Over on Conflict Antiquities, I’ve explained that I won’t publish work that I can’t afford to read. Dover1952 (who does Archaeology in Tennessee) is bewildered by the unaffordable academic publishing industry (and it is bewildering). So, here, I want to consider getting paid for academic work, and getting excluded from the sector by the obstacles to accessing knowledge and doing unpaid academic labour.
I have no idea what is driving this nonsense. However, if I had to guess, it is academics who publish in a journal like American Antiquity but get no financial compensation for doing so—and they see this as a pathway to get paid for the the research and writing that all of their academic forebears had to do for free.
The academic publishing industry
The academic (journal) publishing industry appears to be run by unnecessary and counter-productive, racketeer enemies of science, whose actions distort and undermine both scientific process and social progress. It is defended by political puppets (and, more or less reluctantly, by academic hostages).(1)
Caveat non-venditor [non-seller beware]
The academic hostages’ ancient forebears would probably have been independently wealthy, so they would’ve been able to afford to write for free (and some of their adventures would’ve been best-sellers). For a long time, even though it disproportionately exploited and disadvantaged women, at least even unrecognised authors of museum catalogues, etc. could afford to write “for free”, in the sense that (the research and) the writing was part of their institutional work and they were paid for that work.
If someone had a job and the format of their publications didn’t affect their (present or future) work or employment, they could live on their wage and release their publications (practically) for free. Indeed, (employed) academics still do that. Except, they’re not allowed to do that.
They’re required to do that, in very particular ways, on pain of unemployment – or, technically, non-(re-)employment. And those very particular ways involve releasing their publications for free to the academic publishers, who then sell them back to those academics (through university libraries) or on to the public for massive profits.
Generally, one way or another, people do need to get paid for their research and writing. Otherwise, they won’t be able to do it at all. After all, ‘you cannot eat an open access publication‘. And if only independently-wealthy people can do it, it will massively distort the subjects, styles and conclusions of research.
Peer-reviewed publication is a prerequisite for practically any academic employment. And structurally-limited, peer-reviewed publication in high-impact journals is a requirement for good, (relatively) stable academic employment. Historian Rowan Cahill has argued that foundational works such as the Making of the English Working Class, which was not overly theorised or impenetrably written, would simply not get published today.
If nothing else, unpaid workers probably don’t have the money to pay to publish through open-access publishers, and some open-access publishers don’t have the funds to offer free publication to poor scholars. So academics acquiesce. But how can scholars participate (functionally) without access to the literature?
In the same way that other skilled workers can become practically excluded from their sectors through lack of work (experience, skills), academics can become intellectually excluded from the higher education economy through lack of work (access to research knowledge, publication of research).
And they are most severely and most permanently harmed by lacking the freedom to do that work – attending conferences, reading journals (including articles on the structure of academic competition), publishing articles – without pay, in order to access the “opportunity” to be paid later. So it really is an issue of (academic) free archaeology (and a call for online archiving of conferences and journals, and publicly-funded research outlets).
The Academic Spring
Now there is an Academic Spring. More than 14,000 (and counting) researchers have signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier. In spite of that (in both senses), where researchers have published their work through Elsevier then made that knowledge openly-accessible, Elsevier is now taking down papers from Academia.edu.
Universalising the already standard practice of people with access supplying friends and acquaintances without access, people use social media to show solidarity with their excluded colleagues and supply strangers who plead, #icanhazpdf?
(Concrete) knowledge generation
Nonetheless, there are other persistent problems. It can feel like generating concrete knowledge, investigating the realities of human life, is denigrated and demoted. When I said I wanted to do my undergraduate dissertation on the political uses of evolution and biological anthropology, one senior academic enquired, ‘do you want to be a journalist?’
Right now, a colleague is going through a second round of cutting out data from a journal article to create enough space for further discussion of theory, to the point that her actual (published) contribution to knowledge will be limited. Theoretical understanding and methodical care are fundamental to science, but surely there is something wrong when the data and analysis form less than a third of the publication of the research.
Certainly, even if the data and analysis are not crowded out, they can be corralled. Research is very commonly required to show allegiance to a particular dead philosopher, origins in a single discipline and its (exclusive) literature, relevance to theoretical questions instead of (or at least as well as) real-world problems.
Still, even if the work gets done and people have access to the material itself, they may not be able to learn from it or help others with it. There is pervasive policing of language, far beyond any need to keep a scientific tone. I have seen one decades-old piece of slang replaced with another decades-old piece of slang, because one was judged informal while the other was judged acceptable.
As Michael Billig demonstrates, (deliberately) writing badly is a way to succeed in the social sciences (and humanities and elsewhere in academia). Anthropologists are currently arguing over which of them writes most incomprehensibly. Technical jargon and difficult language may be necessary (especially in the sciences), but archaeologies, ethnographies and histories should be accessible to all.
1: When I started drafting a post on access to publications… on my other blog… in 2012… I found a lot of information through Access to Science (@PublicAccessYAY), and through science librarian John Dupuis’ (@dupuisj) and quantum physicist Michael Nielsen’s (@michael_nielsen) sources on legal threats to open access and the Elsevier boycott.