Academic Publishing: Join in, or opt out?

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?

Ryan Anderson is an environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

12 thoughts on “Academic Publishing: Join in, or opt out?

  1. I think the academic community as a whole needs to debate this. It is a classic collective action problem, no individual can work against this system, but academics working in concert can help set up alternative outlets in order to push governments in the direction Monbiot envisages.

    There is already an open-access publishing movement, but what is required is that a group of really, really big academic names (who are big enough to have nothing to lose) get together to set up, lobby for and support moves towards open access. This is what is required for a public debate on this, which would be the only way to get politicians interested.

    The other option is civil disobedience. To set up a “wikileaks” style site where articles are requested and posted up for free, prompting the publishers to pursue the site owners through legal channels, and also raising the profile of these debates.

  2. I think it is also important in these debates to realize that “academic publishers” as a term encompasses a lot of different models of publishing. As someone who works for a nonprofit university press, I was surprised to read Mobiot’s piece (which is very thought-provoking) and find myself described as even more ruthless than Walmart. Within the industry there are nonprofit publishers connected to universities, nonprofit independent presses, and commercial publishers (both public and private for-profit companies).

  3. As the previous commenters pointed out, there are alternative models of publishing. George Monbiot’s target is a specific gang of publishers who control the vast core of academic publishing. There can be little debate that their control is deleterious to the dissemination of research and academic discourse. Academics must develop a new network of peer reviewed journals that supersede the present monopoly. Must.

  4. Thank you for this post! It would help if young scholars (who might belong to the group of really big academic names in the future) and their local University Libraries collaboratively further “in-house” Open Access initiatives. Is your University Library an active SPARC (http://www.arl.org/sparc/index.shtml)member?

  5. In response to Jason Weidemann:

    The problem is not that these alternative publishing models exist but that in many fields (including most sub-fields anthropology), the highly ranked (or most cited) journals required to get tenure (or get hired) are largely controlled by for-profit publishers. For example, The American Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, and the American Ethnologist are all controlled by Willey-Blackwell. While it is true that books are often more important to getting tenure, a cultural anthropologist who doesn’t have at least one article published in one of these journals might find themselves out of a job at some universities when they are up for tenure. A similar ranking occurs for book publishers, though, thankfully many of the higher ranked publishers are non-profit university presses.

  6. There are options out there — well respected, high impact journals that aren’t published by the big three, such as Current Anthropology. There are also publishers that allow authors to freely distribute their articles through personal websites. You just need to commit to figuring out which journals and publishers those are… it might mean making some compromises, but most departments can be swayed.

    I’ve never heard of a department that requires you publish in 1 of 3 named journals; they want you to publish in widely read journals, sure, but there’s flexibility in that requirement — not everyone does work that fits into the flagship journals, after all. And I think one of the likely outcomes of the rise of Google Scholar is that it won’t matter quite so much where you publish — but it might matter how much you’re getting cited. Now we can see which are the high impact articles and authors — and that’s much more nefarious, really. At least publishing in high impact journals made it appear as if your work mattered — now there’s actual proof that is does. But that might actually be incentive for people to start getting their publications online, and freely distributing them.

    And, what’s so bad about publishing, anyway? At its base, it’s just about having a conversation with your colleagues, some of whom you know, some strangers to you. It might see like a terrible burden, but if you take the time to figure out what conversations you’re interested in participating in and finding the journals where they take place, it’s not the most terrible thing in the world. I always advise students to start early, and start small. The process is usually quite friendly and helpful, and subdisciplinary journals have smaller word counts and are more likely to give good feedback. It might not be as prestigious as publishing in one of the flagships, but the word count will be half that required in the big journals, and your need to make an impact with your argument will be much less. Most dissertations are lucky to have 1 big idea. If that’s the first thing you publish, and in a flagship journals, anxiety is inevitable…

  7. I largely agree with this.

    The big issue is that knowledge production (an paper, dataset, or other scholarly contribution) is expensive. The Web makes knowledge dissemination almost free. Academia gets it mainly backwards, and puts charges on the free side of the equation.

    I happen to think lots of publishers and others add lots of value to scholarly outputs. Obviously “peer-review” (in some form, not just the business as usual) is vital. Copy editing and design are really important. Digital preservation and indexing (with fancy services to track citations, impact, etc.) are also really important. Same with identity and version control. Everything costs money to support.

