Academic publishing – a reply to George Monbiot

On Monday, as luck would have it just after I finished uploading (with great difficulty) the latest issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation, to the printers and online publishers, my attention was drawn to this article by George Monbiot in the Guardian:
Ever since, I have found myself in fierce arguments about it, both on and offline, so have decided the best thing to do is to try to make my position clear here.
I should start by saying I very much welcome the article, which presents the industry as a form of rentier capitalism: Monbiot is SO right in much of what he says, and a public critique of academic publishing is long overdue. However I also disagree profoundly with his conclusion that the problem can be solved by putting all academic articles up online free of charge.
Before explaining my reasons, I should come clean about my vested interests. Actually in relation to this particular topic I have so many vested interests that it is difficult to know what order to list them in.
I will settle for chronological order, in terms of my own life:

First, I am a member of the National Union of Journalists, having played quite a prominent role in the 1970s in the organisation of the magazine and books branch, later divided into two separate branches (I was the founding vice-chair of the books branch and later one of its first industrial council members) representing book and journal editors.

Second, I have been, and still am at times a practising editor.

Third, I have been an independent freelance writer, from a generation that remembers a time when it was possible to make a living writing serious non-fiction articles and books – a career that is now virtually impossible because of all the academics queueing up to do such work without pay.

Fourth, I have been an independent researcher carrying out academic research which I was solicited to publish in academic journals but declined to do because I felt I could not afford to part with my intellectual property (and copyright!) without any payment whatsover. (I particularly resented, in the 1980s, being expected to produce camera-ready copy using the publishers’ standard templates, thus putting a typesetter out of work; this now seems anachronistic, but still a matter for regret).

Fifth, (if you can’t beat them, join them: stage one) I have been employed as an academic in which capacity I have written – and still write – articles for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals.

Sixth, I have sat on the editorial boards of several such journals.

Seventh, I have done a lot of research on the restructuring of global value chains by transnational corporations and the impact on labour, including carrying out case studies of how academic journal publishers outsource work to developing countries, undermining wages and working conditions right along the value chain, as well as bringing about a shocking decline in editorial standards.

Eighth, I have been involved in various research and evaluation exercises connected with the development of ethical standards for the conduct of research, particularly research in the social sciences, including issues relating to scientific integrity, avoidance of plagiarism, avoidance of social harm etc. (see, for instance, the website of the RESPECT project which I directed:

Ninth (if you can’t beat them, join them: stage 2), I have set up a peer-reviewed academic journal which I edit and publish myself, attempting to do so in a principled manner which (a) leaves the authors in possession of their own copyright (b) is accessible to and affordable by students and people in developing countries and non-academics and (c) tries to promote an open and collegiate dialogue between scholars of different nationalities and in different disciplines with the aim of really trying to understand what’s going on in the world, rather than build careers or create new sub-disciplines.

Needless to say quite a few of these roles are, at least potentially, in conflict with each other. I expose them here so that readers can make up their own minds, but I like to think that perhaps these potential conflicts give me some insight into the complexity of the issues and some clues to potential solutions. The last couple of days have certainly shown me what an extraordinarily wide range of arguments they can drag one into.
So, where to start?

For me one of the most important starting points is labour and its value. In an era when the tools for publication are so readily available, and so many of us blog or otherwise use new or old media to express ourselves, it is easy to forget that human effort, taking up real time and real energy as well as drawing on real knowledge and skills, is involved in producing any publication. It is particularly easy to forget this if you are fortunate enough to have a secure source of income, for instance from a university salary, a research contract or a well-paid newspaper job (yes I know there are vanishingly few of these left but I suspect Monbiot might come into this category). In such circumstances you do not necessarily measure the value of the time you spend on any particular piece of writing; it is just bundled in with the range of things that you do, indeed that you may enjoy doing. It becomes hard to imagine what it is like for someone who has no such secure source of income and is reliant on being paid by the thousand words, or through a publisher’s advance that will have to be paid back through royalties. As I have written elsewhere, it is bad enough to be a precarious worker competing with others who are paid peanuts (for instance a European clothing worker competing with labour in China); but how can any one possibly compete with people who work literally for nothing? Yet this is what has happened in universities around the world.

