Saturday, July 9, 2016


I'm in a ranty mood, but I've promised to give up discussing current politics on the internet until I actually  get off my butt and get involved in positive change.

So instead I'm going to rant about academia.

I have an old friend who recently completed her PhD in archaeology, although I have known her since she was a punk-rock bartender and freelance coder (yes, she's pretty much a William Gibson character). Anyway, she posted on Facebook today that the final version of an article she'd written had been accepted by a journal. I started to congratulate her, but what came out was:

"Congratulations of giving away months of labor to someone who is going to sell it for profit."

Now, this friend knows me well enough to get the dark humor, but also to appreciate the truth. Like so much of academia, the academic publishing system is based around a model that simply doesn't exist anymore. If every scholar had a TT position with a reasonable class load, summers off, and periodic paid research sabbaticals, it would be fair to say that their universities are paying them for their research. Publishing their research is just a job requirement, at least if they expect to get tenure. Academic publishers are just sort of secondary beneficiaries of the process. And, of course, they benefit on both ends, and the universities are also their primary customers. Even a large portion of their editorial process (peer review, etc.) is done on a voluntary basis. All part of our service to the discipline.

But the above scenario does not describe the reality of many scholars, especially in their early careers. Even if they are lucky enough to have full time positions, they may be carrying 4/4 (or higher!) class loads. Between budget cuts and the ultra-competitive market, scholars often have little choice but to accept positions that provide little time for research and writing. And as for adjuncts! There's no need to repeat what has been said too many times, but adjuncts are explicitly paid just for the "contact hours" they spend teaching. Perhaps an extra 10 minutes per hour for prep, but research isn't even on the menu, especially given the number of "contact hours" one has to be working to survive.

Yet at the same time, it is these early-career scholars who are in the most desperate need of being published. They need to be able to demonstrate an active research agenda to compete with the hundreds of other CVs inundating search committees. I have no idea if there are statistics on the career-stage of journal authors, but it seems to me that, much as the glut of scholars enables the adjunct system, it also provides academic publishers with a tremendous amount of free content whose creators' only compensation is the hope that another line on their CV will increase their chances at a job.

I know a few professional artists and musicians, by which I mean people who actually pay their bills with art and music. And they invariably get people who ask them to produce or perform for free, on the grounds that it's "good exposure." And these artists and musicians react with scorn, because they are professionals, and professionals get paid. Their joke is "You can't eat exposure. People die of exposure." Given the realities of the academic job market, academic publishers are asking independent scholars, adjuncts, and those in teaching-heavy positions to give away their labor for free, and pay their rent with hope and a line on their CV.

I am not under the illusion that journal publishers are in it for the fast cash. This isn't the music business or paperback fiction. The academic market is limited, their publishing cycle involves a lot more work than conventional publications, and the internet is disrupting their paradigm all over the place. Some publishers are non-profit or operated by universities, but a quick web search finds Sage Publications reporting roughly £200m in profits after taxes in 2015. I'm sure only a fraction of that comes from the sale of unpaid journal articles (I'll see if the report gives any indication when my kittens stop attacking the screen), but I doubt their losing money on the deal. I know they are one of the publishers who lets authors pay for the "privilege" of allowing open access to their work, which seems an awful lot like having your boss tell you to pay your own wages. Other journals, of course, are truly open access, relying on grants or government funds or profits from elsewhere to cover the costs of publishing research. Which may be grand, to the extent that it means someone else isn't profiting from scholars' unpaid labor. But it don't pay the rental, as the song goes.

I don't think it's realistic to assume we are ever going to return to the days where full-time, tenured or tenure-track professional scholars were the norm. Full-time professional anythings seem to be dwindling away. If anything, we are going to keep moving further into an Uber-ized, employee-free, work-for-hire, freelance economy. (A model which non-academic publishing has survived on for decades.) If the majority of scholars are not going to the salaried employees of universities, paid both for teaching and research, but ad-hoc contractors hired only to teach, then academic publishers are going to either have to find a way to compensate scholars who create the content they sell, or stop publishing journals altogether. In the latter case, open-access electronic publications--with much lower overhead than print--might be able to take up the slack in terms of getting the research out into the world, but the research will never happen if scholars' only income derives from teaching hours.

We have already seen some scholarly societies setting sliding scales for membership and conference costs for contingent faculty and unaffiliated scholars. Perhaps such an arrangement can work for publishers as well. Scholars with full-time posts would continue to work for free, while the unaffiliated, grad students, etc. would be paid at a per-word rate comparable to mainstream publishing. Or pay the authors royalties based on sales/subscriptions/downloads as they already do with books. Self-publishing and self-distribution make less viable an options for academia than they are for other content creation simply because of the need for peer review and oversight, but there are already experiments in open-access peer-review out there that could be adapted, if there was a will to do so within the academy.

My point, I guess, is that it isn't out of line for people with advanced qualifications and expertise to expect to be paid for their labor. Or, at least, to decide if they want to give it away. (At $.05/word, somebody might have paid me $50 for this rant...) Nobody goes into academia for the money, but both universities and publishers have taken advantage of our idealism (and obsessive tendencies) to convince us to work for far less than what our work is actually worth to them. Even in a highly-competitive labor market, we have the power to force more equitable conditions, if we are unified in our goals. (Did I mention my grandfather organized for United Mine Workers?) I want to educate people. I want to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. I want to cultivate the next generation of scholars. But I also want to eat and keep a roof over my head. We create content, whether it is in the classroom or on the pages of a journal, that people are willing to pay for. We have the right to be paid for that.

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