Rage against the academic publishing machine does not have to be futile


The “unstoppable machine”. That is how Yiannis Gabriel, one of the UK’s leading social thinkers, labelled the academic-publishing complex in a recent piece for Times Higher Education (“We must rescue social science research from obscurity”, Opinion, August 10).

His ire was directed, in particular, at social science research, which he sees as falling into aimless, bloated obscurity, its only purpose being to provide career tokens to academics, ranking tokens to institutions and vast profits to publishers.

I agree entirely. But I am not convinced by Gabriel’s remedy. He suggests that change all starts from the top of the profession, and he detects some notable shifts in the attitudes of funding bodies and some senior academics. But, from my perspective, this is translating into little, if any, concrete change on the ground. “The revolution” is only being theorised. Slowly. And incrementally.

If we have to obtain permission from the academic establishment before we in the academic proletariat are allowed to engage in meaningful social science research, I fear that we may have to wait forever. Gabriel admits that the winners from the status quo include the “star academics whose salaries and privileges have risen to heights undreamed of by their predecessors even 15 years ago”; such people cannot be expected to leave any serious teeth marks in the hand that has fed them so generously.

Another thing that will prevent the academic establishment from mounting a meaningful challenge to the academic-publishing complex is the psychic grip of cut-throat competition. I am reminded of what Woody Allen had to say about academics: “They’re like the mafia. They only kill their own.” The work culture in universities in general and social science departments in particular is red in tooth and claw, and is dominated by research. The high-ranking journals are the big beasts of this jungle, and dazzling their editorial keepers with the novelty of your results is the name of the game.

If we want to see meaningful research, then, to paraphrase Gandhi, we have to figure out practical ways of becoming the change we want to see. But, first, we need to accept the things that cannot be changed. The reality is that if you are developing a career in academia, compromising with the academic research machine is inevitable. It is how you compromise that is crucial.

One strategy is to first play the game: do what’s needed to get on, and then develop meaningful research after that. But this is deluded: game-players think that they can outsmart the system, but they cannot outmanoeuvre the economics of professional advancement. Once your pay and career progress depend on certain levels and types of performance, it’s not as if those expectations to perform will recede. Particular success demands more of the same – you are locked, economically speaking, into the academic-publishing complex for life.

Faced with this, I prefer a strategy of minimum compliance. Yes, academic survival is a case of publish or perish. But is it really a case of publish academic books or perish? Become a peer reviewer or perish? Take up an associate editorship or perish? Produce an edited collection for Sage or perish? Organise a conference or perish? Write 100 articles or perish? In this respect, we should heed what Nietzsche counselled: if you cannot obey yourself, then you will be commanded – by the suits in gowns.

What I am advocating is that we all pursue a policy of engaging no more than is strictly necessary with the academic-publishing complex. There are three rules of thumb for this: what I call the Three Rs of minimum compliance. Those are: don’t read it, don’t review it and don’t write for it (if you can possibly avoid it).

Granted, such a policy will result in limited professional success. You won’t be given high fives by heads of department preparing submissions to the research excellence framework. You are unlikely to draw a band of peer groupies, or gain invitations to give keynotes at major conferences. But you may ensure that you can live a professional life with your humanity intact, maximising your autonomy and sense of an existence that has been worthwhile.

In Pulitzer-prizewinning US novelist Wallace Stegner’s final book, 1987’s Crossing to Safety, his protagonist looks back on his academic career in these terms: “Whatever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about how we could contribute. We did not care about the rewards…Instead, the world has left marks on us.”

By adopting minimum compliance with a system that leads inevitably to such disillusion, social scientists might just realise some of their aspirations to leave just such a mark on the world.

Author Bio: Mike Marinetto is a lecturer in public management at Cardiff University.