On Rejecting Journals

Kertesz - Man and Abandoned Books

Any excuse for an André Kertész image.

Yesterday, in an act of minimal defiance, I declined a request for peer review on the grounds that the journal was owned by Taylor and Francis, and therefore charges authors £1,788 per piece for open access, or imposes an 18 month restriction on repository versions. In the wake of the OA debate, this situation seems increasingly ludicrous: for the short term at least, an increase in journal profit streams, made possible by the sanctity of unpaid academic input. The principle (saying no to closed journal peer review) is not inviolable, but a reluctance to subsidise shareholders with free labour seemed an appropriate response to the current balance of forces.

So far so good, you might think, but there is a lingering issue of ethics. It was suggested, following a previous act of review rejection, that some hypocrisy might be at work. Am I not proposing the withdrawal of a service that others would perform for me without complaint? Since the infrastructure of the academy rests on the provision of reviews, and since academics benefit from having their published work certified, submission to any closed journal, without providing reviews to the same, is tantamount to parasitism. A use of colleagues’ labour without returning the favour, all easily accomplished in an accounting system that positively celebrates the anonymity of authors and reviewers.

The most forceful of open access advocates would point out at this stage that the answer to this dilemma is pretty straightforward: don’t review for closes access journals and don’t publish in them. Simply move your labour – writing, reviewing, editorial board-ing – as quickly as possible to the more open journals. The more of us who do that, the quicker the transition to proper open access will be. This is true, but it won’t quite do. For two reasons.

First, whatever is to be wished for, the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences currently lack open access journals prestigious enough to make submission to them a low cost option in the economy of reputation. This is a corollary of the market dominance enjoyed by closed journals: scholars are penalised if they step outside of this reputational system. This point that has been raised before, and clearly depends considerably on the exact field, and the national context. On the UK scene, even where academics stress that they themselves would never pre-judge a piece by publication venue, they usually hold that someone else (the Big Other of the REF, policy makers, ranking systems, managers) will, and so they are driven to conform in any case, thus becoming entangled in a chronic game of second-guessing. More clearly still, this disproportionately affects junior and precarious scholars, who have most to lose by moving outside a system still primarily functioning according to logics that precede them.

Second, and more crucially, journals are not just empty vessels, and are not interchangeable in content, editorial policy or audience. This is perhaps more so for disciplines where articles do other than report the results of an experiment. Scientists may struggle to understand this (and are predisposed to diagnose it as an intellectual failing) but pieces in, say, international political theory, are interventions of a kind that will not be equally welcomed regardless of a journal’s Editorial Board or publication history. More bizarrely still, that this is not a function of bad faith or mendacity on the parts of Editors (even if that may sometimes be the case), but is a feature of the subject matter itself. Reasonable people, in other words, disagree. The variety of journals is thus both an example of ‘camp structure’ to be bemoaned, but also a guarantee of plurality. There is an element here of self-fulfilling prophecy, since journals with a reputation for hostility towards particular sub-fields will get less of those submissions, and policies may be more open than is often assumed.

But there is still a difference in journal audiences, and this cannot be dismissed merely by proposing a super-repository (although that would certainly help). The desire to be read in a certain tradition, and in the wake of particular historical arguments, is not unreasonable. The same piece will simply not be seen by the same colleagues (or publics) in International Security as it would be in Millennium as it would be in Signs as it would be in Political Geography, and so on. It is tough enough to get published at all without ruling out whole swathes of valuable journals because they are corporate. This perhaps paradoxically puts otherwise marginal and disenchanted academics more dependent on closed journals, since welcoming spaces with some reputational clout are a rarer commodity. And it proves seductive for new initiatives too, as in the case of  Transgender Studies Quarterly, which was successful in a Kickstarter campaign to fund its incorporation with Duke University Press. We can afford some disappointment that open access did not seem viable to the Editors, but their argument – that a nascent and misunderstood sub-field in some sense needs the cache of a university press[1] – will seem unreasonable only to the most blinkered of enthusiasts.

Those might alone be good reasons to doubt the efficacy of a Costs of Knowledge-type boycott of closed journals (and, worse, many will not embrace a boycott out of straight-forward cowardice). But if we do want to initiate some kind of movement at least, a more subtle strategy might be to slowly re-align resources towards the least-bad-offenders and make clear our reasons when doing so. Cambridge University Press, for example, seem to be the best closed journal host, Sage somewhere in the middle, and Taylor and Francis and Elsevier the worst when it comes to openness. So publish with the best wherever possible, always turn down the worst for peer review, and help out more radical initiatives whenever it is in your power. And try and keep yourself honest in your judgements. Commit to a soft boycott, if you will.

