Power, Authority, and the Academic Journal: Thoughts on UC vs. NPG

Why do we need academic journals?

In the midst of the ongoing dispute between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group over the rates of science journals, I’ve been wondering what exactly is the function of the academic journal?

I see two.  First, journals like those published by NPG function to distribute knowledge.   Second, journals act to authorize academic work.  The current spat between UC and NPG is beginning to reveal the ways these two functions are related and how they are also falling apart.  What is missing from the current discussion of the UC vs. NPG battle is an analysis of how power and authority move through the current journal publication structure, which at bottom, is a question about how journal publication functions .

The first function of the academic journal is to spread knowledge–whether to students, scholars, industries, governments or wherever.  This is the reception side of journal publication.  This is also a side in crisis, as the budget shortfalls of libraries like UC and other show.  Bethany Nowviskie has offered a nice analysis of the systemic problems on the reception side of academic publishing.  The whole blog post deserves a read but I’ll quote the part that makes this present point:

“The position in which libraries find themselves vis-a-vis Nature, Elsevier, et al is laughable — once you’ve shed a tear for all of the humanities collections (monographs and periodicals) that have already been cut in response to previous gouging by journal providers. Large companies have cornered the market on access to scientific research which universities see as mission-critical, and can therefore name their own prices. The first victims of the hard decisions forced on collections stewards at many institutions have been less costly, lower-profile, slow-knowledge, lower rate-of-use, disorganized and a la carte humanities publications — with the dire results we have seen across the academy over the last decade. Libraries have cancelled standing orders with university presses. Many presses and journals, having lost their best (sometimes almost only) clients, have responded by reducing the number of worthy book manuscripts and articles that make it into print. Others have folded entirely. A generation of humanities scholars, still struggling to meet the “or perish” tenure and promotion expectations of a bygone era, feel they have nowhere to publish. Students and faculty have lost access to whole threads of our shared, cultural conversation — conversation that continues in humanities publications their schools now cannot afford. Other threads (genres of work, areas of inquiry) have been cut short entirely.”

As Nowviskie points out, the problem is bigger than the “hard” sciences and has implications for everyone, even those of us in the humanities.  So, the reception/distribution function of the journal is broken.  So broken that expensive science journals are destroying the conversation across campus in the History or English building.

The journal also holds the power on this reception side as well.  The journal sets the price for the knowledge in its text.  Who can have access to the knowledge is determined, not by the writers, not by the editors, not by the reviewers, and not by anyone associated with producing the text or the work behind it.  It is determined by the Journal and by folks like SPG.

Moving to their second function, then, journals also act to authorize scholarly work and academic discourse.  Getting an article published means that your article was good enough, was scholarly enough, to count as “knowledge.”  Stephen Ramsay, in a piece featured in Hacking the Academy, has made the same point about academic publishing generally.

“How can we make momentous decisions about promotion and tenure and conduct performance reviews that affect peoples’ actual salaries without a comprehensive and thorough review of their work?

The answer is simple: publishers do it for us.

I am convinced that that’s really what this is all about. I don’t have time to read everything. But more importantly, I don’t really want to evaluate your work on its “intellectual merits,” because, well, you might do that to me. And really, this could get very emotional very quickly. And anyway, what qualifies you to judge me (or me to judge you)? We’re colleagues, after all.

The solution to everyone’s problem has been to outsource this decision to a third party that gives it a seal of approval while at the same time anonymizing the people who actually did read the book or the article. That allows us to move the whole problem somewhere else. What’s more, it allows us to make fine distinctions between people that we otherwise wouldn’t want to make ourselves. Chicago is better than Ashgate. Oxford is better than Michigan. Critical Inquiry is better than Modern Drama.Monographs are better than edited collections. It’s just so easy this way.”

But I want to push this a little further.  It’s more than just evaluating the quality of one’s work.  Rather, these journals act to authorize academic discourse as “knowledge.”  Peer-review, editorial boards, journals, and university presses are all part of the structures through which academic work in archives, the field, labs, and offices are legitimated and authorized as knowledge that can then be utilized and built upon.  And while faculty serve as reviewers and editors on SPG journals, and all academic journals, in the end its the imprint, i.e. Nature, that carries the authority.  The reviewers are anonymous and the editors considered peers and colleagues.  The journal is the authority.  It has the power.  But the power of the journal is a mirage.  Where does the power to authorize discourse as knowledge really lie?

Here Nowviskie gives the lie to the authority of the journal:

“Pause now for a moment to imagine the countless, unquantifiable hours of UC faculty labor that have gone not only into the research for and writing of these articles — but also into their vetting.”

This is an incredible sleight of hand.  Scholars do the labor to authorize work as knowledge.  Scholars also need their work authorized as knowledge.  And libraries, a segment of the university that floats outside of faculty departments and place that is at once everyone’s and no one’s, will fit the bill.  Meanwhile, the journal gets paid to clothe the entire process in an imprint like Nature whose authority is really only an echo of the authority of the scholarly community.  How much is this echo worth?

While I agree wholeheartedly with those promoting open access publication, without an analysis of how authority and power function within the current publication structures, we will not be able to build an open access approach to knowledge that challenges the current practices of authorizing knowledge production.  The goal of open access publication should not just be about access.  Rather it should be about dismantling the sleight of hand that happens in the process of transforming work and discourse into knowledge so that scholars, students, and the public are empowered more directly.

Authority is a tricky thing in academia and we’ve tended to try and spread it around rather than consolidate it.  This has put us in the awkward position of letting companies like SPG consolidate it for us.

The two functions of academic journals are vital.  We need to distribute knowledge within and beyond the academic community.  We also need ways to establish what counts as knowledge so that good work can be recognized and goals of academic inquiry are met.  But what we don’t need is a system that disempowers those seeking to honestly fulfill these functions.  The threat of a UC boycott of SPG was a step toward reclaiming some power from corporate interests.  It was a step towards demanding that we as an academic community rethink the structures of knowledge production and authority in our midst.

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