The biggest money-spinner in the western world

Academic publishing is the biggest money-spinner in the western world, according to a provocative column by the Guardian environmentalist George Monbiot.

Monbiot, like his Guardian colleague Ben Goldacre of Bad Science, uses academic research to support his arguments and likes to direct readers to the original sources. Usually, these are articles in subscription-only journals published by conglomerates like Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell or Taylor & Francis (the journals arm of Routledge). Access rates can run into three figures for an individual yearly subscription covering 4-10 issues a year; viewing one article from one issue without a subscription is likely to cost £20-30, and the digital copy may not even be permanent.

So what’s the point if the general reader can’t access them, Monbiot writes today:

It’s bad enough for academics, it’s worse for the laity. I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers, on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can’t afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands. This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind. It appears to contravene the universal declaration of human rights, which says that “everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.

One of the comments on his article, a contributor to the Guardian comment blog, suggests that journal subscriptions are getting in the way of academic research having public impact:

In my occasional forays into writing for CiF and elsewhere, I’ve often wanted to refer to academic articles. If I were to pay for just two or three of them, I would literally be working at a loss. Because I’m not attached to a university, I can’t even get free access to most of them in person.

The day Monbiot’s column appeared, the price of articles became the topic of the day in the higher education Twittersphere, with responses pointing towards blueprints for transforming academic publishing through open access and social media and (in the contrarian corner) reasons why publishers’ profit motive supports innovation and counterbalances risk-averse peer reviewers, plus a reminder that Canadian universities are involved in a related struggle with copyright clearing houses.

Most journals are published by commercial publishers and charge for access. Open access journals which make their content freely available online from the beginning are usually smaller and operated by academics or institutions themselves (two examples are Anthropology Matters, a journal set up through the Association of Social Anthropologists postgraduate network, and Narodna umjetnost, the bilingual journal of the Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb). However rigorous their peer review, they are rarely considered as prestigious as Anglophone academia’s established ‘top’ journals.

Researchers regularly complain to each other about journal access fees – though the strain is greater on librarians, whose budgets may not let them take out a new institutional subscription unless they drop an old one. As funding is cut, academics shouldn’t expect to take even the current subscriptions for granted.

I run into journal paywalls several times a month, even at a well-resourced university. Last week, it happened with recent issues of one of the top-ranked International Relations journals, Security Dialogue; not perfect, when you write about international intervention.

I can use British Library Direct to buy a DRM-restricted PDF of the article at less than the publisher charges (or at least I could; the landing page was full of 404 errors when I tried to confirm pricing for this post).

I can email the author for a copy and hope it isn’t computer failure day, sabbatical time or maternity leave. (Not much use if, say, I’m researching a paper on postsocialism and the author is Daphne Berdahl, an authority on postsocialist East Germany. Berdahl died in 2007, so independent scholars won’t be reading her articles on nostalgia and consumption any time soon.)

What I’ll probably do, if the article is marginal, is just end up citing someone else.

If I transfer a syllabus to a new institution, I need to look up the journal readings again to check whether students will have access to them through e-journal subscriptions and the VLE for the module or whether I will need to bring in 25 print-outs of an important article.

It’s better than it used to be. Research councils like the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funds my current project, expect that any work they fund will eventually be made publicly accessible. Journal publishers now ask for a period of exclusivity, usually 18 months, before authors can make articles public through an institutional repository of ‘e-prints’ or a self-archive (the searchable SHERPA/RoMEO database helps you check journals’ policy on self-archiving).

E-prints repositories are getting better, but still don’t work perfectly. The e-prints of my own articles are spread between the institution where I did my PhD and the institution where I’ve worked since 2008. I could bring them together by listing them on (a social network for academics I’ve hardly used as yet) and hosting them on the document sharing site Scribd. I could upload them to a discipline-specific repository like the new Social Science Open Access Repository, and hope that it lasts longer than the anthropology repository Mana’o, which shut down after prolonged technical problems in 2009.

One anthropologist I know has a departmental web page, with links to pages for his publications on the e-prints server, and a personal web page, where you can download the same publications as PDFs by clicking on a direct hyperlink.  Guess which link I give out to my students?

