a famous crooked politician, “you won’t have me to kick around anymore.”  Each of them had, and still have, sales in the billions of dollars each year, just not so much from textbooks.  

What happened to their expensive textbooks, the prices of which everyone complained about?  Not completely…

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