The Abusive Nature of Academia

I’m an academic. But I’m an academic that’s disgusted by the current state of affairs in academia, and who refuses to play the game. I’ve written a lot about the issues of academia, and this article is largely a summary of those discussions. It’s also a plea to both academics and non-academics alike, to push for changes.

Academia has become an incredibly toxic environment, which abuses researchers, uses them almost as livestock, and stifles research. What is worse is that so many involved in academia, even those who have suffered greatly, continue to promote the system, in a way that borders on Stockholm Syndrome. To begin explaining just how bad the situation is, here is a Facebook post that I recently wrote.

I was following someone on Twitter, who over the last few days, was commenting on their relationship. In this relationship, they’re required to do the work, and bring in the money, but they had little freedom of how to use it, and zero financial security from it. Due to the government shutdown, their current funding source was shut down, but their partner did not care. It was still on them to ensure that things got done, and if the revenue stream dried up, too bad so sad, on the street you go.
I tried telling this person that they were in an abusive relationship. I tried repeatedly. I didn’t know of another way than to be blunt. However, not only did they not listen, but other people that they knew came by to defend her against what I was saying. Sure, they admitted that the relationship is “not perfect” but that she was in no position to restructure their lives in order to leave the relationship.

This discussion leaves out the fact that the relationship that they were in was a postdoc position. The person was being treated as a contractor, taking on the risks of having to come up with their own projects, find their own funding, and so on. And yet they believed that they are an employee of the institution. Indeed, they are classified as such. But those risks are the risks taken by contractors. Unfortunately it seems that none of the benefits of being a contractor could be found.

Publishers Expect WHAT?!

But the toxicity of academia does not end there. There is something I want to communicate about how researchers get paid, and how our work is treated. As I mentioned, very often researchers are required to seek their own funding, through grant requests. We do not get paid to publish. In fact, we often pay the publishers, which are often for-profit companies, for the privilege of having our work compiled into journal issues. These journals also rely on volunteers, drawn from the population of researchers, to review submissions for quality.

To see the absurdity of this situation, consider that a publisher wanted to produce an art compendium. Further suppose that this publisher asks the artists to pay for inclusion in this compendium, without any expectation of ever being paid a fraction of the profits generated from sales of this compendium. Finally, suppose that it’s fully expected that this art work is submitted with a complete understanding that others will make derivatives from that art, again without the original artist ever getting paid. Oh, and the publisher asks artists with similar interests to check the quality of the art, to see if it’s worth including or not, but the publisher does not pay these artists anything for their quality control efforts.

I think that a lot of artists would feel solidarity with researchers, if they knew that this is how things worked. A number of times I have heard artists complaining that people they know want them to do artwork, for free, because it’s good advertising. Well, that notion is institutionalized by academia. We are expected, if not required, to publish in these journals, without ever seeing any benefit, aside from the privilege of having our work advertised.

What makes matters worse is that the requirement to publish in a peer reviewed journal often means that researchers may become desperate, and may be susceptible to being lured in by predatory journals (if we can really consider the majority of journals to be anything other than predatory) that are of low quality and will publish anything if you pay them enough.

MTAM has a lot of detailed information on the specifics of how money flows through academia, ending at the publisher. Their wonderful graphic shows how the researcher sits in the middle of the process, and essentially acts as a conduit through which the publisher receives funds. However, for copyright purposes, I have provided my own infographic. It shows the approximate flow of resources. It’s pretty clear that the researcher is stuck in the middle.

Gate Keeping

With all the abuse of academics, you might think that a lot of us are ready to overthrow the system. But that’s not the case, and gate keeping is very big in academia. In general, you have to belong to a recognized institution, usually a university, in order to be taken seriously. As a rōnin scholar, there aren’t too many options available, and those who work for the institution tend to look down upon you.

Moreover, your work generally must be published in a so called “traditional peer reviewed journal.” Unfortunately a lot of people think that a paper that has not gone through such a process holds little to no merit, even though the process really just involves the paper being scrutinized by a couple of people.

I think that a lot of people need to understand that peer review does not imply that the article is solid. One of the worst examples of failure in peer review is probably the Wakefield paper that helped fuel the antivax movement. There are simply plenty of papers that are total garbage, and yet are published, and there are plenty of amazing articles that are in preprint, in platforms like ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and OSF’s repositories.

Interestingly and sadly, ResaerchGate and Academia.edu lost a lot of support after an article by Forbes attacked the two institutions for profiting off of academic research. It’s true that these institutions do profit from our activity on the platforms, but these two institutions also give us access to a lot of material as well as give us a platform to communicate in a very open way. More importantly, traditional academic publishing is dominated by for profit entities that, as I mentioned in the previous section, absolutely abuse researchers. So in the end, whether due to ignorance or malicious intent, the Forbes article really hurt open academic communication.

Conclusion

So I hope that I’ve shown just how abuse academia is. And it’s not a specific area of academia. It’s academia as a whole. The institution uses researchers as a way to transfer grant money, from the federal government, to for profit publishers. Researchers are treated as employees, but often take all the risks and get none of the benefits of being a contractor. And universities and other research institutions require academics to publish in a traditional, often for profit journal. Therefore academia as a whole is simply an abusive oligopoly. And it’s an abusive oligopoly that’s protected by those who suffer its abuse.

Improving the situation is going to take a lot of work. It’s going to be painful. Academics are going to have to bite the bullet and refuse to work in such abusive conditions. It’s going to lead to financial hardships, but it will have to happen. More importantly, we need to change our mentality. We cannot accept that the status quo is the way things must be or should be. We cannot attack institutions, like the ones I’ve mentioned here, when they are trying to improve academic communication.

But what about if you’re not an academic? Is there anything you can do? I think so. Voicing opposition to this abuse is a start. But there are also a number of ways that the average person can help in other ways. There are a number of crowdfunding sites where researchers are looking for funding, where they are communicating their ideas, and so on. Experiment.com is one such example. It isn’t the only one though, and I suggest that people do their own research, as I do not endorse any specific site.

There’s also more direct support. A number of researchers, including myself, have Patreon and paypal accounts set up. And really, going back to the artist analogy, that makes sense. We need support from the general population, just like artists do, and just like the general population benefits from the work of artists, the general population absolutely benefits from the work that researchers do.