It’s academics’ own scholarly practices that give academic journals their status. Journal articles go through peer review (but that’s not what costs money, since peer reviewers, like article authors and many journal editors, work for free).  That’s institutionalised in evaluations such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, which doesn’t recognise book chapters (papers submitted to be chapters in edited volumes) and makes authors rush to submit to journals in 2011-12 so that their article can pass review and be published by the REF deadline of October 2013.

The modularity of research tools such as Google Scholar and Mendeley work against the book chapter, since they can easily retrieve articles’ metadata (and sometimes text, if you’re logged in through a university) and make them much more visible in the researcher’s information universe.  Working on an interdisciplinary project, it can become less relevant what journal an article is published in, more relevant how high it comes in a Google Scholar keyword search.

If the system is broken, though, it might get worse.

One model for commercial open access publishing is the ‘author-pays’ open access model being introduced by at least two journal publishers, Springer and Maney. Springer’s new suite of fully ‘open’ science, technology and medical (STM) journals charge ‘article processing fees’ of £475-£1310 (with institutional membership options and waivers for low-income countries), and its OpenChoice option to publish an article in other Springer journals as open access costs €2000.

OpenChoice at Maney costs £1250 for STM journals and £500 in humanities, with a long article surcharge ‘in recognition of the fact that many humanities papers can be lengthy in their final published extent’.

In an academic publishing world dominated by author-pays OA, researchers would have to cost publication fees into their grant applications – and ensure the article was published during the period of the grant. Rich departments might choose to support publication for some or all of their staff members; unaffiliated researchers, and academics working in poorly-funded departments who hadn’t won an external ‘big bid’ for their research, would find publication much more difficult. (Yet another way to transfer risk on to the individual.)

Full author-pays OA would even prevent researchers from overshooting publication targets the way that my colleagues on my current (research-council-funded) project have happily been doing. Even from a corporate managerialist perspective, that must seem like a bad move.

Maybe future researchers will need to think in terms of writing two ‘outputs’ per article idea – one for the subscription-only audience and one for public engagements. A few months ago I submitted an article to a journal that’s also associated with a website that addresses the wider public, and I certainly have that in mind – as long as I can find suitable royalty-free images, which should be a post in itself.

In the meantime, the low-tech solution wins out, as @DrTomFlynn tweeted during a discussion of the Monbiot column this morning: ‘@georgemonbiot’s article about publishing misses one vital fact: ask any academic, and they’ll send you it for free’. (Apart from Daphne Berdahl, I suppose. Do we need to be appointing literary executors for ourselves?)

The biggest money-spinner in the western world, though? I used to work in an office supplies retailer; so sit down, and let’s talk about inkjet cartridges…

Tweeting into the self-archive

Relaunching a blog has made me reconsider one of my firmest principles about my social media use, which was not to use my full name on Twitter.

I signed up for Twitter in May or June 2009, but took my surname off the account as soon as I started using it actively in November last year. It’s back there now in large part because later today I’m going to be taking part in a live chat on the Guardian Higher Education website about surviving your first academic post. That uses full names, because we’re real people; and since I belong to a higher education community on Twitter, I’d like to include my Twitter name in the profile, because my tweeting colleagues likely know that name better than the person with my legal name and job title.

Since I usually wall my digital presences off from each other, integrating two fields this way is new and still uncomfortable. I can drive traffic to my blog through Twitter and invite readers to join the social media conversation through my blog, but there are risks.

I don’t have a permanent contract, so even more than permanent or tenured staff I have to face the possibility that I may not spend all my working life as an academic. I have a visible digital profile as a teacher and researcher but not as, let’s say, an administrator, a copy-editor or an applied underwater basket-weaver. When I need to sell myself as someone whose career narrative has led inexorably to becoming an underwater basket-weaver, that profile becomes a liability.

The connections between the various locations of my online persona are visible to everyone, whether or not I had that audience in mind when I created the content. I’m perpetually accountable for thoughts in progress, replies taken out of context, jokes and, of course, mistakes.

In return for accepting these risks, I get to take part in a network that has grown up in an organic sense among academic people who share links, resources and ideas.

Although I logged back into Twitter in November on a slow work day to follow on-the-ground reports from the tuition fees protests in London, the researchers, lecturers, PhD students, professors, skills developers, research administrators and post-academic types I follow on there now have made me think more deeply about teaching practice, career planning and the philosophy of what academics do.

