Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

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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7 Comments
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  • No mention of what this has done to the quality of academic publishing. If you pick you pickup a journal from the 60's (science) every article is beautiful. The language is wonderful, the story complete, and the conclusion relevant. Pickup one now and the article are crap. The writing is pathetic, and more often than not the content is trivial.

    J Campbell
  • I appreciate your frustration with the academic job market, but taking it out on academic publishing is completely misguided, as are most of your comments about academic publishing.

    1. ALL PUBLISHED MATERIALS ARE BEHIND A PAYWALL. ALL of them. You have to purchase them at a bookstore, or purchase internet access, or visit a taxpayer-supported library. At public libraries, you're not able to check out materials unless you're a county or cite resident (and so are paying taxes). And for the record, many larger public library grant access to academic search engines and purchase academic books, while academic libraries usually allow the general public to come in and view materials, if not check them out.

    2. Do you seriously think the creative writing professor's novels and short stories are somehow more "academic" and arcane than her blog? "Literary" isn't "academic" and has a degree of mass cultural appeal.

    3. I don't take issue at all with your arguments against overproduction, but there's nothing at all wrong with specialists writing for other specialists -- which you agree with in principle, but attack in tone. If only 20 people in the world can really understand a certain article, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be published -- if you support the advancement of knowledge, sometimes that's what it takes. There's no way to know in advance what will prove generally useful. Not every human activity has to be populist to be worthwhile.

    J Q
  • There are a number of interesting and salient points here, particularly as they relate to early career academics, who are increasingly operating in a double economy (exposure through digital media / recognition through traditional routes). However, the article in many ways considers the North American system at the expense, say, of what's happening elsewhere.

    In the UK, for example, recently established and newly emerging requirements from the Research Councils (who oversee the largest apportionment of project grants) and the Research Excellence Framework (the regular assessment of institutional research which determines how academic prestige and government funding) are changing the discourse - for better or worse.

    As academics, we must now demonstrate 'impact' effectively: how our research translates into some kind of social, cultural or economic benefit beyond our own professional environments. The significance of impact is growing each round of assessment, and is sending a clear message about the inviability of a closed circuit of academic interchange. Similarly, any research outputs funded through the Research Councils must be made available through Open Access platforms, while the next Research Excellence Framework (taking place in 2020) might end up only counting OA publications, thus disincentivising academics from publishing behind a paywall.

    Of course, these developments aren't without their controversies and frustrations, and poorly thought through policy decisions might themselves have a negative impact on robust academic practice. But it seems, from the UK at least, that the writing is on the paywall ...

    Anthony Mandal
  • There has been some movement in that direction in the United States with National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation funded work, Anthony: http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/02/us-white-house-announces-open-access-policy.html

  • I hate to break it to the world, but its quantity AND quality in science. Further, quantity does not automatically mean there is a lack of quality any more than a lack of quantity suggests there will be great quality. Its a false dichotomy. In fact, Medawar (a nobelaureate) was quick to point out that those who publish the most important papers TEND to publish the most and visa versa. This is because you are either productive, or you are not, and once you stop publishing it is very difficult to suddenly publish high-profile high-impact work. It happens, but it is much more difficult. Further, the reality is that the vast majority of faculty are not all that productive regardless of quality, with somewhere around 37% of tenured faculty at regional universities (range 25-52%) having not published anything good, bad, high-quality, low-quality or whatever. We as a community are caught up in the quantity-quality issue, when in fact it is probably better just to worry about who is doing anything. if you are doing something, cudos to you. If not, are you suffering from over-work/stress, have you lost interest in your field, or are there other explanations that I won't list for space reasons. It is surprising to me, as I have discovered that often the people who are most critical of quality, are also those who are least productive. This is just a personal experience, and I understand I could have unusual experience here.

    What canIdo
  • @J Campbell. I haven't read EVERY science article published from the 1960s, but I doubt that every single one is "beautiful" (whatever that means, since it is an inherently subjective term). Nor do I think that every article published since then is "crap." Making such sweeping statements is silly and completely unscientific. There was very good scholarship published in the 1960s and there is very good scholarship published today. There is, however, much more published today, which means that one might find more published "crap" now, but that does nothing to support your view.

    Timothy Lim
  • It varies a bit with publisher, but most contracts that I've seen (in the arts and humanities) do allow the writer to republish their article in a work of their own without payment or penalty. Republication of the article in an anthology of diverse authors does usually paying. And, contracts can be altered before signing them: yes, you can cross out exclusion and add in your exception.
    At a recent meeting a leading publisher in my field (media studies) said his press did want exclusive rights to an article or book, but saw no problem with the first submitted version being available on a writer's blog or online presence. And after initial publication you can always revise and update an article, making it substantially new for online posting.

    Chuck Kleinhans

    Chuck Kleinhans