Academics are now put under incredible pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals, to meet targets set by their universities, to achieve tenure, or to fulfill the requirements of research assessment exercises like the RAE in the UK (now replaced with the REF). So their output is prodigious. Academic journals have taken advantage of this buyers’ market not only to externalise more and more tasks onto their authors, or would-be authors (telling them what typefaces to use, how to lay out their documents, how to originate their graphs etc.) but, adding insult to injury, many journals now actually CHARGE for submission.  In a conversation this morning with a geologist who has recently completed her PhD I discovered that this is absolutely normal practice in her field (‘the last one I submitted was charged $200 and the one before $140’ she told me). Leaving aside the vexed question of what happens if someone without a salary wants to submit a serious scientific article for publication, if one looks only at such authorial labour it is possible to arrive at the position that the best and most ethical way to distribute such material is free on the internet. After all, if these academics have been paid from public funds to do their research and write it up, and if they already have the technical wherewithal to create easily readable pdf files then surely that is the simplest way to go. Why should large multinational companies charge the academic community for producing this stuff and then charge them all over again for reading it, making a huge profit in the process?

Alas, this is NOT the only labour involved. First of all, readers need to know that what they are reading is not lies or quackery and part of the role of a journal editor is to ensure responsible peer review and manage this process. Even more importantly, most academics are not professional authors and these days probably a majority of those submitting articles to English-language journals do not have English as a mother tongue. Turning their prose into clear and unambiguous English, correcting their spelling and grammar, checking that the figures in their tables add up, that their charts are in the right format, that their footnotes are consistent and that the references in their bibliographies are correct and match those in the text is an enormous amount of work. (I write as someone who has been doing this solidly for the last six weeks or so). And that isn’t the half of it. The work has to be presented to printers or online publishers using software packages that are temperamental and difficult to use. (To give one small example, I discovered too late after the last issue went to press that in version 4 of Indesign when you export the file via a postscript file to be turned into a pdf file through Adobe Distiller the software instructs it to ignore any blank page that has no content on it, so the blank page I had left after the contents page so that page one would start on the right-hand side, or recto, was being deleted, however many times i reinserted it. OK that’s boring but absolutely typical of the sorts of things that you have to develop specialist knowledge about). So, to cut matters short, you need editors. And you might think that, given that the academic publishers are getting all their initial text for nothing from their authors (indeed even being paid to receive it) that these skilled people might be decently rewarded and respected for what they do. But not a bit of it. These are precisely the jobs that are being offshored: in the case of copy-editing, to English-speaking countries like India or South Africa; for non-language tasks, like formatting charts and diagrams, to China and elsewhere. Research done in these locations (see, for instance, this article) shows that the workers recruited are overwhelmingly young, inexperienced and inadequately trained. They are put under such pressure to work in a production-line manner to tight deadlines that few can stand it for long, with the result that staff turnover in these offshore establishments is extraordinarly high – with a negative effect on quality. Switching, for a moment, from speaking as an editor to speaking as an academic author, I have often been enraged to have my prose come back from academic publishers maimed by such editing. Sometimes these distortions are just a result of following old-fashioned rules (like ‘never start a sentence with “and” or “but”‘), sometimes it is linguistic ignorance (like the editor who told me that there was no such phrase in English as ‘set in train’ and demanded that I supply a synonym) and sometimes real incomprehension, when a sentence is reworded to mean its opposite or a word is substituted with a completely different meaning. Here I am not suggesting that somehow Indians have a poorer grasp of the English language than Brits; just that recruiting inexperienced and demotivated people is bound to lead to a multiplication of errors. If you stood outside the arts faculty of a British university handing out leaflets to new graduates encouraging them to come and work for you and then gave them a week’s training the results would undoubtedly be just as bad, if not worse. My point here is that if you want good scholarly publishing you need good editors. But you also need a lot of other people too. Both print-on-demand and online publishing (the two types of publishing I am currently using), not to mention marketing, distribution, processing sales and subscriptions etc. all also require a skilled workforce that should be properly paid for its work.