Not foregrounding my own name in my profile had the liberating effect that I didn’t feel I had to view or represent these issues through the lens of my own research interests all the time.

I can use Twitter for starting to figure out what the issues are in post-secondary education in other countries where I might want to work one day; swapping perspectives on communications, management and the effects of public spending cuts with people in other parts of the UK public sector; kicking back and watching television.

Like all communities of practice, Twitter evolves its own conventions and codes. Some of them can practically be expressed in a how-to guide, like the colloquial and conversational tone that experienced Anglophone tweeters seem to expect or the double life of hashtags.

Typing a hashtag (# plus a string of letters) into a tweet means users can search Twitter to discover every recent tweet with that hashtag. Hashtags can crowdsource news (think #tahrir during the uprising in Egypt or #tottenham on the first night of the UK riots); they can gather people who don’t know each other into scheduled weekly chat sessions (here’s the story of the #phdchat community), turning Twitter into a messageboard or forum. Twitter users have also turned the hashtag notation into a convention for denoting a sarcastic aside: if I type the same thing into Facebook or an email, where hashtags don’t work, I’ve transferred it from one community of practice to another, making a tiny contribution to linguistic change.

Other aspects of the Twitterverse are delights you discover as you get to know the platform, like Easter eggs in gaming. The virtual impressionists impersonating a BP public relations team, Death, or the Queen (who proclaims it ‘gin o’clock’ at the end of the British working day); the automatic bots that seize on and retweet any mention of socialism, grumpiness or the Scottish biscuit-maker Tunnocks.

Most academic types on Twitter use their full names and affiliations, and so I’ve joined the crowd. I’m still not sold on the idea, and I wouldn’t have joined if that had been compulsory, the requirement Google has tried to introduce on its own social network, Google Plus.

Last month, when Google Plus started to suspend the profiles of users using pseudonyms or even names an English-speaking monitor hadn’t recognised as real, early adopters set off the ‘nymwars’, where they identified dozens of reasons why a one-real-name policy might be problematic or even dangerous. danah boyd, a tech researcher at Harvard, has read the policy as an expression of social networking corporations’ power and privilege:

What’s most striking is the list of people who are affected by “real names” policies, including abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.

Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where “real names” policies work. This makes me laugh hysterically. One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense…

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.

‘In real life, you get to choose when to use your name, and how much of it to use’, points out Kee Hinckley; online, a search engine has hoovered it up for you already. Having every sphere of your life linked together for a casual acquaintance, or a wrongdoer, to inspect is new.

I have some personal friends who blog on Dreamwidth, where all the commenting sign-ins I could use already belong to services I use for different purposes. Unless they enable anonymous commenting, I can’t compliment or respond to their posts inside their blog space.

Facebook has almost got things right, for my own needs, with its granular privacy controls. On Facebook, once I’ve organised my contacts into lists, I can display content to certain groups and prevent other groups seeing it. I can even block individual people seeing individual posts: if I can’t figure out what to buy my mother for her birthday, I can post a status update to ask my friends’ opinion without spoiling it for Mum.

But all that content has the same name on it. That doesn’t bother me, once I’ve made sure no-one outside my contacts list can find me, but it’s a risk for others; I have more than one Facebook contact who has changed their name but could be in danger if the change was known to all their old Facebook connections and all those people’s friends. I do give thanks I didn’t have access to this sort of technology in adolescence. (Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, once suggested that today’s teenagers would need to change their names before entering the workplace to disassociate themselves from their digital trails.)

We’re depositing perpetual, open-access self-archives of ourselves. Is it worth the risks? Well, for as long as you’re still able to read this post, it must be.

Language and Nationalism and language and nationalism

One of my jobs for next year will be to take over teaching several postgraduate modules in nationalism, ethnic conflict and social research. The first step, not that I’ve even started work at that institution yet, is to revise each module’s syllabus.

(The first first step is to choose a consistent way of pluralising ‘syllabus’.)

I hope to post more on this process as each syllabus develops, but today’s post is about a discussion about language I won’t be able to have with my students because, between us, we won’t have a common language to access the material.

I’m going to be teaching these courses at a school of eastern European area studies, meaning that students will be applying the theory I teach about to eastern European case studies and the staff who teach them will all have research interests in eastern Europe. That includes me, one of many people there with research interests in the successor states of Yugoslavia.

