The academic publishing game

Some 30 years ago I was in my first year as a professional academic. I had a full teaching load, but I also knew that if my career was to go anywhere I needed to publish – and not just anywhere, but in scholarly journals. And so, having written what I thought was a pretty good little scholarly article, I offered it to one publisher after another. The main impact of this exercise was that I could compile an exhaustive glossary of rejection phrases. However, I did eventually place the masterpiece, and so began my career trajectory.

Recently I tried to get hold of a copy of this wonderful article. I wrote to the publisher and got a very nice reply. They could photocopy it for me, and would charge as little as £120 for doing so. OK, it isn’t really a masterpiece, and I certainly don’t think that a copy of the 26 pages is worth that amount of money. So, no thank you.

But here we have one of the key problems of modern academic life. Lecturers must publish, and not just anywhere. The journals that are accepted as good places in which to be seen know this very well, and they abuse the market. They are far too expensive, and as a result really only libraries can afford them. And as library budgets get cut everywhere, they too are now having to be choosy.

In fact, whether we are talking about books or journals, academic publishers present us with really major problems. There are not many of them, and they are not customer-focused. It is time to leave all that behind us. The academy should develop and manage online journals where academics can place their work and where this will be appropriately peer-reviewed. It is time to break away from a publishing sector that has some of the most restrictive practices of the modern business world. It is time to open up publishing opportunities for academics and to make it easy for others to access what has been published.

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13 Comments on “The academic publishing game”

  1. Karin Says:

    The other half of the problem is that tenure committees and the like must learn to evaluate publications in non-traditional formats.

    The Public Knowledge Project ( has created a well-established platform for academic publishing, and the Open Journal System lists 9000 installations. There is a demand for academic digital publishing.

  2. Dan Says:

    It is bizarre alright that the monies of publicly-funded research, including the wages for the academic’s time in writing a paper, can be devoted to the profits of commercial publishing houses…

  3. ‘Game’ is a polite word for it, I’d call it a scam, with taxpayer paying for the same work twice, once to produce it, and once to read it.
    Thankfully, it’s days are numbered as open access journals are beginning to mainstream, being the obvious example.
    Wikipedia, of all places, has a remarkably thorough article on the topic and the issues involved, which is worth a read and links to some good resources For fields without an open access journal, there’s a big opportunity there for professional bodies to create one. Despot that I am, If it was up to me I’d simply require all publicly funded research to be published in an open access form.

  4. otto Says:

    If you give us the reference for the article in question, probably someone can lay hold of it for you sans charge…

  5. anna notaro Says:

    The best scholarly publication to address these issues is Books in the Digital Age, The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States
    by John Thompson (the link includes a table of contents)
    For the economic implications of alternative forms of publishing it might be of interest the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee)Report at also commented in THE at
    In light of the forthcoming REF (Research Excellence Framework), an assessment of research based on metrics, including bibliometrics in the form of citations to papers, several universities are considering publication and storage policies which privilege the electronic format
    Already in 2007 Universities UK, the vice chancellors’ organization, lamented in a press release that:
    “The traditional publishing model for research is inefficient, uncompetitive and restrictive. It boils down to a matter of fairness as to whether the public has open access to research funded, ultimately, by the tax-payer.

    “With the emergence of the internet, the publishing landscape has changed. Universities UK supports moves by the research community and publishers to develop new publishing models that are suitable for the twenty-first century.” (

    It would be good for such support to continue with renewed vigour.

  6. Ernie Ball Says:

    The other aspect of the scam is that most of the research is only being produced for the reasons Ferdinand produced his first essay: ” if my career was to go anywhere I needed to publish.” That motivation means that the vast majority of what is produced will be make-work. Not surprisingly, there is currently a publication glut in any given field, most of which is nothing but noise. The average scholarly journal article goes completely unread (except by its author, one assumes). The number of outlets for scholarly publication, continues to increase year-on-year. All to produce reams of crap that the authors would often rather not have to write, that virtually nobody is interested in reading, and that impede the ability of those who wish to do serious research to separate the wheat of valuable scholarship that must be consulted from the chaff of “research” produced solely to earn the author tenure and promotion.

    There’s something wrong with the game, alright, and it’s the insistence that everyone be publishing all the time, the more frenetically, the better.

    • anna notaro Says:

      it’s true that there is a traditionalism inherent in academic research, which has been at least so far, textual based (i.e. books/paper). In light of the development of new digital technologies, social scientists particularly are currently trying to understand how best we can shift from the exclusively textual mode of presentation of research outputs to other simple and accessible information data visualizationts which might be available not only to an audience of specialists but to the general public as well. Needless to say, it is paramount that academia adapts to these new cultural/technnological scenarios, including the ways in which research outputs in non-conventional formats are peer-reviewed..

    • Amen to that!!

      There is also the question of access to scholarly publications by institutions that cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fees being charged. By this I mean institutions in poorer countries: last year we were privileged to have had a wonderful research scholar from Malawi in our department and she was completely taken aback at the sheer volume of material available to her whilst in the UK. She would have loved to have been able just to download one PDF file after another whenever she wanted to back in Malawi, but her university could never afford the kind of packages that universities here (are forced to) take for granted.

      However, I should also say that at one point she did comment on how hard it was to find useful material for her research in the glut that presented itself to her when she went online.

  7. John Says:

    At least Irish academics still have some freedom when it comes to choosing where to publish.

    UK Business Schools live by the ABS Journal Ranking. If you’re not targeting above 2* you’re effectively wasting your time and unlikely to be funded. Yet how many 3/4* journals are open-access, or operate non-standard publishing cycles capable of clearing the wall of papers hitting them in advance of REF?

  8. Cormac Says:

    I think ArXiv is leading the way here (started by the physicists of course). Because a great many papers appear on the ArXiv as well as in the relevant journal, I guess it will render journals obsolete eventually.

  9. I completely agree! Why not have the libraries archive all the papers? Let’s invest the 4 billion in annual profits into a library publishing system:

  10. Ian Johnson Says:

    This is a complex issue which is clouded by ignorance and prejudice.

    It’s worth bearing in mind – just for a starter – that academic publishing was initially developed and supported by the universities – and then they got out of the ‘game’ when they could not find the money to sustain it.

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