OUP’s Prestige Monopoly

In reading through the 2020 volume of The Philosophical Review, I noticed a funny thing: every book they reviewed was published by Oxford University Press. Well, not every book but, to be exact, 23 out of 25. That’s not how I remember things being back when I was a student, so I went back and looked. In 1990, OUP was also the leading recipient of reviews in The Philosophical Review, but accounted for just 12 of the 61 reviews. Books from 21 other presses were also reviewed, and Blackwell and Cambridge were tied for runner-up, with 7 entries apiece.

I asked my own student, Colton Kunzeman, to go through the intervening years, and he produced this illuminating chart:

A quick look at some other philosophy journals that publish a significant number of book reviews turned up these numbers for 2020:

  • Mind: 23 of 36 reviews (64%)
  • Australasian Journal of Philosophy: 13 of 15 (87%)
  • Analysis: 24 of 26 (92%)
  • Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: 70 of 167 (42%)

The NDPR rate is significantly lower, I think, because they review so many books. They can in effect review all of OUP’s philosophy monographs and still have room for a lot of other presses. As for Mind’s rate of 64%, if that seems comparatively unimpressive, bear in mind that the remaining 36% is split among all other presses. To put that in perspective, Mind in 2020 reviewed roughly 10 times more OUP books than books from any other publisher.

What’s going on here?

What these numbers suggest, and what anyone who’s paying attention will have noticed to some degree already, is the extent to which OUP is increasingly the dominant publisher in philosophy. It’s not the case, to be sure, that OUP dominates all parts of philosophy publishing. With regard to textbooks, guidebooks, and translations, they have lots of competition. But when it comes to scholarly monographs, OUP has secured for itself a near monopoly on the field: not a monopoly in terms of absolute numbers, since plenty of other presses are publishing monographs in philosophy, but a prestige monopoly. If you aspire to publish the sort of book that will get reviewed in a top journal, you had better get your book accepted at OUP.

Part of the reason for this, perhaps, is that there’s been a steadily smaller market for monographs in recent years, and as a result academic presses generally devote fewer resources to this than they used to. (On that subject my colleague at Norlin Library, Frederick Carey, recommends this article and this book, esp. ch. 5.) Still, obviously, there are plenty of presses that are publishing monographs in philosophy, and the reality seems to be that OUP is just outcompeting them, at least in this segment of the market. I asked Peter Momtchiloff, the OUP-UK editor for philosophy, if he was willing to comment on this situation, and he responded: “I think we have worked hard on philosophy publishing for a long time, aiming to cover all the areas that are typically covered in research-oriented philosophy departments, and responding to what philosophers think is good rather than trying to impose external ideas of what philosophy research publishing should be like. Apologies if this sounds boastful or ingratiating.” To me that sounds excessively modest. For decades now, Peter has worked like no other editor in the field to cultivate relationships with both young and established scholars. He makes people feel as if OUP really wants their books, and over time these relationships have paid off. (Peter Ohlin, the OUP-US editor, has a similarly longstanding presence in the field and receives rave reviews from those who work with him.)

Yet although this story is in part one of triumph for OUP, it also should leave philosophers feeling a certain amount of concern. Even if OUP’s monopoly is benevolent and well-earned, we should ask ourselves whether it is in the interests of the field. One way in which it would not be is if OUP were doing an inferior job editing and publishing its books. To gauge this situation, I reached out to 10 senior scholars in the field who recently published books with OUP and asked them for their impressions. All were kind enough to reply, and most were wholly enthusiastic. Typical responses were “wonderful experience,” “really excellent,” “always been really happy,” “extraordinary positive,” “uniformly good experiences.” So this perhaps can be added to the story of why OUP has become so dominant: that they do very good work publishing books. And to this it might be added that their books are reasonably priced and generally available in paperback.

