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Publishing, Physics, and Rugby

Could the strategies of rugby aid the embattled world of publishing?

Ask Trevor Lipscombe.

The new director of the Catholic University of America Press knows his ruck from his maul and the intricacies of a scrum.

He became director at CUAP in December, replacing David McGonagle, who retired after 25 years leading the press. Prior to joining Catholic, Lipscombe was editor in chief at Johns Hopkins University Press for 10 years and before that, the physical-sciences editor at Princeton University Press, for eight years.

Lipscombe earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Oxford in 1986. As a physicist, he has published widely in the field, including a popularization, The Physics of Rugby (Nottingham University Press, 2009), that entertainingly coupled his dual passions.

Reached via e-mail, the new director notes the warm welcome he’s received at Catholic, whose staff’s “enthusiasm for what we publish” and “intellectual engagement with our books is a delight to see.” He answered a few questions for The Chronicle.

Q: How did a physicist get into publishing?

A. By a subtle blend of serendipity and providence!

I had completed a two-year postdoctoral stint at the Levich Institute of the City College in New York, but doubted that the life of a university professor was for me. I had sometimes thought of spending a year doing volunteer work, and the time felt right. I joined Covenant House, a shelter for homeless and runaway youth in Manhattan. There I met another full-time volunteer and, 18 months later, we were married. She went to work for the Archdiocese of New York as an assistant comptroller, so I needed to find a job in the New York area. I opened Physics Today, the glossy magazine of the physics community, and read the ad for a position on the editorial staff of Physical Review. This is one of the world’s most prestigious journals and—highly important—was only a car ride away, albeit on the horror show known as the Long Island Expressway. Two years later, Princeton University Press had an opening for a physical sciences editor, for which I applied and was accepted.

I enjoyed working on the journal, for you get to work on some of the most important physics research during its earliest stages of development. Books, though, are more personal and permanent. I spent eight happy years as Princeton before moving to Johns Hopkins, where I served as editor-in-chief for a decade. Hopkins provided the intellectual challenge of building a publishing program in physics from scratch, and also to become involved with the strategic aspects of modern scholarly publishing.

Q: Catholic’s list has focused on theology and philosophy. Do you have any plans to take the press in other directions?

A. The press has great strengths in theology and philosophy, and these two disciplines form the bedrock of our publishing program. Pope John Paul II was an accomplished philosopher pontiff, whereas in Pope Benedict XVI we have someone acclaimed (by the TLS, if memory serves) as the greatest intellectual to occupy the throne of Saint Peter for a millennium. Their works help keep theology and philosophy fresh, vibrant, and intellectually stimulating. Expanding our program in these fields is certainly a possibility.

As far as other directions are concerned, it’s too early to say. The university consists of 12 schools, including the only school of music in D.C. Are there areas into which we could move, that reflect the strengths of the university and which might fulfill the publishing needs of the scholarly community? I believe so—but not without planning and forethought!

Q: The Library of Early Christianity is among the major scholarly projects of the CUA Press. How does the Library, with its bilingual editions, figure in the press’s mission and in scholarly publishing at large?

A. The Library of Early Christianity, and the Fathers of the Church series, are extremely important to the Press.  Many people, some scholars included, think only of Roman (Latin-rite) Catholicism. But the Church is also home to Catholics of the Byzantine, Chaldean, and other rites. Both of these series provide us with the opportunity to bring into English some of the earliest Church writings, not only those written in Patristic Latin or Greek, but also those written in Syriac or Coptic. As such, we can make available some early church texts and commentaries that should help us understand more fully the doctrinal development and geographical spread of the early Church. It also may encourage undergraduates who read these books to study Eastern Christianity in more depth, possibly helping the academy to paint a more nuanced picture of early Christianity, early Christian-Muslim interactions, and so forth.

Q: Catholic has begun publishing some electronic versions of its titles, particularly in the Fathers of the Early Church series, do you have plans to expand e-publishing?

A. Yes we do. We are proud to partner with Project Muse Editions, which will provide for scholarly monographs what Project Muse provides for journals. It is slated to be available in July 2011. Some e-books are available directly from our web site, and we also have publishing arrangements with ebrary and Net Library. Unfortunately, until Kindle can resolve the issue of footnotes and how to display Syriac, Coptic, and Greek fonts we can’t make our titles available in that format.

I do wonder whether some of our titles might hold appeal as audiobooks. I like the idea of people being able to download our book by Pope Benedict XVI, Eschatology, from itunes.

Q: Is there a family resemblance among physics, rugby, and the as-yet unknowables of scholarly publishing in an era of endangered print?

A. The resemblance is uncanny. The Six Nations rugby tournament has begun and England has decided, yet again, to play safe, boring, “grunt and shove” rugby. Wales, though, plays with flair and passion. In physics, many research articles are devoted to adding a small extra term to a well-heeled equation, or to studying the properties of a chemical compound that lurks one spot in the periodic table below the last compound studied.

Some scientists, though, dare to construct entirely new equations to be analyzed, or explore bewildering new states of matter.  It’s “grunt and shove” science versus “flair and passion.” We face the same choices in this era of endangered print. Carrying on, business as usual, while printed-book sales diminish is grunt and shove; but publishing with flair and passion is far more enjoyable, even if it involves greater risk.—Nina Ayoub

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