Monday, December 29, 2014

Academics running OA journals - a new variety of academic self-exploitation?

An interesting phenomenon can currently be observed in the humanities - academics engaging in new forms of self-exploitation. It's linked to the OA hype gripping the academy. How does it work?

Well, in the old days for-profit publishers essentially took over the production and distribution of our peer reviewed content for us. We managed the academic side of the process (peer review etc), they managed the rest. They made (well, still make) a killing on our labour by virtue of being able to force university libraries to pay often exorbitant subscription fees so that we can access research that we produced in the first place.

Came OA, the idea that research paid for mostly by taxpayers should be made available free of charge to anyone anywhere. I call this the having-your-cake-and-eating-it model. Academics typically loves these sorts of models. Thing is, you can't actually have your cake and eat it. OA turned out to be - by and large - a model whereby costs were switched to the producers of the research. Academics suddenly had to pay huge amounts (typically these days about 3000  $ per pop) to be able to play (hence I coined these publishing models 'pay-to-play'). So, while in the not so great old days our libraries were bled dry by greedy publishers, under the new model the only academics capable of publishing their research outputs would be those with research funds able to cover those fees.

That can probably work for folks in the STEM subjects, but this can't work for humanities scholars. Most of us typically produce our research during term breaks, most of us don't sit on large quantities of research funding. In fact, most of us don't have research funding at all.

Here kicks the self-exploitation model in that I started of with. Some well-intentioned humanities scholars have since decided to set up their own OA journals, where neither readers pay, nor those who submit their content for review. Given that barriers to entry are fairly low these days (you need a webserver and publishing software), that is prima facie not a terrible idea. And yet, it does sound like yet another having-your-cake-and-eating-it model, doesn't it? It kind of is. Essentially, those who run those journals have embarked on a never-ending journey of self-exploitation. Nobody pays for anything, you volunteer your time (in return for your name on a journal website masthead), you rely probably to some extent on grad students and postdocs to keep your enterprise afloat, you divert research funding to keep the administrative side of your publishing operation ticking, universities provide the web-server, etc.

The reality here is that academics so volunteer to undertake the tasks publishers (be they OA or subscription based) typically undertake. Will these academics see a benefit from the institutions whose libraries would save large amounts of money if this model took hold (there would be no costs involved in subscribing to journals or in submitting content to them)? The long and short of it is that that is not the case. That funding will disappear elsewhere (a new soccer stadium anyone? new Principal's residence? ) So, really we see a case of academics exploiting themselves, no more, no less. They volunteer their time to undertake administrative (ie journal publishing) tasks that other professionals should undertake, and that these professionals should be paid to undertake, and that these professionals have been undertaken for a very long time.

Now, I'm the last to think that an argument from tradition is a good argument, but it is worth noting that the model whereby those who produce journals are paid for their labour has worked pretty well for us in the academy. You can have a legitimate argument about the cost side of things, about publishers' ever diminishing support services to academic journals, all of that, but fundamentally things work.  We get our content out in reputable academic journals, and the content is available ever more easily and at ever greater speed to other academics. On the other hand, the publishing landscape is littered with the corpses of journals that relied on volunteers to keep all aspects of their operations alive because they insisted on being 'free'. The truth is though, well-paid academics spend their time undertaking administrative tasks involved in producing these journals when they could be doing actual research, teach, or provide other services to their employers, ie the universities where they work.

There was a time when I was worried about what would happen to the published peer reviewed content after the failure of these kinds of publications. Would they also disappear into the rubbish bins of the internet? Thankfully that doesn't have to be the case. We have today numerous repositories where such outlets can store their articles after their demise. So, as long as that occurs, at least the content can survive the demise of the journals themselves.

Still, if I was a budding academic thinking about where to place my first or second peer reviewed journal article, would these kinds of journals be my first choice? Probably not.

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