To the extent that the scholars surveyed had reservations, those concerned the process of copy editing, proofreading, and typesetting.  One scholar spoke of the “train wreck” of the typeset page proofs that had to be straightened out over a “bazillion hours.” I myself have noticed that OUP books are not always edited as carefully as one would like. In one short but prominent recent OUP book, I managed to find—simply by reading through the book in the usual way—51 typos, as well as countless stylistic infelicities of the sort that any decent copy editor ought to have fixed. I asked Peter Momtchiloff whether there might have been some decline in OUP’s production standards, and he passed this query on to the production department and got the response one would hope for, that “our quality standards haven’t changed.”

Be that as it may, the production process has certainly changed. A decade ago, books went through a multi-stage production process: copy editing, which was then reviewed by the author, followed by typesetting, which was then proofread by the author and the press. Of late, however, those stages have been compressed into one. Books are copy edited and typeset and then sent to the author, who is expected at that point to cope with any difficulties that have arisen in either the copy editing or the typesetting stage. The scholar quoted in the previous paragraph blamed the “train wreck” on this compression of stages. As for proof reading, that same scholar was frankly perplexed by the question, having seen no sign of any proofreading. This, too, was how the other author responded when I forwarded my list of 51 typos: not by blaming OUP for the mess, but with self-blame for being terrible at proofreading.

With these thoughts in mind, last month I asked the production manager of the latest volume of Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy whether this book would be proofread. Writing from India, he replied: “We do have the service for proofreading and I can check with editorial for the possibility on this if you prefer to hire one…. Kindly note inclusion of this new service could have an impact on the overall schedule and incurs additional cost for proofreading.” When I expressed surprise to him that OUP itself wouldn’t proofread the book, he replied, “We do the in-house proofread by default for all OUP books at our end.” Now, I’ve had generally excellent experiences with the people to whom OUP outsources their production, and with this production manager in particular. Even so, this exchange left me not altogether confident in the ongoing rigor of OUP’s quality standards.

I asked Peter M. a few more questions. He told me that the OUP philosophy editors publish around 200 academic books a year, split fairly evenly between the UK and US offices. He said they do not keep statistics on acceptance rates, but that “most unsolicited proposals are rejected.” (It would be interesting to know more about this, since, notoriously, acceptance rates at the top journals in the field are now under 5%.) To a query about whether it might be desirable to evaluate submissions blind (as do most good journals), he replied that while, like other publishers, they do not judge submissions anonymously, still “decisions about publication are based on expert review of material submitted, not on the author’s standing or track record.” (Perhaps one should add that with a monograph, unlike with a single paper, it’s not likely that an expert in the field would be unable to discern the author’s identity.)

One recent very positive development at OUP is an upgrade at Oxford Scholarship Online. In the past, as I’ve bitterly complained, Oxford books have been available online only in a fairly wretched reformatted version, unpleasant to read and full of errors. Those bad old versions are still there, but new books, at long last, are appearing in OSO as glorious digital images of the typeset book. Here is the first page of Peter Adamson’s new book on al-Rāzī, downloaded from OSO:

Yay! No one I’ve queried knows anything about this change, but it’s something to celebrate. OUP’s previous way of making material available electronically was amateurish in the extreme.

I remarked a while back that philosophers might be concerned by OUP’s dominance in the field, and that led to these reflections on the quality of OUP as a publisher. Despite my criticisms, I think the overall news there is quite good. As a profession, we’ve benefited quite a lot from OUP’s consistently high-quality presence in the field. Still, one might think that this line of inquiry misses what is most concerning in all of this. One of the scholars I surveyed wrote: “The thing that seems bad about the monopoly to me is that people have only one shot at publishing their books with a prestigious publisher.  It would be like if there was only one prestigious journal.” Here’s how I would elaborate on that remark. It may be that OUP’s prestige monopoly has progressed to such a point that to publish a book with any other press is immediately a mark against it. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, that when the editors at The Philosophical Review or Analysis look at an OUP book, they immediately lean toward reviewing it, whereas for any other book they immediately lean away (pending further considerations)? What about hiring and tenure decisions? Will a book published anywhere other than OUP immediately look second-rate on a CV? Well, one might say, that’s just how reputational judgments get made all the time, in all sorts of ways. OK, but if OUP is the only high-prestige publisher, and if so much accordingly rides upon its publication decisions, then this is concerning. Even though they publish a lot every year, and even though the scholars I surveyed are enthusiastic about their editorial procedures, it’s problematic if a career can be made or unmade on the report of just a single reader for a press.

