, , , , , ,

I think this article by Erica Price about academic publishing is highly problematic, but nowhere near as problematic as some of the back and forth which she had with people from the writering community which can be found here.



In order to succeed in academia, you must succeed in academic publishing. The length of the published works section of your CV (the academic equivalent of a resume) determines your job offers, promotions, pay scale, whether you get grants, and whether you get tenure. If you do not publish, you…

This is (bitterly) fucking hilarious, because in fiction publishing, all of the things she’s talking about here are giant red flags that signal “fake vanity publisher scam DO NOT USE DO NOT USE.” Not that fiction publishers don’t have their own set of major issues, but there is at least the understanding that everyone involved in the process is doing work that they should get paid for, even if it’s a lot of work for shitty, risky, or long-delayed pay. Like, something went wrong if nobody made any money.

THIS. Academic publishing functions the way mainstream publishing SCAMS function.

So, to make my objections specific. What the original poster is actually complaining about is the academic jobs market not the publishing market. All the movement to Open Access (OA) publishing (which is in itself a good thing, to make knowledge open) are only going to make all those original poster's complaints actually worse.

If you want "vanity publishing" just wait until you see the "Gold OA" model. Academics are increasingly required to publish their articles in a format that anyone can access (which I think is unequivocally a good thing). However the so-called "Gold" model which is preferred by many of the funding agencies and the journal publishers (especially in the UK where there is a big shit-fight over this),1 requires the Author to pay the Journal to get all the peer reviewing, editing, etcetera, done (and of course the peer reviewing work is still unpaid labour). Only rich authors or those from rich institutions will be able to publish extensively in this model.

Now that is really much more like "vanity" publishing, and it's already been reported some slimy commercial journal outfits are scanning through conference programmes and emailing likely presenters with offers to publish their work in their shitty little journal, for a fee, in the name of Open Access – and that is actual vanity publishing. This sort of thing has happened to PhD theses for years. Plus look what happens to scholarly monograph publishing in the world of pay-for-play open access. The "Gold" model will likely destroy or deeply cripple academic publishing in the Humanities (as opposed to the "Green" model which means placing articles after a short period of embargo, into freely accessible institutional repositories).

I have some additional objections to some of the points raised in the original article. The situations described in that piece are potentially different for different fields (the author's field is social psychology if I read the 'about' page correctly). It is a huge error of misattribution to assume that experience in one field is mirrored in all the others. Also it seems the author may also be involved with creative writing, which already has a commercial market for the primary output of creative writing (magazines, books, novels, New York Times bestseller list, etc).2

In areas like Ancient History and Classics (I can't really speak for any other areas), the journals are nearly all published by scholarly societies and the journal is usually included in the price of society membership (it not usually "a few hundred dollars" but more often in the range of about a hundred dollars or less). The journal itself is actually the paramount "good" the society produces.3 The comparison of the New Yorker to e.g. the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies is a category error.

However, and to extend my objection further, I do think that article refereeing – this is the "peer review" process which is what makes academic journals, actually academic journals – does necessarily need to be "unpaid" labour. I am not convinced that putting any sort of economic motivation in the peer review process is anything like an excellent idea. The point is that you are supposed to be paid for your time by your employing institution. The problem is therefore, the academic employment market, in this regard.

Another objection I take is to the characterisation of the "conference" market. The simple fact of the matter is the author thinks an academic conference presentation is a "TED-worthy" talk. If I went to an academic Classics conference and got a TED talk I'd be incensed. I don't want a popularised dumbing down for a generalised audience who each paid many thousands of dollars to attend. I want to see the cutting edge of research in my academic field.4 And a $300 registration fee? What sort of conferences is this person attending? Again I think the case is they are assuming their own field's experience is extended to every other field and generalising their own feelings about that to the "academic" area in general. The range for conference fees I find is more typically $100 to $200 but I will concede it does vary somewhat,5 so it might be up at $300 for some conferences. Anyway every single one of these conferences take a lot of hard work by volunteer labour (I know as I was just involved in organising one) and they are rarely run "for profit".

In short, I think this becomes part of a generalised grumbling about academic publishing, which is surely full of various inequities. But it's damned if you do, and damned if you don't. The real inequity in academic publishing is the exorbitant fees charged to access knowledge in the form of academic articles. But the solutions to that problem only make the specific complaints of the post even worse than they are now. The specific complaints in the post are about the academic job market, and the value of academic labour and how it is compensated (for it is labour). But I can't see how paying authors for academic articles or paying for people to peer-review those articles, is going to be solve either of these issues, when I think they will make it much worse. This is on top of what is already happening in academic publishing, in order to solve one group of problems, will likely make existing successful and currently viable publishing models (by Societies) far worse than they are now. But instead of working to a solution to address those set of new problems, what happens is then a lot of non-specialists misinterpret the undifferentiated pile of complaints as "academic publishing is shit" and all you've achieved is denigrating all of us in everyone else's eyes without ever having a specific set of addressable issues that can be overcome in specific ways. So the entire beautiful project of knowledge accumulation which has been underway these last 250 years will just be torn down by a baying mob and replaced with … what exactly?

  1. I have to point out the Robin Osbourne's arguments in the linked article really do seem to make him out to be an out of touch harrumphing Oxbridge Classics Don of the first order and therefore do our discipline a great disservice. However, he does make some valid points, and I do agree as you can see with the general thrust of the idea that "Gold OA" is a disaster for publishing in many Humanities disciplines. 

  2. No-one apart from an academic publisher in Classics wants to publish my highly technical philological/narratological arguments about Livy's representation of Hannibal as basically a divinely-controlled agent of the natural landscape! The audience for my work is optimistically in the hundreds, at most, and the people interested in it, who don't already have a degree in Classics, I would guess would be countable on my fingers. It is highly specialised, and it needs to be highly specialised (it also needs to be finished, lol procrastination with publishing meta-issues on my blog!). 

  3. The societies do generally make a lot of money from "institutional" subscribers (e.g. libraries) and this money is used to fund other society activities. The societies are going to have to find a new way to fund those activities – what I guess will probably happen is that the membership fees will rise slightly to cover the journal production costs and then the "cream" from the institutional subs will have to be made up elsewhere. But societies may also have to scale back their activities if they can't get an economic model to fund them, which would be a terrible harm to come from the Open Access model.  

  4. Also I not only want to see the math (to use a Americanism) I would like you lay bare your working, and then ask you questions about it if I don't understand something you've said. 

  5. Including varying downwards to free