On the difficulties of hacking the academy

Jason Baird Jackson has a nice essay (1) on how to “get out of the business”. The business to which he refers is that of “freely giv[ing] my labor to large multinational corporations whose interests align with their shareholders but that are antagonistic to my own”, by submitting articles to journals published by large for-profit concerns such as Reed Elsevier, or doing similar things like editing a book, acting as a peer-reviewer, and so on. He points out that we each have the choice not to submit our work to these publishers and to turn down invitations to editorial positions and the like.

I share Jason’s view that such choices by a fairly large number of academics have already changed the academic publishing landscape and stand to change it further moving forward. However, the vast majority of academics continue to use the “traditional” venues for scholarly communication, and appear to be tacitly resistant to the suggestions, and it seems to me that a truly radical change looks unlikely at the present time. And to be honest I suppose I would have to include myself within “the vast majority of academics”. Jason’s suggestions are just that: suggestions to individuals, who will make their own decisions about whether to follow them. I’d like to explore some of the reasons why most of us choose not to, and also some ways in which that situation might change.

The overriding reason is a fairly obvious one: Though our long-term interests may well be served by “getting out of the business”, tenure or promotion may well depend on getting published in the most prestigious venues, and on serving as editors or peer-reviewers for them. If and when a radical shift does take place, not-for-profit venues may well become the most prestigious venues, but, until that happens, most individuals are better served by taking the traditional route, submitting to a publication that in all likelihood is earning profits for Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, or similar—a fact that of course makes such a shift, still less a shift to “born digital scholarly forms” less likely.

However, I think there are a few reasons for optimism and list them below.

1. NOTHING TO LOSE. The first possibility for change lies in faculty who are already at the top of their game, with tenure and full professorships. Once failure to publish in whatever venues are most prestigious ceases to have financial implications, the possibility of professors making the same choices as Jason increases. And as renowned scholars’ work is seen in alternative venues, those venues may start taking on an air of greater respectability, starting a snowball effect. Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons why this doesn’t seem to happen as often as we might like.

An individual senior scholar retiring from “the business” usually just means that someone up-and-coming gets the opportunity to take her place. Academia is full of people whose chief weakness (and charm) is that they don’t really calculate the value of time; we’re willing to spend countless hours on tasks that we think will further our career, or contribute to our own prestige, or simply lead to progress in our field, or even that just seem cool or interesting. Further, the senior scholar, who we are saying has nothing tangible to lose, still has a lot of intangibles at stake. What if people start saying that she is “past it”, assuming that the bright young thing editing the best journal is there simply because he’s better.

The large profits of companies like Reed Elsevier also mean that, if they feel they really need a specific scholar to edit their journal, they can afford to make an exception to their policy and pay the scholar whatever is necessary—which is likely to be nothing like what the work is worth in any commercial sense.

The whole situation is exacerbated by the prevailing ideology that business is good and institutions that don’t operate on mainly commercial lines are naive or misguided and need to import business practices—highly ironic when you consider that the subject of Jason’s essay was unpaid labor. At least until recently, most universities would rather pay vast sums of money to a company like Blackboard to provide a virtual learning environment to students than to pay a much smaller sum to a smaller company to administer and service the installation of an open source system such as Moodle. A pedagogical innovation introduced at no cost or funded from an individual professor’s research budget may receive no credit at institutional level, yet a similar innovation with inflated cost accompanied by external funding wins lots of brownie points. This again is ironic when you consider that many of these external grants have very little long-term benefit to the institution as a whole, generally having to be used for the specific project for which they were won, and thus having a mainly derivative value (showing that you are able to attract external funding).

2. NOTHING TO GAIN. The second possibility for change I would like to mention is the fact that it can be very difficult to get published in the most prestigious journals. The large for-profit publishers may well offer other relevant titles (depending on your field), but if you miss out on the big ones, you may as well go for something not for-profit. I think Japan also offers a version of the nothing-to-gain scenario, as many full-time academic positions still have quasi-tenure, and promotions still depend to a large extent on age, while the salaries of full professors are only marginally higher than those of assistant professors; thus, a scholar spending his time and energy on things that are valued officially may end up gaining very little over the scholar doing things he considers truly valuable to the academy as a whole. Another factor that I guess belongs in the “Nothing to Gain” category is the “hidden costs of publishing in a closed way“: beyond the long turnaround time is the fact that many people are unable to read prestigious journals because of the prohibitive cost.

3. THE ALLURE OF COOL. Another possibility for change lies in one of the very qualities that make academics easy to exploit: the attraction to things that are perceived as interesting or cool. As initiatives like Firefox and Wikipedia continue to enjoy success, and as we hear of more open access journals and similar ventures in our own or other fields, the climate may pass a threshold where the coolness of publishing in alternative venues outweighs the tangible benefits of sticking with the traditional ways. Perhaps even those of us with a lot to lose may just decide without detailed calculation of costs and benefits that open access or non-profit is where it’s at.

As I review these reasons for optimism before posting, they all look a little tenuous, but I think it’s a flurry of little things that causes big changes to take effect. I’d like to close with a concrete suggestion for those exploring alternative publishing venues: Get someone to proofread your articles!

Why is this important? To be honest, it may not be for many people, but the big publishers like to justify their use of free academic labor by pointing to the other costs of publishing, such as printing and proofreading and so on. When scholarship takes place on blogs or other alternative venues, publishers can point to a lack of “quality”, most clearly manifested in superficial problems such as spelling mistakes or grammatical errors such as garden path sentences, mismatched singulars and plurals, and so on. By taking greater care, we can start to create the impression that scholars do care about rigor, not just in the quality of the ideas expressed, but in the precision with which we express them, and that we don’t need the big publishing companies to do the work for us. The companies’ position is further weakened when we notice that quality control is becoming an outmoded concept in large sections of the publishing industry, including some academic journals published by the major companies.

The author of this essay is Richard S. Lavin

(1) Jason Baird Jackson, Getting Yourself Out of the Business in Five Easy Steps (With Updates). October 12, 2009. http://jasonbairdjackson.com/2009/10/12/getting-yourself-out-of-the-business-in-five-easy-steps/

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