The insane world of academic publishing

Stephen Few few wrote a post on how insane academic publishing is. If you publish academic papers, his post is worth your time. Don’t miss the comments!

Stephen is not in academia. From his point of view, what is required of him makes no sense:

  • While he does not expect to get paid for publishing a paper, he expects some kind of symbolic reward like a few subscription to the journal: Is there really any question that someone who takes the time to write an article and go through the lengthy process of working with a publisher, deserves a gesture of thanks equaling the cost of postage?
  • Stephen is surprised that reviewers remain anonymous through the entire process: Cloaking the process in anonymity seemed to indicate a level of discomfort with critique that I didn’t expect to find to this degree in academia.
  • He is upset with how IEEE handles copyright:”I have worked with several publishers and I have never had to give up my rights as author. Most modern publishers know that they don’t need to strip authors of their rights in order to do their job.

My own answers:

  • Anonymous review is just a system we refuse to question. Speaking your mind is certainly a dangerous thing—more so in some countries than others. However, I believe a scholar should have the backbone to speak out in the open. Do something else with your life if you are afraid to sign your opinion pieces.
  • The copyright issue is a shame. However, Stephen should also ask why so many employers ask for non-compete clauses. He should also ask why musicians sign away their soul routinely. I have always been puzzled at how easily TV series are killed: clearly the authors lose their copyright along the way. Fortunately, scholars are pretty bad at reading the contracts they sign…

3 thoughts on “The insane world of academic publishing”

  1. In my experience, the dynamics of academic publishing hinge on academics whose careers depend on publication in prestigious journals. In this dynamic, an individual author isn’t doing the journal any favors by submitting a paper to it; to the contrary, the journal makes the decision as to whether it will bless the author by publishing it. And, collectively, the journal provides a service to the academic community by creating an infrastructure for evaluating researchers based on the quality of their submissions.

    There’s a lot to be criticized about this system, but I don’t think it’s fair to heap all of the blame on the journals, when they seem to be doing exactly what the universities want. Indeed, it’s no surprise that the journals depend on armies of volunteers from said universities.

  2. I think even in double-blind reviewing, there should be the option for rebuttals. Some conferences such as CHI and SIGMOD already have this. It gives the authors one more right of reply to incorrect reviews. In many cases, I have seen reviewers completely misread the paper and make an incorrect objection, which can be readily refuted.

  3. The criticism of scholarly publishers does not seem particularly new.

    In fact I often saw academic/professional publishers (like IEEE) be promoted as better examples than the purely commercial publishers (like Springer or Elsevier).

    W.r.t. anonymous reviewing, one interesting evolution would be to publicize the name of the reviewers for a paper, without tying them to the actual review (i.e.: Dear Author, your paper was reviewed by Dr. X, Prof. Y and Dr. Z. The three reviews are, in random order: …).

    That way it would still be hard to tell which reviewer wrote which review, but it may promote a sense of responsibility and accountability among reviewers.

    Better yet, publish the names of the reviewers (but not the actual reviews) with the paper: This would in a way provide reviewers some much needed recognition.

    Finally, w.r.t. rebuttals, that’s one advantage of submitting to journals vs. conferences: The journal process usually allows for going back an forth a few times between authors and reviewers.

    Unless the paper is turned down right away, in which case the first reflex should be author introspection rather than reviewer bashing anyway.

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