I myself don’t think the situation, as it stands, is quite so dire. In the fields I work in, there’s important work coming out from all sorts of presses, and I don’t feel any sense that one must either publish with OUP or perish. But I do wonder whether, in parts of philosophy closer to what’s perceived as the mainstream, the field could be coming close to this sort of alarming situation. Philosophy would benefit, at any rate, from a frank discussion of this issue.

6 comments on “OUP’s Prestige Monopoly

  1. Jean-Luc Solere says:

    Thanks, Bob, for this very informative post. My two cents as the JHP book review editor (therefore the following applies only to books covering some part of the history of philosophy): OUP may have the best books, but it also sends the greatest number of review copies, by far; so, no wonder that they get the greatest number of reviews, even if journal editors “immediately lean toward reviewing” their books because of the reputational bias. Already in 2015 my predecessor was complaining that CUP had become unreliable about sending review copies. The trend has only been confirmed since then, to the point that, during 2019, CUP failed to send me some books really important in the field and I had to inquire about what was going on. Before that, OUP had consistently sent roughly twice as many books than CUP, and both were far ahead of all other publishers. I don’t know, though, how they compare regarding the number of books published; it’s possible that OUP publishes many more books. What I know, however, is that decisions about review copies are in the hands of marketing departments; therefore, without taking away any of the credit due to the OUP editors, one can also think that they have a better marketing department, or that they are wealthier and can afford to send more review copies, whereas other marketing departments seem to sprinkle haphazardly their production over different journals. Overall, there is a clear long-term decline in the number of copies sent by all publishers: whereas in 2000 the JHP was still receiving close to 400 relevant books (i.e. after discarding books that did not fall within the scope of the journal), only 171 were received in 2019 (and in 2020, due to the pandemic, the number is close to zero). It seems that, for economical reasons, publishers are more and more reluctant to send copies (and now are switching to digital copies); perhaps OUP is the publisher that resisted most this trend.

  2. brian leftow says:

    It’s not clear to me that OUP is the only prestige press. I think pretty highly of Harvard, Princeton, MIT and Cambridge books, myself. But these presses put out only a fraction of what OUP does, and a great many other presses that used to have substantial presences in analytic philosophy have gone away from it- e.g. Cornell, University of California. (Once upon a time, Alston’s series on Cornell was the prestige destination for phil of religion. Does Cornell publish anything in the field any more?) What worries me is the gradual shrinkage in the number of outlets for analytic work.

  3. […] Robert Pasnau, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, thinks there might be, as he explains in the following guest post*.  (A version of this post first appeared at Professor Pasnau’s blog, In medias PHIL.) […]

  4. […] Robert Pasnau, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, thinks there might be, as he explains in the following guest post*.  (A version of this post first appeared at Professor Pasnau’s blog, In medias PHIL.) […]

  5. Marius Stan says:

    I too had complained to the OUP people, several times, about the terrible job they were doing on the typography for OSO. Took them years to hear us. The recent change is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough — the printed version of their Oxford Handbooks was set in Minion, a wonderfully readable yet compact font that’s far to surpass:
    https://www.myfonts.com/fonts/adobe/minion/

    Based on your posted screenshot, they’ve adopted an inferior garalde — some nondescript, latter-day epigone of the work of Garamond and Granjon. Of which there are very many. If I ran a monopoly prestige press, I’d hire a graphic designer with better taste and more knowledge.

  6. […] Robert Pasnau, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, thinks there might be, as he explains in the following guest post*.  (A version of this post first appeared at Professor Pasnau’s blog, In medias PHIL.) […]

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