A few days ago Al-Jazeera English columnist Sarah Kendzior wrote a thoughtful essay in which she asks, “What’s the point of academic publishing?”
The question is an important one to ask. Prior to starting graduate school in 2012 I had little idea how much criticism traditional academic publishing ventures–more specifically, peer-reviewed scholarly journals–have received over the past few years. Although my interests are mainly focused on teaching history to a public audience outside the academic classroom, I still have an interest in working with an academic publisher someday. Back in 2012 I figured that getting articles published in journals was a great starting point for getting one’s name out in scholarly circles and, if I decided to continue my education and pursue my doctorate in the future, I’d be in a position to have strong credentials for possibly pursuing a career in academia. I love the capacity for intellectual growth that academia provides, and I would love to someday teach my own college courses, whether that be next year or thirty years from now. The point of academic publishing, I believed, served a dual purpose of boosting one’s credentials in academic circles and disseminating knowledge to non-academic audiences.
Unfortunately, the actual reality of academic publishing is not that simple. Kendzior’s article is one of many that has been published in the past year and a half calling out the practices of academic universities and their publishing wings. For one, the idea of publishing as an avenue to academic employment is a myth. According to Kendzior, “the harsh truth is that many scholars with multiple journal articles —and even multiple books—still do not find full-time employment.” More and more tenure-track positions require a hefty track record of publishing endeavors, but the number of available full-time, tenured positions in academia has gone down tremendously. In 1975, 45% of all professorial positions were tenured or tenure-track. By 2009, that number dropped more than twenty percent, and the New York Times published a report last April pointing out that 76% of all professorial positions today are filled by contingent adjunct faculty. The amount of academic scholarship being produced today is unprecedented in quantity, but the number of available positions for the people who produce that scholarship is diminishing.
Adjunct faculty in colleges and universities around the country teach in absolutely horrible conditions. They are essentially contract labor, jumping from school to school looking for courses to teach. If they’re lucky, they get paid around $3,500-$4,000 per three credit course and they teach somewhere around five to eight classes a semester (most tenured professors teach between one and three classes per semester). They receive no health benefits and pretty much no chance for tenure, and what I’ve just described is actually ideal for a contingent faculty member. The situation is usually worse. An adjunct whose resignation letter from a Pennsylvania college was published online yesterday was making $3,150 per three-credit course and restricted to a maximum of four classes per semester, which equates to $25,200 per year before taxes. Another Pennsylvania adjunct professor died last year at the age of 83 after years of working as an adjunct. She had been receiving cancer treatment (and remember, adjuncts get no insurance) and was struggling to pay her house bills. The university she worked for had recently ended their contract with her, and she died penniless.
The second issue with academic publishing is that much of the scholarship that is being published today is not getting into the hands of those outside academia who want to learn from it. As Kendzior remarks, “with the odds of finding a tenure-track job against them, graduate students are told to plan for a backup career, while simultaneously being told to publish jargon-filled research in paywalled journals.” Paywalled, subscription-based services like ProQuest and JSTOR charge exorbitant fees for access to scholarly books, articles, Ph.D. dissertations, and other content that is already funded in part by taxpayers who fund the public universities that contribute much of this academic content. While students and faculty in academia have access to this content, it is difficult and expensive for those outside of academia to access it, even though their tax dollars have gone towards it production.
So, in sum, it seems as if academics are producing content for themselves first and foremost, which is extremely unfortunate. I believe the ultimate goal of academic publishing should be to disseminate knowledge to those who want to learn from it, regardless of their job title or financial resources. I am proud of the fact that the IUPUI University Library has committed itself to open access scholarship, and my master’s thesis will be freely available for download to anyone when it is completed later this year. I am also working on writing an article for a scholarly journal that will ideally be published within the next year or so. I hope this proposed article is made open access as well.
When I think about the point of academic publishing, four questions emerge in my mind:
1. What’s the point of academic publishing if your work is locked behind a paywall?
2. If I want to connect with an audience beyond the ivory tower, what mediums give me the best opportunity to do so?
3. What’s the point of academic publishing if it’s being demanded as a job requirement for a field I most likely can’t break into?
4. How do I make academic publishing work for my interests and not the other way around?
Academic publishing is important to me as student and a scholar. I rely on academic publishing to provide me the latest and best scholarship on topics that interest me as a reader and as a researcher, and I believe society benefits immensely from the work of academic scholars. If scholars hope to reach an audience beyond the academy in the future, however, I believe the purpose of academic publishing needs to be redefined in ways that encourage access for all, not paywalls for most. It would also help if we started paying Ph.D. professors enough money to not have to rely on food stamps to get by.