God Bless Sage for their Unvarnished Commercialism

The nice thing about Sage is that they don’t try to hide who they are and what they do. They want to make money — lots of money — and they use us to do it. This is so different from the American Anthropological Association, which claims to be doing things because they are the right thing to do, but actually is desperate to make money, and uses us to do it. There are other differences as well — Sage has very high production values, while the AAA has AnthroSource. Most importantly, however, is the genius Sage shows in keeping its audience happy. Which (I should clarify at the start) is actually rather sinister.

Earlier this semester I did a peer review for a Sage journal. Shortly thereafter I got an email which read “thank you for helping us, please accept two months free access to all Sage journals in thanks.” Pretty sweet, right? And it sounds like such a good idea. Aren’t many professors talking about how we should be compensated for our service to the discipline, especially when that service is to a for-profit publisher? Then I got an email from my alumni association announcing that my ultra-rich, high-end private research university had entered into an agreement with Sage giving all alumni free access to (some) Sage journals that the university subscribed to. More free journals for me!
I have no doubt that before long I’ll be gaining rights to journals left and right on the basis of my various capacities — member of one university, alum of another, a peer review there, a board membership there. It’s a brilliant solution to the issue of open access: for a small number of elite people like me, journals will effectively be open access. The actual cost of journals, who is paying for them, and who can’t read them, will drift further and further out of sight. I’m sure it won’t take long before access will start feeling like a right and not a privilege. For people who are on the edges of this system — and that will be most people who want to read journal articles — access for service will start looking like generosity and not dispossession.
Academics constantly tell themselves that they are different from other white collar workers because we are in a field which is about making people and knowledge, not profits. A field which has resisted, basically, industrialization. I myself believe this. One of the most exhausting and gratifying aspects of life as a professor is the way we carry entire field on our shoulders — we write books. We sit on editorial boards. We review books. We read them. We teach them. We teach the students who read and make them. We hire them. We read their tenure applications. We write obituaries of them. And that’s just the teaching. In some ways, it’s a field with remarkably little division of labor.
I say ‘bless Sage for their unvarnished commercialism’ because they did me a great service this semester by showing me one possible future for the academy: one in which we live lives which gainsay our claims to be responsible for the reproduction of the academy. American academics have spent the last half-century with a world-historical amount of money sloshing around their educational systems. As it dries up, it behooves us to get medieval on our ourselves and double down on our responsibility to our discipline. Doing peer review is not enough — thinking about budgets (and being transparent about them) is equally important.
Some academics spurn this sort of managerial involvement as neoliberal, while others see any involvement with filthy lucre as dirtying. But really, it is just another part of our service to our discipline. Keeping the number in mind — thinking about the political economy of the academy — is something we need to do more of, not less. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

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