The most controversial book on nationalism in former Yugoslavia to have been published in the last few years is Jezik i nacionalizam (Language and Nationalism) by Snježana Kordić, a linguist from Croatia who works in Germany. Kordić had received a grant from the Croatian Ministry of Culture supporting the publication. When it appeared, the director of the Croatian Cultural Council laid a complaint against the Ministry for financing the book:

‘[The complaint] states that the book ‘Jezik i nacionalizam’ is directed against Croatian culture, Croatian cultural identity and the Croatian language, and that it therefore should not have been financed from the state budget of the Republic of Croatia (RH). The book compares the contemporary democratic Croatian state with Nazi Germany, contradicts the RH constitution in the section about official usage of the Croatian language, and denies the right of the Croat people to call their language by their own popular name.’

Kordić is aiming to show that the policy to define or redefine the ‘Serbo-Croatian’ language as ‘Croatian’ after Croatia became independent from Yugoslavia was linguistically unjustified. Instead, she argues that the development of linguistic standards that drew Croatian ever further away from Serbian after 1991 was a deliberate effort to differentiate Croats from the group who became the national enemy, the Serbs.

Her case is that Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are still so mutually intelligible they’re not separate languages at all. Linguists recognise the idea of polycentric languages – languages spoken by several nations or states, which may even have more than one national body codifying them. We talk about speakers of ‘English’, not speakers of ‘American’, ‘Australian’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Canadian’ – even though, if the right disposition existed in one of those countries’ politics and academia, it’s always possible that one day we might be asked to do just that.

By this point, Kordić has already compared the linguistic purists of 1990s Croatia with Nazi German language policy on the very first page.

There’s a lot of detail about how the literary standard for Serbo-Croatian was brought together in the mid-19th century, how ‘the Croatian language’ didn’t always mean the language of a nation-state, and how contingent the whole process was, which draws on the same constructivist theorists of nationalism that my students are going to be reading.

(In summary: the Croatians who standardised their language in the 19th century agreed to base it on the štokavian dialect, not the kajkavian dialect spoken around Zagreb, because štokavian would make it easy to communicate with speakers in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia.)

Not so much drawing on the perennialist theorists of nationalism that my students are also going to be reading, which would argue that nations do pre-date the modernisation of the state, but then that’s something we could discuss. That is, if we could all read it.

Even if my students never intend to study Croatia (and most of them won’t), I’d like them to be able to understand how this book has been received and why. Studying language and writing about it with academic authority has consequences in the real world – that ‘impact’ that we’re now supposed to identify in every research funding proposal. And they may not be the consequences that researchers like.

But Kordić, like many of the German-speaking linguists she cites, rarely publishes in English. Her bibliography contains three titles in Croatian, three titles in German, and a short English-language descriptive grammar of Serbo-Croatian published in 1997. Her articles and reviews are usually in German or Croatian, with a few in French, and the critical responses to her book – like this article by Mario Grčević, who systematically takes issue with her use of sources and descriptions of prominent Croatian linguists – are, of course, in the language of the public and scientific community they’re addressing.

So, as a class group in a UK university, we’re stuck, until or unless there’s an English translation of the book, or a research article comes out on the controversy in a few years. It ought to be translated, and ten or twelve years ago when ‘the Balkans’ had a cachet to academic publishers that they don’t today, maybe it’s more likely that it would have been.

Last year I designed a module on the breakup of Yugoslavia. Its ghost syllabus – the one I’d use if everyone’s head contained a babelfish, including mine – contains books on the visual culture of the Croatian state at war and cultural practices of resisting nationalism in Belgrade and Zagreb that I’ve never been able to use with undergraduates because they never had an English translation, only a summary article, maybe.

Some of the translation gap lies in my own shortcomings as an instructor. Decades ago, acquiring a reading knowledge of German would just have been part of getting socialised into the identity of ‘serious academic’ in the UK. I could have followed up Kordić’s references in German to inform my lectures; and I could have assigned her German-language texts, confident that postgraduates would have been able to digest them.

Given the multinational student profile at my institution, there’s a good chance many of them are able to operate in German and English, but that won’t help me if I teach similar courses elsewhere, or when I revive the Yugoslav wars course next semester with a group of predominantly British undergraduates.

Back to the syllabus mines, for now.