Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Academic labour, new media and why reviewers should Boycott Elsevier Journals

Elsevier's somewhat Scrooge-like take-down notices sent to Academia.edu and Universities around the world, including Harvard and Stanford has woken us up to the rather dirty business of publishing and its interface with scholarship. It also makes us aware of the issue of academic labour and those who profit from it. When University lecturers are taking industrial action in their institutions about the payment they receive for the labour they do for those institutions, Elsevier's action highlights the labour academics do for people who don't pay them a thing. I received a reviewer invitation for a paper in an Elsevier journal yesterday, and my inclination is (frankly) to tell them to get lost.

The truth is that without reviewers, academic publishers wouldn't have a business. Of course, authorship is important, but actually it is the reviewer network, which is associated with particular academic communities, that grants (or more frequently excludes) acceptance to the academic discourse; it's the status that peer review gives to authored articles which creates the dynamic whereby certain journals become more 'respected' than others. Publication itself is more open today to anybody. But publishers know that the physical presence of writing in print is no longer the game. They must harness and nurture communities of esteemed individuals who are willing to work for nothing so as to maintain the capital value of their assets - in the name of scholarship.

What does everyone else gain from this? The publisher will argue that publication in their journals (or reviewing their journals) grants individual academics increased status. Indeed, bibliometric research measurements have reinforced this view. Increasingly, the academic game is a status game - not just the status of academics, but the status of institutions who are increasingly measured by the extent to which their employees belong to high-status publication networks. This can grant individual academics some career opportunities, although they are not paid for their labour. The deal appears to be "labour for status". But for the publisher, this status transaction is extremely powerful economically, and academics (who gain from the status of association) tend to turn a blind eye to it. But the end result is to push up subscription prices to University libraries, and make academic research available only to those who can afford it. Ultimately it is students who pay the price in fees which fund thousands of journals which are rarely read.

Given that publication is available to everyone, why do these status networks still revolve around journals? Why have we not seen online communities of scholars willing to read and critique each others' work in detail? The blogosphere currently does something like this, but most of the reading is cursory and blog posts are not papers. But it seems to me that the establishment of friendly networks of scholars who are willing to read and critique papers and advance their sciences in a more open discussion that currently takes places within journals.

There are now other sources of status in the online world. One of them is the world of Open-source software. There there is genuine technical advancement and discourse completely free from from any commercial publisher. One of the interesting things about open source software organisations like Apache is that it is a different medium for the communication of ideas: one that wouldn't fit easily into the pages of an academic journal, but whose ideas (and the status of those who have the ideas) still has impact. As academics explore the affordances of new media, other ways of expressing ideas are become available which can subvert the traditional patterns of publication. One of the most interesting phenomena I have witnessed recently is the impact of R packages (for use in the statistical programming environment). These are accompanied with papers detailing the use of those packages.

So maybe we should worry less about journals: we should look to new forms of academic expression, new media and new networks. If only the government research assessment framework was as awake to the pathologies of publishers which it itself exacerbates.

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