If there is a hypocrisy here, let it be a strategic hypocrisy, one which admits itself openly whilst pointing firmly at the Naked Emperor. Because it is that context, that structure of incentives and privatisation of knowledge, that system of academic accounting, which produces the situation. Any advice, especially to young researchers, that they should publish open access regardless of the context (because it is the publicly good thing to do) is bad advice, and sacrifices individuals to a one-dimensional analysis of the journal system. Indeed, the idea that academics should be bound by an ethic of reciprocity in a system which seldom upholds it in internally (within the university) and positively celebrates its absence externally (in the market) borders on the ludicrous.

Back, then, to collective action problems in the systematic transformation of intellectual economies. Yes, this is to play a game or sorts: to seek the most from a set of choices stacked against you (or rather, stacked artificially to force a choice between popularity and prestige) whilst still committing to a change in the coordinates. But so what?

[1] In their own words:

One important consideration, however pretentious it might sound, is prestige and respectability. Because our goal is to change the way the world thinks about transgender issues, we are marshaling all of our intellectual and cultural “capital” to create an authoritative, peer-reviewed publication venue with an elite university press, with an editorial board filled with accomplished and well-credentialed scholars, so that we have the most credible and persuasive voice possible in the marketplace of ideas. We think this is especially important given the newness of transgender studies as a field, and the stigma often attached to transgender lives. We are determined to produce a journal that demands to be taken seriously. Duke gives transgender studies a lot of credibility.


14 thoughts on “On Rejecting Journals

  1. I think this is a sophisticated and defensible position which I will adopt myself. The caveat would be that, clearly, such variegated individual responses along these lines won’t be enough to secure the goals sought. So, this is only a partial and incomplete response to the OA issue; the other side has to be a collective project that overcomes some of the limitations individuals face (precarity, economy of reputation, etc) and makes a more forceful intervention. This could involve, for example, the founding of a PLOS-type OA journal in IR, sector-wide boycotts of the worst publishers, etc. I may be out of the loop here but I don’t seem to see any such collective response taking shape, despite all the widespread muttering around OA.


  2. I think your response is pretty spot on and your “hypocrisy” the reality of having to address the issue at two levels. In addition, this gets me thinking about the OA problem as a whole. The journal and peer-review systems were instituted as a way of professionalising higher education (first and most forcefully in the US as I understand it) and avoiding undo interference in research from heads of private and public universities, their funders and political backers. The creation of a profession with internalised standards of quality, which require expertise to judge, was intended to insulate academics from both market forces and political interference. Yet, unsurprisingly, what we’ve seen is a move for private corporations to benefit from the maintenance of academic standards and the search for professional reputation. And now the profit seekers have managed to game the system such that academics cannot opt out of these profit structures without also opting out of their status building structures and risking their place within their profession.

    Once we see things this way round, two things look different (to me at least). First, the push back against open access is stronger in the humanities and social science because publishers are really the only ones able to commercialise the research knowledge (by selling it back to (a) the public/students and (b) the professionals who produce it as a library resource), while in physical sciences the profit to be made is in using research for commercial purposes, so their is an incentive to use public resources to develop potential business resources – public grant money funding science published in open access journals, which feed a number of larger corporate interests. Publishers are too small and poor to really manipulate the system here. Second, the notion that the humanities and social sciences just need to catch up – both the academics and the publishers – is a nonsense. It is not due to a lack of intellectual/academic culture in the humanities and social sciences, nor is it due to a lack of technological access and know-how, it’s that publishers are able to squeeze academics in the humanities and social sciences in ways that they would never be allowed to squeeze academics in the physical sciences – we’re on the leading edge of knowledge marketisation rather than a backwater.

    And I think this also makes some sense of the strangeness of the whole open access initiative here in the UK that makes it somewhat harder to develop a strategic response. First, academics are split and the already weaker humanities and social science crowd is seen to be behind the curve by other academics – hence all the “just go open access” comments. Second, because journal and peer-reviews are about professional reputation the difference in how this is measured between different subjects/fields puts those who do depend upon communities of interpretation in a bind as they seek to build and strengthen professional reputation (the transgender studies journal is a great example). Third, it becomes impossible to argue against open access because (a) our professional reputation and (dwindling) independence is actually premised on the idea that academic work is publicly valuable (hence we (ideally) can’t be fired for what we write, as long as its professional) and (b) the public should have access to the work that it (theoretically) funds. What can’t be talked about properly is the role of for profit publishers as vampires on our profession – to the point that there’s this defence of the system that says “paying reviewers would sink us” or “if not us, then who?” – when the alternative seems bleeding obvious… take the money that libraries pay to publishers, rake back the chunk of that outlay that goes to the often quite impressive profit margins of the publisher, then use those resources have non-profit university publishers run the journal and university press system, in which we can give our labour as expert reviewers for free to each other (rather than for the profit of a corporation). I can’t see another way to shake of the vampiric publishers and align the values of the publishing system with their purpose as way of building and maintaining professional reputation. But I can’t see these changes happening other than by political opposition at a professional level – pushing back against corporate raiders and defending the independence of the “academy” more broadly – no easy feat… but I suppose two things make this tactic perhaps more plausible: (1) appealing to academics as members of a profession with a distinctive set of interests, and (2) potentially generating solidarity among academics who are politically opposed but can agree on maintaining their professional status.

