[Air-l] Academic publishing and sacrificial labour (was: Encyclopedia of Community)

Danny Butt db at dannybutt.net
Sat Apr 5 15:08:15 PST 2003

Kia ora koutou

I think there are some interesting issues relevant to the Air-l community in
Mike's story and Estzer's follow-up.

1) The effect of the increasingly onerous licensing demands of academic
publishers as part of a general commodification of scholarly research. This
is absolutely an ICT-driven phenomenon, with the expansion of Sage, T&F etc.
mirroring the mergers, acquisitions and consolidation visible in other media
industries and much of the Western economy generally. I donated the phrase
"the Wal-marting of scholarly publishing" to a friend doing some interesting
work on some of these issues:


2) As online access becomes the norm, the marginal cost of journal
production decreases rapidly, approaching zero. The publishers, then, no
longer sell printed materials and distribution, but provide an "access
service". However, the publisher's business model is not just about
providing service. It also seeks to make money out of the academic work on
some kind of for-use basis. The academic work will have some kind of future
value but no-one knows exactly what it is (what the economist Richard Caves
calls the *ars longa* property of creative goods). The incentive for the
publisher is to secure the ability to extract rents from licensing the
product in the future. The fecundity of online distribution means that
scarcity must be created through legal apparatuses that prevent the copying
and distribution of material. The negative implications of this for
dissemination of knowledge in the traditional academic sense are obvious.
The result is a  professionalisation of access to the fruits of academic
labour (which is nevertheless often given for free - Andrew Ross has written
eloquently on this:

3) [An interesting side effect of this dynamic in other industries is the
development of relationships between production companies and distributors.
I would predict the rise of the institutional publishing contract - e.g. Foo
University signs over to Sage the rights to publication of all academics on
its books, and this is part of your employment contract with Foo U..]

4) Initiatives such as Soros' openaccess are welcome in this environment.
But by nature, the sort of scholar interested in these issues is likely to
be untenured, overworked, underemployed, and part of a large and hungry
academic labour pool. Not to say that there aren't more established
academics interested and supporting these initiatives, but that generally
it's those on the margins who are more conscious of these issues (and might
be aware of parallels with e.g. open source initiatives in software

So the professional scholar interested in disrupting the "closure
mechanisms" associated with the professionalisation of academic knowledge is
left with a dilemma. As Eszter notes, on the one hand you're concerned about
your career seeing as every job you might get has 100 other PhDs applying
for it, and you want to publish in the right places to establish your
professional reputation. On the other, you might have both an ethical
concern to publish where people can access your work, and an economic
concern to maintain control over the future economic value of the products
of your labour.

5) I don't think there are any easy answers to these issues, except that I
would suggest that it is important for both publishers, academics and
academic managers to think about them and be clear on the implications of
these relationships for the larger ecology of academic work. I'm a new
entrant to the academic field, but have made a decision to try and maintain
rights to my work wherever possible, make sure my work is freely available,
and publish with journals who support open access. This will undoubtedly
limit options for publication of my best work, should I ever produce
anything that might be suitable for one of the heavyweight journals. But it
gives me the chills to think that I might not be able to put my work out on
a website, or reprint it in a free newspaper, etc.

6) As far as the career aspect goes, I always try and reiterate to students
that careers come through networks, and (as Phil Agre notes) the most
important networks are those of your peers. The most common career error I
see is people attempting to "network" with those further up the career
ladder or in positions of power, in the belief that it might get them a job.
It sometimes succeeds, but often at the cost of having to reinterpret what
you're doing in values you don't necessarily share. It's easy enough to make
what you're doing sound impressive when you're looking for a job, but then
you've gotta end up working day in, day out in the place you end up.

In my own career(s), I've been sucked in by the lure of prestige more than
once, and paid the price in employment situations that have been ultimately
unfulfilling. On the other hand, opportunities that come about through
friends and peers turn out to be the most rewarding, because the processes
by which you move into them tend to be more aligned with your true
strengths. I guess I would suggest that people concerned about the career
impacts of their publishing choices should feel confident that if you keep
working where you're valued, maintaining your network of peers, and pursuing
things you're deeply interested in then opportunities will come. They may
not immediately include publication in the most prestigious journals or
employment in the most vaunted institutions, but in my view these have
primarily been important in the past as a way of connecting to communities
of interest. In the Internet world, they're not really as critical for this
purpose, and you can quite easily maintain and develop professional networks
from, for example, a small technical institute in New Zealand :)




Eszter Hargittai wrote on 6/4/03 7:55 AM:

> In an ideal world - and I'd hope this is the case in some places - tenure
> committees, at least at the dept level, would read one's work and not simply
> look at where it was published to determine its quality and contributions. For
> example, I don't know how many points Danny Kahneman (last year's Nobel winner
> in Econ) scored in Psychology (his field) for publishing a seminal piece in
> Econometrica (a very prestigious journal in econ) but it sounds like that was
> the place to publish it for the kind of impact it had on econ research. (For
> more: 
> http://www.princeton.edu/pr/news/02/q4/1009-kahneman-b.htm )
> Since this is related, I'd like to add that I've been amazed at the number of
> AoIR members' Web sites I've visited that do not have copies of their
> publications available for online access. I realize some of these are
> copyright related, but it's usually possible to put up a "pre-print" copy of
> one's paper. If not, in the least, I would hope people would make it clear on
> their sites that by contacting them we can obtain an e-copy via email.

> For those interested in more about the Soros Open Access initiative to
> which Michael referred, here's their Web site:
> http://www.soros.org/openaccess/

> From: "Michael Gurstein" <mgurst at vcn.bc.ca>
> Reply-To: air-l at aoir.org
> Date: Fri, 4 Apr 2003 21:22:02 -0500
> To: <air-l at aoir.org>
> Subject: RE: [Air-l] Encyclopedia of Community
> I then took the time to read the contract and I must admit I was appalled.
> The terms of the contract, which I can dig out if anyone is interested
> basically indicated that I was turning over to them, essentially for free,
> all rights to this article which they specified should be completely
> original and not published in any other place or any other format.
> Furthermore, they stated that I could not publish this material in any other
> form or location (including on the web) without being in breach.
> Now since this was an encyclopedia article in an area in which I do much of
> my publishing strictly speaking I was turning over to the publisher
> essentially for nothing a potentially considerable part of my current and
> future intellectual capital.  I also was reflecting on an earlier and quite
> unsatisfactory experience with a publisher who chose to price my work
> completely out of its appropriate market based on a business model which I
> consider to be pernicious in the extreme.

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