Three-D Issue 19: Free labour and academic publishing: can we ‘Just say No’?

Veronica Barassi
Goldsmiths, University of London

On the 25th of September a colleague and friend of mine, Dr Alice Mattoni, shared an article by Hugh Gusterson on the Facebook page of Interface: Journal for and about Social Movements and tried to open a debate about the exploitative character of much of contemporary academic publishing practices. Gusterson’s article, which was published on The Chronicle for Higher Education two days earlier, was titled ‘Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No’, and explored the author’s personal experience of changing publishing practices.

Gusterson argued that when he started his academic career, 20 years ago, labouring for free as author or peer-reviewer, actually made sense because academic journals, especially in the social sciences were published by struggling not-for-profit academic presses. Yet, he had noticed that in recent years such forms of gifted labour have acquired a frightening exploitative dimension, because today academic journals have largely been taken over by corporations such as Elsevier, Taylor & Francis and Wiley-Blackwell, who charge extraordinary fees to libraries and individuals to access the articles that we publish. By calling colleagues across the world to react to this injustice, Gusterson’s article proposed that academics should ‘just say no’, or they should demand some kind of compensation for their unpaid labour.

The article was inspiring and I was surprised to notice that there were only two comments posted beneath it. Alice did not manage to start a real discussion on a pressing topic, and I found myself wondering why this was happening on a platform such as the one of the Interface Journal that distinguishes itself for its critical and radical approach to current academic issues. I soon realised that the lack of engagement in the debate could perhaps be explained by the fact that read from the perspective of an early career researcher, the article was particularly disconcerting. Personally I found it disturbing for two main reasons. Firstly because, Gusterson discussed the latest example of how the production and transmission of knowledge is being transformed by a terrifying corporate logic. Secondly because, the article unfortunately reminded me that I am not in the position to ‘just say no’.

As an early career researcher affected by precarious working conditions, my main goal at the moment is to publish in leading academic journals, and to build my list of publications. If I look around, I am certainly not alone. Many of my colleagues and friends stumble from a fixed-term contract to an hourly paid job, and aspire to become authors and reviewers of top ranked academic journals, in order to find more stable working and life conditions. With the Research Excellence Framework affecting all UK Universities, we are not only willing to offer our unpaid labour to Taylor & Francis or other large publishing corporations, but we are hoping and praying to get exploited by them.

In a fast-paced and over-productive academic environment, we simply have no choice. Publishing our work is not easy. Rejections are just one of the difficulties that we are confronted with as junior academics. Other problems include coping and dealing with the slow pace of academic publishing, as well as with the inconsistencies of some reviewing processes. On a piece that I recently co-authored, we had to go through three review stages, which understandably benefitted the paper hugely. However during the second round of the review, we were extremely surprised to see that one reviewer criticised one part of our paper that we had been asked to add by the other reviewer in the first round. I like to think that all this is part of the process of the production and transmission of knowledge, and that senior academics are equally affected by the same inconsistencies. What I know for sure, is that it is taking us two years to publish our article on what were at the time new web platforms, and that this delay could have an impact on our ability to land a secure job position.

Rejections, delays and contradictions are also aspects of trying to secure a book contract by leading publishers or academic presses. Within the academic book publishing industry competition is fierce. Like many of my fellow colleagues, I found myself negotiating hardback book contracts with leading publishing houses, with the understanding that the book will have a limited impact. I had endless discussions over drinks and coffees about the ‘market’, the ‘sales pitch’ and the ‘readership’, and I was confronted with the same difficulties and contradictions that I had found when trying to publish in top-ranked academic journals.

After having read my book proposal, for instance, a commissioning editor told me that my proposed book looked like a “very strong and timely book project” but that the specific ethnographic examples in combination with the sophisticated theory made this a higher level book and that they “only really are able to publish those when they are coming from someone with a very established career, where there’s already a strong readership for the book in advance.”

All these difficulties and challenges do not discourage me, as they do not deter many of my colleagues and friends. I am determined to publish the results of years of research, and like my colleagues I am committed to quality and depth. However, as our everyday lives and academic practices are dependent on this exploitation and injustice, we unfortunately are not in the position to ‘just say no’. In order to change the exploitative dimension of much of academic publishing, junior academics now really need the support of those who already have an ‘established career’, those who have a ‘bargaining tool’ and can ‘really say no’.

There are many ways in which this can be done. Senior academics could start reinforcing their support for open access journals and independent publishing houses, and by doing so they could start challenging the monopoly of corporate publishers. Or alternatively, as future employers, senior academics could begin to assess the published work of potential employees not on the basis of where it has been published, but on the basis of quality, depth and contribution to knowledge. This may be considered utopian by many, at an historical time marked by financial insecurity and the rapidly approaching Research Excellence Framework. Yet it could be a first and important step towards changing a deeply unjust system.

Posted by Einar Thorsen