Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

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What’s the Point of Academic Publishing?

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In December 2013, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs made a startling announcement. “Today I wouldn't get an academic job,” he told The Guardian. “It's as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

Higgs noted that quantity, not quality, is the metric by which success in the sciences in measured. Unlike in 1964, when he was hired, scientists are now pressured to churn out as many papers as possible in order to retain their jobs. Had he not been nominated for the Nobel, Higgs says, he would have been fired. His scientific discovery was made possible by his era’s relatively lax publishing norms, which left him time to think, dream, and discover.

In January 2014, creative-writing professor Cathy Day published a rundown of her publications since 2011: 300 pages of a novel, 100 pages of non-fiction, seven essays, two short stories, and 200 blog posts. The blog posts, dedicated to the craft of writing, attracted the most attention, garnering over 160,000 pageviews. Day’s last post was particularly popular: It announced the end of her blog.

“Here’s the thing: this work hasn’t counted much for me as an academic,” she wrote. “Every time I post to this blog, I’m taking time away from my fiction and nonfiction, from work that ‘counts’ for me—both institutionally and personally. Even now, as I write this, I’m not working on my novel and other projects.”

Today, a creative-writing professor is expected to produce more publications than a science professor of 50 years ago. But in other ways, little has changed. Though digital platforms enable scholars to share their ideas with the public, their desire to do so is often held against them. Academics are pressured to produce an ever greater amount of work for an inherently limited audience.

In order to maintain her professional viability, Day stopped work that she and the public found meaningful—work that directly relates to her role as a teacher—in order to have time to produce work that “counts” to a small number of academics. To “count” is not to spread knowledge, as Day did, or develop new ideas, as Higgs did. To “count” is to preserve your professional viability by shoring up disciplinary norms. In most fields, it means to publish behind a paywall, removed from the public eye—and from broader influence and relevance. To “count” is to conform.

Publishing and labor are two of academia’s most contentious issues, and they are usually debated separately. But when the rate of contingency hires and publications rise together—with the assumption that the latter is a means to avoid the former—they need to be taken as a broader problem: the self-defeating mechanization of scholarship. Scholars are encouraged to sacrifice integrity and ingenuity to careerism that does not reward them with a career.

Graduate students are told that publishing frequently and in traditional journals is key to landing a job. “In many if not most fields it is now necessary to have at least one refereed journal article while still ABD,” writes Karen Kelsky, Vitae columnist and academic advisor for hire, on her blog. But the harsh truth is that many scholars with multiple journal articles —and even multiple books—still do not find full-time employment. Academic publishing is no guarantee of anything, except possibly the paywalled obsolescence of your work.

For tenure-track academics, publishing is a strategic enterprise. It’s less about the production of knowledge than where that knowledge will be held (or withheld) and what effect that has on the author's career. But for graduate students and contingent faculty, academic publishing is less a strategy than a rigged bet.

With the odds of finding a tenure-track job against them, graduate students are told to plan for a backup career, while simultaneously being told to publish jargon-filled research in paywalled journals. Scholars who bet on that insular system find themselves stranded when that system fails them, as it does most. Appeasing academics means alienating alternatives.

This is not to say that academic publishing has no value. In-depth, clearly written scholarly research has its own value: It can reshape understanding, inform policy, and even help save lives, assuming the work is accessible. What it cannot do is get you a job.

“I want to make a career of scholarship in a time when the whole field of higher ed is practically in hiring freefall,” laments Bonnie Stewart in a blog post describing the difficulties of writing for an uncertain audience. She advocates taking a hybrid approach that combines academic rigor with public accessibility—a wise move in an era when many end up contingent by default.

Most scholars hesitate to take this approach even when their writing has had proven appeal, for it appeals to those who do not “count”. But what “counts” should be producing work of lasting intellectual value instead of market ephemerality. What “counts” should be the quality of the research and writing, not the professional advantages you gain from producing it. This is particularly true for new Ph.D.’s, because in all likelihood, those advantages may not exist—at least not within academia.

Making your work “count” on its own intellectual merit helps rescue you from the sense of personal failure that accompanies loss on the job market. When you orient your scholarship toward a future that never comes, it can start to feel like you have no future. When you orient your scholarship toward its obvious yet overlooked purpose—furthering human knowledge—its value does not need to be determined by others, because the value lies in the work itself. This is what counts.

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