COMMENTARY: Neoliberalism and the Demise of Academic Publishing

Senior scholars must push back against a for-profit publishing model that exploits scholars at all levels—particularly junior scholars. One way to do this is to clarify that we will not work for free and will not be exploited by the neoliberal system.

The other day I was looking at Twitter and read a tweet in which the person asked why they don’t get paid for publishing journal articles when it costs $30 to buy the article online from the publisher. It’s a good question. A great deal of “free” work gets done in academia, from writing articles to reviewing the work of others to serving on committees over the summer despite being on a nine-month contract. In some cases, such as when you review a book manuscript, the publisher provides an “honorarium,” which is basically an insultingly small amount of money or in-kind books to compensate for one’s time.

Here’s how the system works. First, a scholar writes an article or book and submits it to the press. The publisher then finds experts in the field to review the book. The experts do this gratis as a “service to the academic community.” That means the system is based mainly on volunteers contributing their time to support the dissemination of new research. Then, if accepted, the publisher will sell the article or book to libraries or individuals who need to read it for their research.

This system worked quite well when academic publishing was largely non-profit. Fifty years ago, journals were often produced by academic departments, and the cost to subscribe was reasonable, whether by a library or individual.

A good example was Ethnology, an outstanding anthropology journal from the department at the University of Pittsburgh. When I first subscribed to the journal in the 1990s, I believe the cost was about $20 a year. The editor was one of the faculty members, and the university paid a managing editor to handle the day-to-day operations of the journal.

During the past forty years, peer-review scholarly journals have been increasingly acquired by for-profit publishing companies who saw a system they could exploit for profit. It’s a great idea if you are greedy and uninterested in scholarship. They took the same volunteer-based system and transformed it into a for-profit structure. Academics still don’t get paid for the papers they publish or their reviews of others’ work. So the publishing industry figured out a way to get people to work without receiving any compensation for what they produce.

But it gets better. They then turned around and started selling articles and books at exorbitant prices, claiming that since libraries bought these and many people could access the materials, it was reasonable to charge high prices for access to information. For example, I just looked up an article I published twenty years ago in a journal owned by SAGE. If you want to purchase the article, it will cost $41.50.   The cost will be $480.33 if you want the entire issue. That’s not a subscription—just one issue. And, no, I’m not making this up.

It’s a brilliant business model when you think about it. Get free labor and then turn around and sell what’s produced for absurd prices to the institutions that employ the people doing the free labor who need to read the research papers you are selling.

However, publishers allow authors to publish their research with “open access” so anyone can read their work for free. Well, it’s not really free. For-profit companies generally charge authors to make their papers open-access, and the price on the order of several thousand dollars per paper.

Again brilliant. Get free labor and then charge the person who provided the labor to make the product of their labor available to others! And, of course, many journals now don’t even bother with the open-access gag; they charge authors to publish. Period.

There is only one word to describe this system—exploitative. It exploits scholars, who are required to publish to get tenure and promotions. The publishing industry knows this, and they recognize they have access to a group of powerless academics who can be easily exploited for their labor. In short, the for-profit academic publishing industry is built on a model overtly designed to exploit those who provide labor.

Academic administrators, who pulled the plug on funding for many of the journals now owned by these publishing giants, are complicit in the exploitation. They saw an opportunity years ago to shift costs elsewhere—a standard neoliberal trope—without considering how that would influence research publication or affect the lives of those conducting research for a living.

On top of that, administrators demand numerous publications in journals with high impact factors as measures of the quality of research used for promotions and reviews. That approach supports the ongoing fleecing of academics by for-profit publishers.

The system has become so corrupt that, in addition to legitimate for-profit journals, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of predatory journals focus on fraudulently manipulating professors to send them their work. These journals will publish pretty much anything and then charge the author for the privilege of publishing in a meaningless and lousy journal that no one will read. They use the standard for-profit model to deceive authors—often those new to academic publishing—to publish for a high fee. But there is no robust peer-review if any, review, and papers are published without editorial services.

A few years ago, I became so tired of this exploitative system I decided to change my approach. If a non-profit publisher asks me to review a paper or book manuscript, I will happily do it as a volunteer. However, if a for-profit company asks me to do this, I’ll charge my normal fee for consulting.

For example, last year, a large international for-profit publisher asked me to review a book manuscript on Japanese society. After figuring out the exchange rate, they offered me an “honorarium” of $90. In addition, they said I could have the same amount in books from the publisher, meaning that I could obtain ½ of a book at their prices.

I explained that I’d be happy to do the review, but my normal consulting fee is $400/hour. Thus, given that I estimated eight hours to read the book and write a review, it would cost them $3,200. So, feeling rather generous, I offered to give them a discount and do the review for a flat $2,000, which I think is a bargain.

Because my fee was a bit more than the $90 they offered, I felt compelled to provide an explanation. It went like this: $90 for the review would represent $11.25/hour for my labor. My daughter can work at the Wally Burger restaurant near her high school for $15/hour. Thus, in offering me $90 for the review, I explained you are stating that you value my expertise as a scholar with thirty years of teaching and research experience less than Wally values a teenager’s ability to flip burgers.

Obviously, I did not get a response.

Senior scholars need to work against this highly exploitative academic publishing system. I encourage other senior scholars to respond in a similar way or to find other approaches that challenge a pernicious system that distorts the research process and damages the academic community.

That is the only way the system is going to change. Senior scholars must push back against a for-profit publishing model that exploits scholars at all levels—particularly junior scholars. One way to do this is to clarify that we will not work for free and will not be exploited by the neoliberal system.


Cover photo courtesy of Footnotes and Samuel Gershman, The Exploitative Economics Of Academic Publishing.

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