    Most academic work is not financially sustainable. It requires public financing, given in the name of the public interest. It would be nice if the knowledge products that we generate are treated as public goods, rather than private IP.

    (BTW – I’m an archaeologist, and when I hear critiques about the sustainability of open access, I point out that archaeology is itself NOT sustainable, excepting of course, the antiquities trade!! See: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1r6137tb?query=public%20good;hitNum=1#page-35)

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    @Daniel: I have seen a few people mention the need to get big names on board. So what do you think is holding them back? A lack of interest? A lack of time? Also, do you think there are other ways of exploring different ideas about OA and publishing that don’t require the help/support of those big names?

    @Jason W:

    “I think it is also important in these debates to realize that “academic publishers” as a term encompasses a lot of different models of publishing.”

    Good point. Thanks for bringing it up. I definitely do not think it’s a good idea to simply lump all “publishers” in the same big group. My guess would be that there are potential allies and possibilities for collaboration/conversation among people who work in these independent presses. But that’s just a guess from the outside–what do you think?

    @Simona:

    That’s a good question about my university, definitely. And I need to take some time to look deeper into the OA possibilities here. Thanks for the link.

    @grad student guy:

    “The problem is not that these alternative publishing models exist but that in many fields (including most sub-fields anthropology), the highly ranked (or most cited) journals required to get tenure (or get hired) are largely controlled by for-profit publishers. For example, The American Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, and the American Ethnologist are all controlled by Willey-Blackwell.”

    See, this seems to be a big part of the problem to me as well–but I could be completely wrong. Still, it seems pretty problematic if the flagship journals of the discipline are under the control of publishers like WB, who charge a ton for access, among other things.

    @Matthew Wolf-Meyer:

    “And, what’s so bad about publishing, anyway? At its base, it’s just about having a conversation with your colleagues, some of whom you know, some strangers to you.”

    Oh, I completely agree. I am all for publishing, communication, dialog, and conversation. I guess the issue here is about who controls the medium of communication, where the information goes, and maybe where it should go. I am definitely all for more conversation…but the question here is whether the current model needs some, well, adjustments. Again, this is coming from grad student who is somewhat on the outside, since I have not yet made a big push to start publishing in journals. With the continual news about the issues with academic publishing (esp among certain publishers), my question is whether or not I just take part in the system, or start pushing for different paths.

    “I always advise students to start early, and start small. The process is usually quite friendly and helpful…”

    This is really helpful advice–thanks for sharing your insights. It definitely makes the publishing process seem a little less intimidating. I think it would be good to have some more posts that talk about publishing strategies along these lines.

    @Erik K:

    “I happen to think lots of publishers and others add lots of value to scholarly outputs.”

    Ya, I agree with you about this. There is a lot that goes into publishing. I guess the question in whether or not the publisher-added value is reflected accurately in the pub costs and access fees, etc. When are costs reasonable considering the work that goes into these pubs, and when is it pretty clear that the system is out of alignment?

    “Most academic work is not financially sustainable. It requires public financing, given in the name of the public interest. It would be nice if the knowledge products that we generate are treated as public goods, rather than private IP.”

    Agreed.

  9. In addition to not-for-profit publishers, bear in mind that most small scholarly societies contract out their wholly owned titles to the “big 3” – you might think you’re paying just the “big 3” but actually a big chunk of profit is often going to the charitable society and may represent for example 80% of its total income, membership fees typically not amounting to very much of the total budget.

    Given that something like 70% of all journals are society owned (I think – but check that) any collapse in the industry will also collapse the charitable activities of most professional and learned societies.

    Others have already mentioned the value of organised peer review revisions, archiving, indexing, copyediting, proof preparation, visibility and marketing that publishers add to the initially submitted manuscript.

    But then the chap who wrote the newspaper column was just having a rant, rather than actually attempting to analyse the complex economics underlying both academia and the scholarly publishing industry.

  10. Thanks Stephen, I saw that post by Kent Anderson. And while I think he does make some points, I also think he misses the mark in many ways. Especially in how he dismisses the economics of the situation and argues that people who really “need” access already have it. I do think that cost/price of access is an issue, especially for anyone who outside of academia. Anyway, I mention the Scholarly Kitchen piece here in an update post:

    https://savageminds.org/2011/09/06/anthropology-academic-publishing-updat/

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