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. Continue reading

Death To Open Access! Long Live Open Access!

A few weeks ago at the Millennium conference, some of us got together to talk about open access and the political economy of knowledge (re)production in our little corner of academia (“us” being Colin Wight, David Mainwaring, Nivi Manchanda, Nathan Coombs, Meera and me). Over the remainder of this week, we’ll be posting those reflections here for your delectation because, some discussion notwithstanding, labourers in today’s university-factories need to get talking about these things, and fast.

Open Access appears to be here. The Finch Report has recommended it, the Government has endorsed it, and there even seem to be some monies newly available for it. The battle is won, and the age of unfettered academic-public intercourse is upon us. Well, not quite. Finch’s preference for Gold Open Access, in which journals continue to receive revenues and make profits and in which academics (or their institutions) pay a fee of several thousand pounds per article for the pleasure (the so called Article Processing Charge (APC) system, which will receive greater attention in later posts), is deeply problematic (well-reasoned explanations for why available from Stevan Harnad and Peter Coles (Telescoper), with more qualified views, even cautious support, from Stephen Curry and Repository Man). Also, the monies aren’t new, and have instead been extracted from existing research budgets (and what a complete and utter surprise that is).

This is all cause for serious concern, and relates closely to the kinds of arguments that are developed and deployed in favour of Open Access (or, to be more provincial about it, Open IR). There are three kinds of arguments for opening up the journal system, arguments from access, ethics and cost, and we are in danger of letting the first overwhelm the different, and better, cases made in the name of the second and third.

The first set of arguments has to do with the problem of access: that the journal system is broken because it creates barriers to the circulation of academic knowledge. The journal as usually conceived was an ingenious and appropriate method for collating and distributing knowledge in the 18th century, but is now redundant. And yet journals – with their pay walls – remain the only (or at least the principal) vector for success or employment in academic life. This is doubly problematic since the various metrics that journal comparisons and prestige enable themselves then become vectors of discipline and control, even in the face of the many, many reasoned objections to such measures.

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Materialism and World Politics conference

Materialism and World Politics

20-22 October, 2012
LSE, London, UK

Registration is now open here for anyone who wants to attend.

Scheduled Speakers:

Keynote: The ontology of global politics
William Connolly (Johns Hopkins University)

Opening Panel: What does materialism mean for world politics today?
John Protevi (Louisiana State University)
More TBC

Closing Panel: Agency and structure in a complex world
Colin Wight (University of Sydney)
Erika Cudworth (University of East London)
Stephen Hobden (University of East London)
Diana Coole (Birkbeck, University of London)

ANT/STS Workshop keynote:
Andrew Barry (University of Oxford)

ANT/STS Workshop roundtable:
Iver Neumann (LSE)
Mats Fridlund (University of Gothenburg)
Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths, University of London)
More TBC


The annual conference for volume 41 of Millennium: Journal of International Studies will take place on 20-22 October, 2012 at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This includes 2 days of panels and keynotes on the weekend, and a special Monday workshop on actor-network theory (ANT), science and technology studies (STS), and alternative methodologies. Space for the latter is limited though, so let Millennium know of your interest in attending it as soon as possible.

The theme of this year’s conference is on the topic of materialism in world politics. In contrast to the dominant discourses of neorealism, neoliberalism and constructivism, the materialist position asks critical questions about rational actors, agency in a physical world, the role of affect in decision-making, the biopolitical shaping of bodies, the perils and promises of material technology, the resurgence of historical materialism, and the looming environmental catastrophe. A large number of critical writers in International Relations have been discussing these topics for some time, yet the common materialist basis to them has gone unacknowledged. The purpose of this conference will be to solidify this important shift and to push its critical edges further. Against the disembodied understanding of International Relations put forth by mainstream theories, this conference will recognize the significance of material factors for world politics.

Academia in the Age of Digital Reproduction; Or, the Journal System, Redeemed

It took at least 200 years for the novel to emerge as an expressive form after the invention of the printing press.

