Open Access, Apathy & Cowardice in academic publishing: An interview w/ Taylor R. Genovese

Open Access, Apathy & Cowardice in academic publishing: An interview w/ Taylor R. Genovese

In the previous iteration of this site, I talked a lot about Open Access. The trend continues. For some background, check out this 2009 interview with Colleen Morgan, this 2011 interview with Jason Baird Jackson, this 2012 interview with Tom Boellstorff, and this 2012 interview with Keith Hart. And here’s a paper about “Publishing without Perishing” that was presented (thanks Colleen Morgan for reading it!) at the annual AAA meetings in 2012. Also check out this post about not signing away your publishing rights, and my very last post for Savage Minds about the AAA’s 2017 takedown notice. The following interview with Taylor Genovese continues this conversation about anthropology, academia, and open access.

Taylor R. Genovese is a PhD student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program at Arizona State University. He has a BA and an MA in Anthropology and is interested in radical (techno)politics, the anthropology of outer space, utopian futures, and multimodal ethnography. He is also a blogger at Footnotes (http://footnotesblog.com ), a new anthropology group blog dedicated to the practice of being multimodal, anticolonial, and iconoclastic. More at: http://taylorgenovese.com  and on Twitter @trgenovese –RA

***

Ryan A: Hey, remember that time when you posted on twitter about the AAA takedown notice? What did you think about that notice?

Taylor G: [laughs] You know, that tweet is a good lesson for academics to never underestimate what kinds of social media content will go viral. When I reached 150 retweets, I was pretty shocked. When I reached 750, I was just laughing to myself at the never-ending notifications. When it reached 1,700 retweets and 4,100 likes, I was fairly certain the AAA was going to order its hit squad after me at the annual meeting.

But I think there is a valid reason why my rather unnuanced, iconoclastic snark ended up striking such a nerve in this era of academic precarity: people are feeling the corporate noose tighten ever quicker around the neck of our universities. The wealth disparity between administrators and, not only professors, but the bulk of academia—untenured, precarious lecturers and graduate students—mirror the enormous disparity between large academic publishers and the scholars that provide them unpaid labor in the form of writing manuscripts, reviewing them, and serving on editorial and advisory boards.

To me, the AAA notice unfortunately signaled to the member base that the organization was going to be siding with the large, exploitative journal corporations rather than its membership. One sentence in particular irked me: “AAA has put the author agreement in place to protect authors, and to prevent unauthorized or inappropriate usage.” Exactly from whom is the author being protected? Those pesky hustlers on the street peddling academic articles? (“No thanks, Bob, I’ve read enough bootlegged anthropology articles about Papua New Guinea; let me know when you get something multispecies in!”) I actually think most of us would be thrilled to find that our articles were being printed out and hungrily consumed by a general audience! After all, we’re not being paid by the publishers to write them.

Instead, the second part of the statement shows what’s really going on. The “unauthorized or inappropriate usage” of our writing ends up undermining the incredibly high institutional access fees that the journal publishers charge; including the $20-40 single-use charges it imposes on independent scholars. As the author, we never see any of that money. Does the AAA see any of that money? At least a large portion of it goes directly to the large journal publishers themselves.

As I said in my original tweet, the CEO of Wiley makes over $4 million year. Erik Engstom, the CEO of the Relx Group, which used to be Elsevier, makes £10.5 million a year. That’s $14 million. Insanity!

Even if you aren’t the type to hum The Internationale in your sleep before throwing Molotovs in the street, I think you can appreciate the incredibly unjust theft that is happening in academic publishing.

RA: So I hear you have a new article you’re working on that’s about neoliberalism, publishing, and open access. Are you telling me that open access isn’t going to save us from the perils of corporate publishing models?

TG: Right, so, actually that tweet brought a colleague of mine, A.M. Stapp at Pierce College, as well as Joseph M. Gabriel at Florida State University, together to begin to collaborate on this paper in which we’re nearly finished.

Essentially, what we are arguing is that the platform of open-access publishing is actually more of a landscape in which both neoliberal and radical actors are able to interact. We discuss this through the tragic story of hacktivist Aaron Swartz, who was charged in 2011 with 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and 2 counts of wire fraud for downloading millions of documents from JSTOR on his authorized MIT account. Swartz hung himself at the age of 26 rather than face the $1 million in fines and 50 years of imprisonment that the federal government was expected to sentence him with.

