Academic Publishing is An Exploitative Farce
Scientists generate profit for peer-reviewed publications, but they aren’t paid. Should they be?
In order to succeed in academia, you must succeed in academic publishing. The length of the published works section of your CV (the academic equivalent of a resume) determines whether you can get a full-time job, the prestigiousness of the institution you get to work at, whether you get grants, and whether you get tenure. If you do not publish, your chance of having a traditional academic career will die.
Different schools have different expectations for what an “adequate” amount of publications is, of course. A school that is not focused on research might expect to hire someone who has published 1–2 things per year; a more demanding school might expect far more. These publications, at least in the social sciences, must be empirical and novel, and should be in journals that are very well-regarded. If you publish theoretical articles, or reviews, you won’t be seen as contributing novel information to the literature to the same extent as someone publishing new work. Book reviews, in particular, are next to useless.
Along with securing empirical publications in high-tier journals, you are also expected to present your work at numerous conferences, in poster sessions, panel discussions, and talks. Going to conferences to share work is seen as a sign of “productivity”, but not an impressive one. You can put them on your CV, but they’re largely seen as commodities that are easy to get. Relatively few conference submissions are turned away, and they’re not peer-reviewed, so there’s little career benefit to doing them beyond the networking opportunities they provide. Refusing to do them, however, can be seen as suspect.
So, to get ahead, you need to conduct your own research, and you need to get it published. It needs to be in a journal that is well-regarded. And you have to do it a lot. Doesn’t matter how much service you do, how many students you mentor, how many committees you are on, or how sparkling your course evaluations are. You have to secure tons of publications, over and over again, year after year. An academic who fails in this task will not get tenure; they probably won’t even get a job in the first place. If you do not participate in this game, you’re seen as a failure, a fraud of a scientist.
But generating academic articles is not just a matter of hours upon hours of work. It is not a meritocracy where the people who work the hardest get the most CV lines. There is arbitrariness and injustice embedded in every stage of the process. Some people sink years into programs of research that are meticulously conducted, and theoretically important, only to receive zero publications out of the deal. Sometimes work that isn’t replicable is published and gets tons of media attention despite being filled with flaws. You’re at the mercy of the process, and the process itself is not objective, though it likes to pretend to be.
And you don’t have to be an academic to be dismayed by this. If you’re a lover of science, or someone who recognizes the vital role science plays in your life, you should be aghast at it, too.
In my field, social psychology, most journal articles consist of multiple empirical studies. Decades ago, this was not the case. When collecting and entering data was slower, and when all the data analysis had to be done by hand, it could take a year or more to finish and write-up a single empirical study. These days, the whole process is a lot easier — surveys and experiments can be posted online, where data is entered automatically; analyses can be performed swiftly in R, Stata, or SPSS.
This has lead, in part, to study inflation — where once a published article could describe a single study, now articles regularly detail four, five, six, seven studies. Or even more. I’ve read papers with upwards of a dozen studies in them. And while collecting and analyzing data takes less time than it ever has, it still is massively time-consuming to design, execute, analyze, and write up dozens of empirical studies.
And no matter how talented a researcher you are, most of your studies will probably fail. A lot of hypotheses don’t find statistically significant support. Competing theories predict incompatible things. Random error masks genuine effects. All kinds of things happen that lead to null results.
You may be wondering at this stage — why am I calling finding null results a “failure”? Isn’t it scientifically meaningful to fail to find something? Theoretically yes! But practically, no. Not finding an effect is very unsexy, and immensely difficult to publish. Many journals outright refuse to publish null results at all — leading to what we call the “file drawer problem”. Non-significant findings go in a file drawer and wither in obscurity. Significant results get the spotlight.
This biases the scientific process in a major way. Literally dozens of researchers may have attempted to find an effect in the past, and failed, only to see that the one person who did manage to find the effect will be published. Failures to reproduce a researcher’s work may go unnoticed, while successes may also get publication and acclaim. Thus, the public, and scientists themselves, tend to have an inflated view of how much supporting evidence a theory or hypothesis actually has.
And all of this additionally means that you can be a really hard-working, careful, creative, productive scientist with bad luck. You can spend years running dozens of studies and get zero publications out of it.
Once you have successfully (and luckily) conducted numerous studies and generated significant results, you must submit your work to a peer-reviewed journal. The peer-review process, while masquerading as rigorous and objective, is similarly flawed and messy. (I will be publishing a separate essay on that shortly). It can also take years to complete, and involves receiving multiple rejections along the way before finally finding your article a home (and netting your CV a fresh publication line).
For many of us, it takes a year or more to conduct a series of between 3 and 12 studies, analyze them, write up their results, and prepare an article on them for submission. After submission to a journal, the article is assigned to an editor, and 2 or 3 reviewers. Reviewers, who are unpaid, may take months or more to provide feedback. Usually, they reject your article. If that happens, you have to submit to a new journal. Then you have to wait several more months for the reviewers for that journal to get back to you. And you can only submit to a single journal at a time.
If you’re fortunate, eventually your article will not be rejected. Instead, you may be asked to revise your work and resubmit it. The revision process can entail something as simple as fixing how the paper is organized and dropping in a few more citations; it can also be as complex as conducting 2 or 3 additional studies, analyzing their results, and writing them up. After you have conducted these revisions, you resubmit, and wait again. You may still be rejected, of course.