One of the most disturbing developments in academic publishing over the last couple of decades has been the phenomenal growth of large multinational companies, rather less publicly known than the publishing chains, to deal with some of these additional roles, many with positions approaching monopolies, or at least duopolies in the market. One of these new roles is that of the library subscription agent. Almost all university libraries make their purchases through these agents (usually one of the two world leaders: SWETS and EBSCO) who are in a position to influence sales quite substantially depending on what special deals have been cut with the publishers. Another group are the online publishers. Whilst the very largest publishing transnationals tend to do their own online publishing, many smaller companies (including my own!) are dependent on these commercial online publishers to bring their work to readers in places that have stopped buying physical books to put on the shelves. Both the subscription agents and the online publishers occupy intermediate positions in this global market that enable them to take money from both parties: publishers and libraries (or, more rarely, individual readers).  They certainly take a large proportion of the profit (or in the case of my  own journal so far, seem to keep us forever on the wrong side of ever quite breaking even). Add into the picture the print-on-demand publishers, which also tend to be subsidiaries of global companies, usually US-owned. These companies also have some other things in common. They tend to have highly automated online systems in which a lot of the labour (and risk) is externalised to customers and suppliers. In my – admittedly limited – experience, it is rare to get to communicate with an actual human being in one of these companies but when one does, they seem to be rather stressed, rather junior staff, though often very friendly and, once one has established personal contact, as helpful as they can be within the constraints of the taylorised straitjackets of their job descriptions and standard protocols. Although the front offices of these companies are often sited adjacent to prestigious academic settings, in places like Oxford, or Boston, the back office staff (when they are not in developing countries) are more likely to be in non-union states in the US South: unlikely, methinks, to be well-paid. Although I try to run my own publishing business without exploiting anyone’s labour (other than my own), I feel that I am implicated indirectly in their poor working conditions.

My general point here is that all this labour is necessary and should be paid for. It is an obscenity that monopolistic academic publishers are able to exploit it. But the problem cannot be solved by simply introducing a system of free publication, at least not unless some alternative means can be found for funding these workers in decent employment.

There are interesting debates to be had about this, but this blog is already getting much longer than usual and I want to end by shifting my attention away from labour and donning my independent publisher’s hat. When I commented this morning on facebook that we need a more open market in academic publishing I was shot down in flames for being ‘neo-liberal’. I was reminded by this of arguments we used to get into in the NUJ back in the 1970s when, whenever a publisher was in trouble and starting to make people redundant, the old Trotksyist demand of ‘nationalisation under workers’ control’ would be trotted out. My feeling at the time was that, while this demand might be fine if you were working in a factory or a shop or a bank, it was somewhat dangerous if one’s work had an ideological content. Would you, I remember asking (to boos and cries of ‘reformist!’), REALLY want your newspaper or magazine or publishing house  to be run by state bureaucrats under a dictatorial government? Surely ideas are one of the few areas where we really do want openness. It seems to me that it is not just for reasons of creating an informed democracy but also to further intellectual thought (including airing heterodox opinions) that we need a pluralist independent publishing community, open to new ideas.

What we have now mitigates strongly against this. Academic publishing is a grotesque parody of a free market. The large publishers, knowing that they own some ‘must-read’ titles, don’t sell them individually to university libraries (or not without charging an outrageous premium). What they do instead is bundle them together with a lot of other less-popular titles. The university libraries, with pressure on their shrinking budgets, increasingly rely on these special deals and buy only the bundles, among which there may be journals which will NEVER be read at all by their users. There are none of the usual feedback mechanisms which apply in book publishing, whereby one book might be a best-seller and another, even by the same author, will end up remaindered because it didn’t appeal to the readers or got a bad review. Once the subscriptions are sold, the journals go on being churned out, and bought, regardless of interest or quality. In such a situation an independent journal hardly even gets a look-in.

This entry was posted in Autobiography, commodification of knowledge work, political reflection, Political theory, Theoretical musings, Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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