In our paper, we ask: why was the U.S. so eager to punish Aaron with such brutality? Aaron’s own justification for downloading those articles was the freedom of information and the open spread of knowledge. We argue that today, there seems to be a dialectic between openness and monopolization emerging within neoliberal discourse—where on one side stands the Old Guard of gatekeepers and on the other side stands Aaron, hacktivism, and open-access culture more broadly. I don’t want to give too much of the paper away yet—since it is a transforming, collaborative project—but what we argue is that the types of forces that Aaron dedicated his life to fighting are now some of the strongest proponents of an open-access model—this is what Nick Srnicek has called “platform capitalism.”

The best examples of this, especially in reference to your question, are academic social networks like Academia.edu and ResearchGate. Both of these corporations present themselves as champions of open-access and the sharing of knowledge, but are actually rather nefarious in the ways in which they monetize the work of scholars for capital gains. In the case of Academia.edu, they even attempt to add legitimacy by using the .edu domain name, when in actuality the company is run by venture capitalists, not by an academic institution. And now, they are offering “premium memberships” in an attempt to further profit off our data and writing.

So this is the complex landscape of open-access. We need to be critical of all these projects rather than expect them to be egalitarian by default just because they endorse an open-access approach—some of those that were eager to see Aaron Swartz imprisoned are now promulgating, and hoping to twist and profit off of, his ideals.

RA: What about viable alternatives? Not just new ideas that sound a little better, but projects that can actually open up new ways of doing this publishing thing. Do you think something like SocArXiv, for example, has the potential to be transformative here?

TG: I think projects like SocArXiv, run by the Open Science Framework—which, I might add, was set up by academic institutions and research librarians, not venture capitalists—is a step in the right direction. The so-called “hard sciences” have been utilizing arXiv to share their research for a long time; and, actually, the scientists that I have spoken to have said that they use arXiv almost exclusively to keep up with research and collaborate with each other—the actual journal articles, which come out months later, are merely used for CV purposes.

In my view, the only way forward with academic publishing is open-access, but it must be an open-access that is controlled democratically. SocArXiv is beginning to do that; their steering committee consists of all academics, although I think they should include adjuncts and graduate students on their committee as well. The next step, I think, is to leverage large academic journals to tear down their paywalls. This task, of course, is enormous and complex. In the meantime, we need to think of ways to collectively use our academic freedom to resist the corporate hold on academic journals and our organizations. We should continue publishing our pre-prints on non-corporate, open-access sites and promote only those preprints which are publically accessible. When possible, we should try to submit more of our research to open-access journals. We should organize and lobby our academic organizations, which are supposed to advocate for us, to battle against the corporatization of publishing.

And on a more important micro scale, we, as anthropologists, should collaborate on projects more. Perhaps this is changing, but anthropologists have tended to approach publishing as a solitary process and single-authored papers/books are the norm. To change the publishing model to something more collaborative and democratic requires a change in the mode in which we approach research itself. We must all become multimodal. We need to legitimize—in the eyes of admission and tenure committees—blogs, social media, drawing, photography, soundscapes, filmmaking. We need to write, to make, to create, to play collaboratively. We also need to become accessible to the public and our participants.

RA: All of this sounds good to me! Including the push for more collaborative writing and publishing. But we’re slow to change. The single-authored book or article reigns. The mathematicians (and other hard scientists) are way ahead of us on this, including how they use platforms like ArXiv. It seems we have call after call of people saying we need to rethink all of this, engage with broader publics, and open up how we publish. But not much happens. One of the biggest challenges, I think, is getting people interested. Is it just apathy? Is publishing a boring issue? Are people just too busy?

TG: Apathy might be part of it, but if I can get a little indignant and provocative, I think a majority of it is connected with cowardice, especially from senior, tenured faculty; and this includes some faculty that claim to be on the side of those disadvantaged by the publishing status quo. I have experienced this first hand in the publishing realm from academics I truly respected and thought were allies who ended up completely turning their backs on junior faculty and/or graduate students in order to side with dominant, abusive power structures and the cronies that latch on to them. I’m sure many have experienced this kind of betrayal and lack of reflexivity throughout the academy. I think David Graeber said it best in his tweet: “Academia is full of people who confuse cowardice and maturity.”