So said Bob Stein in an interesting roundtable on the digital university from back in April 2010. His point being that the radical transformations in human knowledge and communication practices wrought by the internet remain in their infancy. Our learning curves may be steeper but we haven’t yet begun to grapple with what the collapsing of old forms of social space means. We tweak and vary the models that we’re used to, but are generally cloistered in the paradigms of print.

When it comes to the university, and to the journal system, this has a particular resonance. Academics find themselves in a strange and contradictory position. They are highly valued for their research outputs in the sense that this is what determines their reputation and secures their jobs (although this is increasingly the value of the faux-market and the half-assed quality metric). This academic authority, won by publications, is also, to some extent, what makes students want to work with them and what makes them attractive as experts for government, media and civil society. They are also highly valued in a straight-forward economic sense by private publishing houses, who generate profit from the ability to sell on the product of their labour (books and articles) at virtually no direct remuneration, either for the authors or for those peer reviewers who guarantee a work’s intellectual quality. And yet all (OK, most) also agree that virtually nobody reads this work and that peer review is hugely time-consuming, despite being very complicated in its effects. When conjoined with the mass noise of information overload and the extension and commercialisation of higher education over the last decades, our practices of research, dissemination and quality control begin to take on a ludicrous hue. As Clifford Lynch nicely puts it, “peer review is becoming a bottomless pit for human effort”.

This is an attempt to explore in more detail what the potentialities and limits are for academic journals in the age of digital reproduction. Once we bracket out the sedimented control of current publishers, and think of the liveliness of intellectual exchange encountered through blogs and other social media, a certain hope bubbles up. Why not see opportunity here? Perhaps the time is indeed ripe for the rebirth of the university press, as Martin Weller argues:

the almost wholesale shift to online journals has now seen a realignment with university skills and functions. We do run websites and universities are the places people look to for information (or better, they do it through syndicated repositories). The experience the higher education sector has built up through OER, software development and website maintenance, now aligns nicely with the skills we’ve always had of editing, reviewing, writing and managing journals. Universities are the ideal place now for journals to reside.

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TRIP-ing the Geek Fantastic: A Note On Surveying Disciplinary International Relations

The preliminary results of the 2011 Teaching and Research in International Politics (TRIP) Survey for the US are out (this is a way of saying that if you’re not an IR geek, you’ll likely find what follows boring and/or incomprehensible). As well as feeding into the usual list fetishism for “those looking to run the world” (*barf*), there are also a number of questions pumping faculty for predications, threat listings and popularity contests (turns out Professors of International Relations rate George Bush Snr. as a better President than Obama, but have almost nothing but contempt for young W.).

The self-image of the discipline continues to shift within the American heartland, not least with respect to the Big Other of Realism. The 2009 TRIP Survey recorded the percentage of self-identified Realists among US respondents at 21%, with Liberals at 20% and Constructivists at 17%. Things have progressed some way since then, with only just over 16% now willing to call themselves Realist against a steady 20% of Liberals and a narrowly triumphant 20.4% of Constructivists (and given the rankings awarded to Wendt within the ‘top four scholars’ sections, the shorter TRIPS may be rendered more simply as: ALEXANDER WENDT MADE ME A CONSTRUCTIVIST). Agnostics and Refuseniks together continue to outnumber these main categories with 11.5% naming themselves ‘Other’ and a further 25.7% declining to name any paradigmatic preference (a slight increase, but essentially the same levels as in 2008).

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Affect! Biopolitics! Technology! Ecology!: A Call for Papers

A brief pre-holiday announcement of the next Millennium annual conference, to be convened on the theme of Materialism and World Politics. Full details below the fold. The range of suggested topics looks both fascinating and much-needed, and I am assured by well-placed sources that there will also be some stellar speakers, for those who are tempted by such things. As always, papers submitted in the wake of the conference which survive the rigours of peer review will be published in a resulting special issue (Vol. 41, No. 3). Also, don’t forget about the Northedge Essay Competition (deadline 30 January 2012).

