Academic Publishing is a Goddamned Exploitative Farce

In order to succeed in academia, you must succeed in academic publishing. The length of the published works section of your CV (the academic equivalent of a resume) determines your job offers, promotions, pay scale, whether you get grants, and whether you get tenure. If you do not publish, you die.

Different schools have different expectations. A school that is not rigorous about research might expect you to publish one or two peer-reviewed journal articles a year; a more taxing school might expect far more. Along with these publications, you are also expected to present your work at numerous conferences, in poster sessions, panels, and talks.

An academic who fails in this task will not get tenure; they probably won’t even get a job in the first place. If you do not participate in this game, you’re a failure, a fraud of a scientist.

But generating academic articles is not just a matter of hours upon hours of work. You must conduct research projects, organize them, analyze the results, make sense of the results, write the results up in a theoretically interesting way, and submit the articles to multiple journals, one at a time, waiting months to (in all likelihood) earn a rejection or two. Finally you get in, but you must edit the work– that’s another month or two of conversation. Then formatting. Meanwhile, are you conducting new research? Going to conferences? You better be.

The problem with this system is that academics are obligated to perform all these duties for free. If you publish a journal article, or even write a chapter in an academic book, you do not get money. None.

A few months ago, my colleagues and I published an article, and were told that if we wanted the charts to be in color, we would have to pay for the color ink. In every single issue. We would have to pay to have our article run the way it was written. This was in a top-tier social psychological journal.

After you are published, an journal may ask you to serve as a reviewer. This is a great honor, in some ways; you are now one of the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge. Peer review and criticism is an essential part of academic discourse, and it is why journal articles are of such high quality and rigor.

But you don’t get paid for it. Again, you are expected to review dense drafts, critique them, and write careful, fair reviews of the work. This allows the journal to run high quality work. But you do not get paid. Neither the author nor the editor gets paid.

And this is the case for a publication that costs thousands of dollars a year to read. A subscription for an academic journal is a few hundred dollars as an absolute minimum. Most people cannot afford this. Universities must spend thousands of dollars acquiring access to hundreds of journals so that professors and graduate students can perform their work. These journals make huge gobs of money. None of it goes to the people producing the content.

Imagine if fucking The New Yorker did not pay its writers, demanded its editors work voluntarily, and charged $500 a year for a subscription. Imagine if in order to do your job, you had to pay for this subscription, submit work that took thousands of hours to complete, and received no pay. That is the reality in academia.

It doesn’t end there. Let’s say you submit some research to present at a conference, and you get accepted. Yay! You are getting a line on your CV, and you get to share your research with hundreds of other people from around the world. And you are helping the conference to fill out its schedule!

You spend hours preparing a riveting, TED-worthy talk, spend the whole week of the conference practicing late into the night, fly out to the conference, and deliver it perfectly. You provided high quality content to hundreds of paying conference-goers.

You did not get paid for that. You just did a massive, highly prepared speaking gig, based on years of research, and got nothing in return. In fact, you lost money. You had to pay the conference a steep “registration fee”, between $300 and $700 dollars if you’re a professor, for the honor of providing content for the conference.

Every person at that conference paid hundreds of dollars in registration fees, plus membership fees and travel expenses. Many people provided free lectures, presentations, classes, and posters, because they had to. They are expected to.

Academic journals and academic conferences prey on their necessity, draining money and hundreds upon hundreds of hours of free labor from the graduate students and professors that are obliged to work with them. It is an exploitative, wasteful, disrespectful pyramid scheme. And I am not buying into it.

This is one of the many reasons why I am not applying to tenure-track positions. My PhD took a lot of work to earn, and so did my peer-reviewed, published journal articles. Some of my publications took upwards of two years to produce, more if you count the time I spent (along with my team) applying for grants to cover the costs of that research. That time and expertise is worth something.

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