Furthermore, the widespread cowardice in academia must also be viewed in an intersectional manner. These issues are tendril-like—creeping into and intertwining with issues like publishing, working conditions, racism, sexism, continued colonialism, bullying, etc. It’s a problem that requires an engagement with a broader politics, as you say. However, in order to do this, we need to disrupt the system of hierarchy that enables bullies and abusers to rise to positions of power, thereby enabling cowardice to become the status-quo. In general, as the precariat, we need to collectively organize against academia’s corruption and our mistreatment within that system. This call is far from novel: PrecAnthro is doing good transnationalist work, Eli Thorkelson has called for a Union for Job Seekers, secondary education teachers are engaging in wildcat strikes throughout multiple states, and graduate student unions are collectively bargaining and striking against this robust neoliberal cowardice. I believe a uniquely 21st century syndicalism may be forming, thanks in part to social media and virtual solidarity, but only time will tell.

RA: Only time will tell indeed. So what’s your guess? When it comes to all these questions of publishing and precarity, what do you think will happen? Will the status quo just…persist? Or is there actually space for “publishing otherwise,” as Marcel Laflamme once put it?

TG: The status quo will persist, of course…until it doesn’t. What I mean is that we need to hit that critical mass of resistance before change can happen. Publishing otherwise has the potential to create some change, especially if it is articulated as an “exilic space,” but it also possesses the potential to just reinforce the status quo the same way that most reformist rhetoric and action tends to plaster over structural inequalities—the allegorical band-aid over the dismembered limb.

That said, I don’t really believe in forecasting these types of things. I don’t know what will happen. But I do believe we are living in a moment of revolutionary momentum with an unbelievable potential for change. Hunter S. Thompson has a famous quote from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas where he is lamenting over the perceived failure of social movements in the 1960s. He says: “There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . . And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil […] We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

I think that wave did roll back throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Hunter was right. We experienced neoliberal intensification as “reformers” attempted to stave off capitalism’s impending death by making it not only an economic system, but also a political and social one. Now, I believe, a new wave is beginning to crest and it’s an enormous groundswell of revolutionary potential. All that’s left is for us to collectively catch that wave and shred!

RA: I see what you did there with that optimistic surfing metaphor. Something new may be building; I hope so. Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview, Taylor.

TG: That metaphor was just for you! Thanks, Ryan.

Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him via Twitter here: @anthropologia

6 Replies to “Open Access, Apathy & Cowardice in academic publishing: An interview w/ Taylor R. Genovese”

  1. I’ll add a quick [possible] correction to Taylor’s first comments. He notes “After all, we’re not being paid by the publishers to write them.” and “As the author, we never see any of that money. ”

    The AAA does pay the author of an article a reprint fee — I’ve received a number of such fees over the years, and in fact, the AAA once paid me a reprint fee for an article that was reprinted in a collection, but the original article had not appeared in an AAA journal! I’ll leave it to the AAA management to provide details of their current policy.

    1. Hi, Barbara. Thank you for this correction. This is something that I (obviously) did not know and I’m glad that you’ve pointed it out!

      However, looking at the broader picture of academic publishing, I think that a re-print fee is still pretty minimal compared to the labor it takes for you to actually produce that article. The publisher is still extracting an enormous surplus value from your labor through institutional subscriptions and one-time download fees (not to mention charging us if we want the article to be open-access). And I know that the argument goes that the university pays your salary with the expectation that you’re producing scholarship, therefore a journal publisher doesn’t have to pay for manuscripts, but these days securing a tenure-track university job is like winning the lottery—yet hiring committees still expect to see a record of active publication.

      I would also like to quickly mention that journal production is also significantly cheaper than it used to be, especially these days when most publications are online-only. And on top of that, most publishers use unpaid graduate students to do all of the actual work to copy edit, format, design, and publish issues (not to mention some of these steps are now fully automated). A re-print fee paid to the author is the very least they could do.

      I would rather see the money redistributed in a more equitable fashion in which you would be paid for your article, the journal staff would be paid for their labor, and the publisher barons would be rendered obsolete. But I doubt I need to rant any more about that! 🙂

      Thank you again for your correction! Apologies about the long rant, but your comment sparked some of these additional thoughts that didn’t surface in the interview.

