Trends in Classics, 1990-2015

Do you know where your discipline is headed? How sure are you about that, or are you just going by impressions?

This week’s post is a guest post by a contract faculty member at a major research institution. Because the writer is on the job market this year and the analysis is not always flattering to classics as a discipline, I have been asked to keep the author’s identity secret. The post below is the first in a series of original research posts on trends in publishing in classics. Although the words and images are (c) the author, the Library of Antiquity has added links to external sites of interest.

If we wanted to do a survey of the state of the field, we could try to read everything that has been published over the last, say, twenty years, while taking scrupulous notes and then attempt to synthesize the whole of it into something meaningful. Or we could be more systematic and try to answer these questions through a kind of meta-analysis.

In the sciences, a meta-analysis is a type of study that collects and analyzes the results of other studies. Since publications in Classics don’t typically report their results in numeric fashion, I’ve done something a little different. Something more like the kind of stylometric analysis to which we used to subject Plato and his ilk. Now, I can’t do this to everything that has been published in the field of Classics—not even with everything that has been published online. Google “Aaron Swartz” [Ed’s note: don’t worry: we’ve done it for you] if you think that ‘academic freedom’ and a legitimate library password means that you’re allowed to use your computer as a computer rather than a fancy papyrus scroll when it comes to JSTOR. Instead, I’m going to use the Bryn Mawr Classical Review as a microcosm, for a variety of fairly dull technical reasons. How much faith you put in my conclusions will be directly tied to how well you think the BMCR represents the state of the field. The remainder of this instalment will be given over to exploring some surface-level trends in this collection, and also to highlighting its scope.

Below we see a graph of the most basic, and obtrusively, perhaps even painfully, obvious trend—at least for those of us brave enough to subscribe to the BMCR’s mailing list: the number of reviews they publish has increased to a punishing level:

graph of BMCR reviews by year

BMCR reviews by year of publication

But actually this ‘trend’ isn’t quite accurate. The pace at which the BMCR published reviews did spike, but then leveled off through the early part of this decade, and actually retreated a bit for 2014. It’s a good thing: had the previous rate of growth held, we would now be getting almost 8 of them per day, rather than the 3-5 that are typical for subscribers. All in all, the BMCR has reviewed at least 8838 books over the past twenty-five years (numbers as of September 15, 2015).

But of course the pace at which the BMCR cranks out reviews isn’t necessarily the same as the rate at which books get published. We don’t have a perfect way of keeping track of the latter, but we might have a decent proxy. In addition to reviews, the Bryn Mawr also regularly posts lists of books that they have been sent for review. Let’s see what’s up with those:

graph of BMCR books received for review

Numbers of books received for review (from BMCR)

Don’t read too much into the shape of that one, especially around either end. This only includes the books received from 1999 onwards. Since not all books are submitted for review instantly, we really only see the ghost of 1998. Likewise we probably won’t have seen all of the books published in 2015 for another few years, so the apparent dip for 2015, and to a lesser extent 2014, means nothing. More significant is the sharp spike for the early years of this decade.

My first instinct on seeing that was to blame the great recession in some manner. Perhaps an even bleaker than usual job market forced a cohort of young classicists to move faster in pursuing that first (or second) book contract to stay competitive? If so, bad luck for them, since everyone else obviously had the same idea. But it might not be quite so simple. The graph below has a little more detail. The total line is there, but I’ve broken than down into books published with English titles, and those with titles in French, German, Italian, and Spanish (called ‘Continental’ for convenience). The dotted lines are general trend lines (the best fit for the years 1999 to 2013), the solid lines are the actual results.

graph of BMCRs broken down by language

BMCR reviews broken down by language (English, non-English, and total)

So the picture is a little more complicated. Publications in English surge to a much smaller degree, and the bulge is driven by a sharp increase in the number of publications in the languages of continental Europe—an increase of 178 books from 2010 to 2011 (from 379 to 557). Going a little deeper, the increase was driven primarily by smaller publishing houses on the continent. 295 of what I am calling small presses (producing 10 or fewer books per year in 2010) increased their numbers in 2011, while 51 presses—including some large publishers, like Brill—saw a decline. The other two publishers who send the most books to the BMCR, OUP and CUP, saw relatively modest gains. It is too early to say whether the new skyrocketing rate of publication is a trend or merely blip, let alone to try to interpret it. What we can say is that the field of Classics has grown measurably more crowded over the past decade. What does this mean for your small corner of the field? We’ll dig into that in part two!

If you are interested in the author’s work, sources, or ultimate publication goals, please send Jackie an email at libraryofantiquity at and I will try to get you in touch.

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Trends in Classics, 1990-2015 by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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