    None of that deals with the question of whether we should be maintaining our professional reputation – or doing it in the way we have done – of course. Aside from shooting off, a question – in the open access work, have you heard much from legal scholars? They seem to depend on the journal system in a way that is similar to the humanities and social sciences but there seems to be a lot more open access – in my own work I notice that legal scholars often have their publications hosted (in the publication version) on their websites, completely free to access. I’m wondering if they have a model that could be instructive, as their practice is more similar to our own than the natural sciences.


  3. There is a mid-range tactic which I think would be relatively achievable in terms of the current parameters of academic agency, which is to migrate the journals that we can over to existing non-profit-type publishers. I’m interested in hearing what everyone thinks about this, for example: http://www.ubiquitypress.com/ubiquitypressmodel Although it is an author-pays model, £100 for those that can afford and not for those who can’t seems like a good direction to move in from the present system.

    The obvious comeback from some of the journals is that they depend on subscription income to support learned societies etc, so of course another pillar must be the weaning of learned societies off that particular income stream. But that’s only some, and not all of the journals. There are also some journals which are more substantially ‘owned’ by particular presses in that they set them up – I don’t know about specific contractual arrangements but they would be harder to unseat. And of course, many journals and editors receive more specific emoluments in the form of conference funding and books etc which they will be unwilling to give up.

    All this being said, we can raise awareness and pressure amongst the community for a migration of journals to existing better infrastructure whilst the endogenised platforms emerge.


  4. Re Joe’s comments. Disciplinarity comes in here. Those disciplines that have managed to maintain a disciplinary guardianship have less interference from outside because they can still claim to be the judges of their methods, etc etc. (eg anthropology). Those that have become subsumed under interdisciplinary (read “applied studies”) studies are more open to governmental and commercial control for the opposite reason. (Read “security studies” and how under new labour that made IR an appendige to gov. at the same time as it expanded massively). IR of course is not a discipline (in UK context). it is applied studies (how to sort out war in an oxbridge kind of way). So is screwed. :O How to deal with that? Must be part of the reasoning on the open issue thing.


    • Exactly, Robbie… though leaves me with utopian schemes of new disciplines, new journals, new spaces away from the structures that have evolved and corroded in a way that’s not functional for any kind of worthwhile intellectual or disciplinary ethos, especially one that’s a retrenchment of the previously problematic and privileged ethos of the “academy” we never knew but which persists as myth… but utopianism in this contexts just feels like an angst absorber rather than a practical outlet for the energy generated by frustration.


      • Also very much in agreement, and this must be the continually stressed horizon of our possibilities. And there will always, I hope, be some who are willing to act concretely towards these ends (in their teaching, their professional networks, in what they write and how they describe their interventions). Following Joe’s last point, I think this has to be made concrete by also continually asking “what can be done about this now?” and, perhaps more importantly, “what can be done about this that generalises, rather than feeds marginal identity?”.


  5. I guess what I’m also saying is that open access has a relationship to methods. open access and open methods are a commercial dream. you’ll have noticed how many emails you’ll have been getting from new exciting open access journals in the interdisciplianry study of interdisciplinary multiness. if we do this applied studies called IR, then is it altogether progressive to big up open access? but closed access and closed methods = scholastic caste-ness of the worst kind. what else might there be (already happening)?


  6. “take the money that libraries pay to publishers, rake back the chunk of that outlay that goes to the often quite impressive profit margins of the publisher, then use those resources have non-profit university publishers run the journal and university press system, in which we can give our labour as expert reviewers for free to each other (rather than for the profit of a corporation). I can’t see another way to shake of the vampiric publishers and align the values of the publishing system with their purpose as way of building and maintaining professional reputation.”

    Nice. It is already happening. In political ecology, there is a Journal (of political ecology) in english that I edit, one in french, and one in spanish. The last two are not quite outside the ‘system’ (delayed OA on the latter), but academics have basically cornered this area themselves, and cut out the middlemen.


    • Because ‘green’ is not a single policy, but one that varies widely depending on journal, and may mean 2-3 years of closed access, depending on HEFCE decisions. I am aware of the arguments for ‘request’ buttons, but would prefer a system where more was available, quicker. The argument for ‘green’ in the current coordinates is indeed a strong one, but that’s not really what this piece is about.


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