  2. Taylor: Thanks for your reply. I have made a number of comments here about these and other issues, and have insisted on my sympathy for the problems you highlight. But the complaint that we provide free labor to journals — as authors, referees, editors, etc — is an old one, and I am always tempted to class it with those insights that turn out to be wheels re-invented. A more interesting question to me is why this has become an issue now, again? Presumably it has something to do with the rapid rise in numbers of contingent faculty in many disciplines, in which it is costly to keep up with one’s field without access to the traditional infrastructure of tenure track academic life. But I am also fascinated by the emergence of graduate student complaints, such as yours. What do you think has happened, or changed, to trigger such complaints among students?

    Traditionally the primary response to the issue of (no) compensation for publishing work is (1) we work in a kind of communitarian academic world in which I labor on your behalf, refereeing your paper for example, so that you will labor on my behalf; and (2) the rewards are not limited to the salary I am paid — though that is part of it — but a more diffuse set of benefits that include prestige, competitiveness for grants and fellowships, invitations to speak (with honorariums) etc. Research universities with high expectations for publishing and scholarship do pay more than four year colleges at which teaching is the primary job of faculty, so we do, in this sense, get paid for publishing. And I am perhaps naively saddened by the reduction of all labor to its monetary value. (Speaking of which, David Graeber’s new book might be relevant — he stresses the historically curious rise of labor/time/pay in its modern form; those of us who have worked in subsistence communities understand his point…). A giant corporation makes a fortune on academic journals but doesn’t pay me to referee a submission? Why am I not bothered by this, except in the simpler sense that giant corporations are, by definition, evil?

    I’m rambling by now, clouded by my need for a second cup of coffee. But I’ll close my approving of your concern for this broad set of issues, since in the end they address the problems of working wages, access to scholarship, etc. that are important issues.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Barbara. This is a lot of think about. I also just finished Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs” last week and found it to be a wonderful book; thank you for recommending it. I would also recommend it to anyone who is interested in 21st century labor and capitalism. To briefly answer your question of why I think that these issues are resurfacing among graduate students is the fact that we are, well, absolutely broke. My generation, despite putting more money into saving than Gen X or Boomers, are the poorest generation (see: https://slate.com/business/2018/05/millennials-are-in-a-deep-financial-hole-compared-to-past-generations.html). This is largely because we are saddled with an unbelievable amount of student loan debt and are contending with a very bleak, highly exploitative job market. Many of us leaving graduate school aren’t even able to secure academic jobs, let alone secure tenure-track positions.

      So while my personal politics are more in line with the communitarian aspects of the academic world, we still need to eat. I would love to live in a world where my labor is not reduced to monetary value, but until we destroy capitalism, I’d like to see all of us paid equitably for the labor we’re doing.

      But, I agree with you wholeheartedly, we also need to have discussions on how to move past the shackling of labor with monetary value. Theorizing and imagining a better world is incredibly important—as Ursula K. Le Guin said: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

      Thank you for this great discussion!

  3. Why does this issue now seem so pressing? I would look beyond the costs of subscriptions versus contingent faculty salaries. In previous eras, when scholarship was a privilege enjoyed by a few to whom it provided comfortable lifetime employment, noblesse oblige and long-term reciprocity were reasonable expectations. When growing numbers of junior scholars must scramble increasingly hard for temporary crumbs from the academic table, resentment is predictable. Add the insult of corporate profits to the injury of having to work much harder for the sake of lowered expectations, resentment turns to anger. Exploited labor rebels.

    I remember reading some years ago in a book optimistically titled The Emerging Democratic Majority, that white collar workers who had traditionally sided with management and voted Republican were increasingly finding themselves in the same position as the skilled craftsmen who formed the AFL. Then they were forced to join forces with the unskilled workers’ CIO. The AFL-C
    IO grew to become a major force in American politics. But, here’s the rub, the American labor movement has become steadily weaker in the last few decades. The strikes that were powerful weapons when capital was sunk in specific geographical locations have lost their teeth in a world where capital is mobile and outsourcing and robots replace workers who stand down from their jobs.

    My reasons for mentioning this example are twofold. First, we need to think outside the boundaries of academic publishing and look for opportunities to form united fronts with other exploited workers. Second, we need to free ourselves from the illusion that if our complaints are loud enough, justice will prevail. The work that Paul Wellstone summed up as “Energize, Mobilize, Organize” still waits for those willing to do it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.