31 August 2011

Academic publishing

I recently read an amazing post by Savage Minds that discusses a subject I am quite passionate (opinionated?) about: academic publishing. Now before you stop reading, here is how it applies to archaeology and you, my non-academic audience. Archaeologists, especially those on the tenure-track at universities, live by the mantra "publish or perish." Peer-reviewed articles and books are traditionally the ticket to "success" in our field. Unfortunately the journals and books I am talking about you have probably never heard of.

That's primarily because commercial academic publishers have been running a racket. Professors and grad students put blood, sweat and tears into their research and reports using your tax payer dollars through federal funding sources. We then turn over all copyright and permissions to the publishers who hold the research hostage behind exorbitant book prices or online access fees. The result, as Ryan at Savage Minds points out, is this horrible cycle where grad students are shooting themselves to publish in these closed access publications to get a job and get tenure to then tell their grad students they need to publish in these same publications.

Thankfully we are starting to see some change. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is now requiring grantees of the Archaeology Program to report and disseminate the results of their research as widely as possible through such data management services as Open Context and The Digital Archaeology Record (tDAR). Many publishers will also grant permission for authors to post their individual journal articles or book chapters (for an edited volume) on their personal websites or Academia.edu--all an author has to do is ask! (copyright addenda also help). Some journals are also beginning to offer web-only open access content.

For my non-archaeologists friends out there though, I wonder: is this enough? Shouldn't the research that you, essentially, are paying for be free and available to you? To encourage this sea change, shouldn't tenure be based on a balance of peer-reviewed publications and mainstream outlets for public outreach like popular magazines or even blogs?


  1. Science is exactly the same way and the cycle is as endless as it is exhausting. In the past few years, there have been some positive developments - the NIH required funded research to be open access within a short time period of publication (limiting the time during which the journals can extort their fees) and we've seen the advent of an entirely new journal family (the Public Library of Science, PLoS) that is available with open access and online only (saving the publication world and trees all at the same time). It sounds like your field is doing many of the same things... But it comes down to us - we need to use the new tools/journals over the established standards (with the higher impact factors) and demand more like them for the message to take root. I'm tentatively hopeful... But am happy to hear that other academic fields are pushing for the same type of access for all.

  2. I'm surprised to hear that since I assumed the sciences were much more progressive about open access! You're right that it comes down to us to use the new tools, but is that enough? How can we change the tenure system to accept these new forms of publishing as something just as valid?

  3. Great post, Dig Girl. You bring up exactly the sorts of questions that are often on my mind when it comes to publishing and how it relates to tenure. The issue of "what counts" is an important one, that's for sure. What I am not sure about it how to go about changing what counts. Maybe we all need to keep giving this issue more air time, so to speak. That's a start. And many thanks for the link to the SM post!


  4. Interesting post but I think that you’ve missed some key points. Firstly, you’ve missed out several points (1) the big publishing houses [eg Elsevier, Wiley) are charging the university library consortia huge amounts of money to subscribe to these closed shop journals (check out the costs of individual articles in Monbiot’s referenced article on this blog: http://www.monbiot.com/2011/08/29/the-lairds-of-learning/ Monbiot published an excellent article in The Guardian at the same time), (2) academics ought to be remunerated properly as well be able to obtain tenure since academics shouldn’t be paid peanuts and more importantly the profits made by these big publishing companies is massive, (3) who is going to pay those people who run the open access databases since at the moment academics are essentially subsidising the running of the journals since those who run the journals aren’t paid much if at all, (4) publishers despite being willing to let some articles be given away for free on the personal websites of authors or in academia.edu aren’t going to let the entire journal be ‘given away’ for free essentially. The cost of each article provided in Monbiot’s article should indicate that these publishers aren’t interested in assisting academics to obtain tenure, advance the career of academics etc, but their principal goal is to achieve a better profit line and to continuously provide their shareholders with large dividends.

    So, to answer question is what’s happening now isn’t enough since academics deserve to be paid decently for their efforts when they publish their work, they need royalties. The research has been paid for by the general public already through their taxes which go to fund the universities so as to pay researchers to do the work. Tenure is important but I doubt that anyone will want to publish in a main stream outlet that’s publishing popular magazines or blogs since academics need to have their work peer reviewed published by their peers. Popular magazines and blogs aren’t peer reviewed or validated so why should tenure track academics spend writing something that no academic value to them in the long run?

  5. Thank you for your comments, Anthea.
    (1) It's true the for-profit publishing houses charge the library consortia huge access fees. These fees are then sloughed off on library users in the form of memberships and/or registration fees. Either way scholars and the public have to pay big $$ for the privilege of accessing research.
    (2) I agree that academics should be paid what they are worth. I would dare to say that most tenured professors are, but adjunct faculty and lecturers are paid very poorly. I can't speak to the profits earned by the for-profit publishers, but when royalties for authors only begin after 500 copies of a book have been sold (as is the case for my book), then I imagine their profit margin is great.
    (3) This is a very good point that is often not addressed by those promoting open access (I am guilty as well!). Who is going to pay for all the server space and people to update the online databases? Well, right now it's our tax dollars as most non-profit orgs like Alexandria Archive (the keepers of Open Context)are funded through government grants. There are also private foundations like Mellon who fund these initiatives. My previous example of ASOR runs primarily on membership dues. I think the sustainability of open access publishing will continue to rely on a combination of funding types, both private and federal.
    (4) Your comment goes straight to the heart of the issue and the point I was attempting to raise. Unless the tenure system is changed, academics will continue to solicit traditional closed access, peer reviewed publication sources because (undertstandably) they will not want to waste their time on something that is not going to further their careers. I am not advocating for the abolishment of peer review, but simply the recognition by tenure committees that other publishing outlets are just as important to the field. While at the moment blogs and popular magazines have no perceived academic value in the traditional sense, I believe they play a vital role in our responsibility as receivers of public aid to broadcast our research and make it available to those paying our grants.


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