If you are accepted, the time comes to edit the work for publication. That’s another month or two of conversation. Then you need to work on formatting. The editor(s) may have questions for you about how to present your graphs, and what colors the bars in the graphs ought to be.
Once all this is done, you are assigned a publication date. It might be relatively soon — in a month or two. Or it might be at the end of the next academic year. Who knows! Usually it gets published online a bit sooner, but not always!
And while you’re navigating this lengthy process, you better be conducting new research, and writing new manuscripts, because years have passed and your CV is looking a little stale. And are you going to conferences? Are you doing reviews of other people’s work? Are you seeming productive in other ways? You better be.
This labor-intensive, disorganized process is required for academic success, but it is not paid. At all. That’s right! If you want to be a tenured professor, you are obligated to perform all these duties for free.
If you publish a journal article, or even write a chapter in an academic book, you do not get money. None.
A few years ago, my colleagues and I published an article, and were told that if we wanted the charts to be in color, we would have to pay for the color ink. In every single issue. We would have to pay to have our article run the way it was written. This was in a top-tier social psychological journal.
After you are published in a journal, the editor of that journal may ask you to serve as a peer reviewer. This is a great honor, in some ways; you are now one of the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge. You are seen as an authority, of sorts, on the subjects you study.
But it’s also anonymous, and not tied to your actual academic appointment, and you do not get paid for it. As a reviewer, you are expected to look over dense drafts, critique them, and write careful, fair reviews of the work contained within them. It’s your job to make sure the journal only publishes high quality work. And you do not get paid for it. And no one at the institution that actually pays you has anything to do with it. It is truly thankless.
All of this is true for publications that costs thousands of dollars a year to get access to. A subscription for an academic journal is a few hundred dollars a year for an individual, as an absolute minimum. Buying access to an individual article can cost $35–55 a pop. No researcher could afford this on their own. I’ve never met a human being who has actually shelled out money for access to academic research in this way. The only ones forking over money for journal access are universities.
Universities spend thousands of dollars per year acquiring access to hundreds of journals so that professors and graduate students can read the latest scientific work and conduct their own studies. Journal publishers make huge gobs of money off of this. And none of it goes to the people producing the content. The people who spend years collecting the data and writing the papers receive nothing for the trouble. The reviewers must volunteer to boost the journal’s rigorousness with their feedback. Neither party gets anything out of it.
Imagine if fucking The New Yorker did not pay its writers, demanded its editors work voluntarily, and charged $500 a year for access to its archives. Imagine if in order to do your job, you had to pay for this subscription, conduct and publish work that took thousands of hours to complete, and that received no pay in return. Suppose that all of this was required in order to even be taken seriously as a job candidate for a full-time position in your field.
If you’re in academia, of course, no imagination is required. This is the reality, and it’s never questioned or discussed. To even suggest that journal article authors be paid is unthinkable. We’re expected to love science and conduct scientific work for love (and for our future career prospects) alone. We are not expected to need to pay rent, get our cars repaired, or eat.
Whenever I raise this point among academics, I’m told that the position of professor is itself the payment for this work. Professors, in many institutions, are expected to conduct research and be productive; part of their salary is intended to support that. And it’s better to support a researcher being productive in general than it is to pay them per article, given that the article-publishing process is so slow and biased. I agree with all that. It’s all unquestionably true.
The problem is, salaried professors are not the only people doing all this work. Graduate students are expected to do it. Post-doctoral researchers are expected to do it. Adjunct professors, who are paid per class, and who often need to work at multiple institutions per semester, need to do it, and do it well, if they have a prayer of getting a full-time job, and health insurance, and maybe tenure.
Anybody who wants to break into the field has to devote years to producing good scientific work. And unless they’ve already been really lucky or successful at it, and gotten a job, they’re not being paid for it. That is fundamentally unjust. And illogical. It’s a barrier to a lot of good work getting done. And all of us, in academia, tend to act like it’s a thing not to be criticized or questioned.
It doesn’t end there. Let’s say you do submit some research to present at a conference, and you get accepted. You spend hours preparing an accompanying manuscript no one will read, put together a presentation, rehearse, practice responding to inane audience questions, and then make your travel plans. Your flight and hotel will cost hundreds of dollars. Your conference registration fees will be upwards of $200.
You are producing content for a conference that charges hundreds of dollars per head, and you’re paying out the nose to travel there and gain admission. And you are not paid a solitary cent. You just did a massive, highly prepared speaking gig, based on years of research, and you got nothing in return other than a line on your CV that no hiring committee is gonna find impressive.
And I’m not even going to get into how exploitative most university committees and “service opportunities” are. That’s an essay of its own, too.
Academic journals and conferences prey on their necessity, draining money and thousands of hours of free labor from the graduate students, adjuncts, post-docs, and professors that are obliged to work with them. It is an exploitative, wasteful, disrespectful pyramid scheme. In many ways, it mirrors a publishing scam more than a genuine intellectual enterprise. And it excludes scores of talented, hungry scientists from contributing to the literature in a meaningful way every year.
So how should we solve this? Should we pay authors when their journal articles are published? In the short term, maybe but I don’t think that’s meaningfully gonna fix things, for reasons that come down to the biases inherent to our current peer review process. I’ll describe those biases in greater depth in my next essay.