In academia, publishing matters. We all know it. Why? Because everyone tells us how much it matters, and we all keep reinforcing and reproducing that importance through a kind of academic habitus. As a grad student, I am constantly reminded of the value of publishing. Professors tell me about it. Other stressed out, worried grad students tell me about it. Training seminars and workshops tell me all about it. Like many rituals, repetition is key. And it’s not just publishing per se–we need to publish in the right places! This is because, apparently, information is actually better (or more prestigious) if it’s located in one place rather than another. But who determines which places are the rights ones? And what happens if there’s a problem, a kink, or a glitch in the system itself? Then what?
The overall process is very cyclical. We know the drill: we all need to publish so we can get grants and jobs, fight our way to tenure, and then tell new students that they need to do the same. Like the agricultural cycle, it’s a system that needs constant renewal. We need to publish to increase our social and political capital, so that we can move up through the hierarchy. I get it. I think we all get it. Everyone seems to participate in the process. The further along we go, the deeper we are mired in the inner-workings of it all. It’s almost as if there’s no choice in the matter. Hence the saying: Publish or perish. What a great slogan, no? Either you get your article published, or you sink into a deep abyss of failure. No pressure though. Just makes you want to jump right in the game, doesn’t it?
So, when there’s critical news about this publishing world–which seems to determine our intellectual existence–I pay attention. I can’t help it. Just yesterday, Kerim posted a link on twitter about a recent article by George Monbiot that excoriates the academic publishing industry. Have you read it? Or are you so buried in the madness of graduate school, the insanity of the tenure track system, or the bureaucracy of academia that it somehow passed you by? If so, you’re in luck. Here are some choice selections, served up in convenient little snippets, like burgers sliding down a fast food chute, just for you…
First, from the intro:
Who are the most ruthless capitalists in the western world? Whose monopolistic practices make Walmart look like a corner shop and Rupert Murdoch a socialist? You won’t guess the answer in a month of Sundays. While there are plenty of candidates, my vote goes not to the banks, the oil companies or the health insurers, but – wait for it – to academic publishers.
That’s right. According to Monbiot, academic publishers are guilty of some of the worst monopolistic capitalists to be found. Have you ever tried to read or download a journal article without an institutional subscription? The costs, of course, are insane. Even very short articles cost a ridiculous amount of money. So, if we are ever wondering about reasons why the general public might not have much access to contemporary anthropology (not to mention other disciplines), the exorbitant cost of accessing academic journals is clearly one factor. As Monbiot argues, these expensive pay walls act as barriers to public access:
Everyone claims to agree that people should be encouraged to understand science and other academic research. Without current knowledge, we cannot make coherent democratic decisions. But the publishers have slapped a padlock and a “keep out” sign on the gates.
Compared to the access fees charged by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the fees charged by academic publishers are incredibly high:
Reading a single article published by one of Elsevier’s journals will cost you $31.50. Springer charges €34.95, Wiley-Blackwell, $42. Read 10 and you pay 10 times. And the journals retain perpetual copyright. You want to read a letter printed in 1981? That’ll be $31.50.
These issues also impact the budgets of libraries, which have to constantly balance the need to order new books with the costs of maintaining subscriptions to these expensive academic journals. Another issue? Well, while the journalists and editors who work in print media actually get paid for what they do, “the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free.” The benefits that come from publishing, of course, are indirect, since publications (hopefully) lead to jobs, tenure, and so on. But the publishers themselves have a pretty good gig going here, with all of those researchers working, for free, to create content (and notoriety) for all of these journals. And all of this is continually perpetuated because of the critical political position that these journals have in determining academic careers.
Another issue is the fact that much of the research that eventually gets published in these journals is actually financed by public funding: “The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose.” This situation is a losing proposition on all sides, Monbiot argues. And, as bad as it is for academics, he argues that it’s even worse for the general public and non-academics:
I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers, on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can’t afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands. This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind.
There is indeed all of this research out there. All of this information, all of these ideas. As a graduate student, and someone who is in the middle of the system, I happen to have access to many journal articles. But this is definitely not the case for anyone outside of academia. So how are they supposed to actually learn about the latest research in anthropology, geography, biology, public health, etc? Of course, the vast majority of academic journals aren’t really geared toward public consumption, but the question stands. Maybe, in fact, more of them should be crafted to appeal to some different readerships. Who knows? In essence, the publication loop is indeed pretty closed, and inaccessibility of journals is yet another important factor. Here is Monbiot’s conclusion about the matter:
In the short term, governments should refer the academic publishers to their competition watchdogs, and insist that all papers arising from publicly funded research are placed in a free public database. In the longer term, they should work with researchers to cut out the middleman altogether, creating – along the lines proposed by Björn Brembs of Berlin’s Freie Universität – a single global archive of academic literature and data. Peer-review would be overseen by an independent body. It could be funded by the library budgets which are currently being diverted into the hands of privateers.
Ok, so what do you think about these conclusions? Does academic publishing need reform, or is it just fine the way it is? Is this all overblown? Are the fields of academic publishing as healthy, fertile, and productive as ever? Or are they laced with the intellectual equivalent of DDT? For me, the issue of publishing is always on my mind, especially considering my current academic position. Publishing–as a means to move through the academic chain of existence–is only to get more important. So should I take part in the process, or what? Considering the basic politics and political economy of academia, the question is whether I should simply hedge my bets and start publishing in these academic journals, despite all of the problems and issues. Or, is it time to opt out and find another path altogether?