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Rewriting International Relations

A small cascade of Millennium-related news and IR from Elsewhere. First, our very own Nick was recently elected as Co-Editor (with Edmund H. Arghand and Maria Fotou) to oversee the journal for Volume 41 (2012-2013) on the basis of a conference proposal on ‘Materialism and World Politics’ (full CfP details forthcoming soon). Second, the Millennium blog has had a facelift (ongoing tweaks to be made to its façade), so go have a look.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Northedge Essay Competition is now open. So if you’re a post-graduate student (PhD or advanced Masters) in IR or cognate fields, and you have some exceptional work lying fallow, spruce it up and submit. The deadline is 30 January 2012, and the winning essay will appear in Millennium 41(1). Previous winners have been very good indeed.

Fifth, the journal’s social media tentacles are growing, so do the following thing on Twitter and the liking thing on Facebook, if you are of that bent. Finally, a reminder that Millennium‘s weekly Editorial Board meetings are open to all LSE postgraduates (MSc and PhD) who are engaged and interested. If you fit that description and for some reason aren’t already involved, do email the Editors for details.

Elsewhere, BISA’s Historical Sociology and IR Working Group also has a new look, and a particularly awesome and growing resources page. And there’s now an Occupy IR Theory blog and associated hashtag (#occupyirtheory, natch), which is worth both a virtual engagement and a flesh-world contribution. Similarly, if for any reason you are unaware of David Campbell’s blog on visual culture and international politics, rectify yourselves!

Renounce Spoonfeeding!; Or, What’s Wrong With International Relations Textbooks Anyway?

Term is upon us, and with it new cohorts of students eager for the accumulated wisdom of IR condensed into textbook form. e-IR recently promoted two such texts, and I took gentle exception.

But what’s so wrong with textbooks anyway? It’s not so much the simplification itself. All theory (including some much-lauded high theory) does that. Nor is it any particular problem with the qualifications of the authors (the contributors to Baylis, Smith and Owens, for example, are pretty well the dominant names in their respective sub-fields).

Still, textbooks do seem to take on a strange epistemic authority, at least in undergraduate study. Confused by the relationship between ethics and self-interest in Morgenthau? Settle it with some bullet-points! IR is a young discipline, and none of its canonical texts approach the difficulty of, say, political, social or cultural theory proper. Any competence is going to come from understanding those texts, so why not do it sooner rather than later? Moreover, the relentless simplifications of the ‘paradigms’ debates (can we drop the mutilation of Kuhn yet?) provide an easy tool for obliterating complexity. This is not unrelated to a patronising attitude towards students, gently shepherded through the early years before being told harsher truths.

Textbooks, especially ones recommended at the start of courses as the intellectual crutches of choice, reinforce those dynamics. But it gets worse. Textbooks also lie.

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Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons

David, my erstwhile ‘parasitic overlord’ from when I was co-editing Millennium, points me to some posts by Kent Anderson of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, who defends the industry on a number of grounds from Monbiot’s polemic against the journal racket. The comments threads on both pieces are populated by academics who agree with Monbiot and by publishing industry colleagues who agree with Anderson (and who alternate between dismissing and being personally offended by the original Monbiot column). The core counter-argument is that this anti-corporate, out of touch, ‘wannabe-academic’ day dreaming is old hat, and stands up no better now than it did when it was demolished at some unspecified point in the past.

Most crucially, Monbiot’s central exhibit (that companies consistently make 30-40% margins on the distribution of work already paid for by the public purse) is almost entirely passed over. Anderson coyly suggests that maybe publisher margins are that high, but maybe they’re not. Despite working rather closer to the heart of matters financial than do the rest of us, he provides no settling of accounts either way. In any case, however much it costs, and however much publishers make, it’s good value, apparently by definitional fiat. Since libraries keep paying the money, and since academics keep submitting papers, it is ‘idealism’ (remember that?) to complain about the current balance of power.

This is the familiar circular logic of neoliberal reason: privatised arrangements are beneficial because they will make the system more efficient and less costly. But if the rate of profit does not fall in line with the expectations of open competition, then it must mean that the rates charged are true equilibrium prices. Nevertheless, complainants citing high margins are referred to the benefits of privatised arrangements and assured that competition will bring prices down. Even though £200 million each year, or 10% of all research funding distributed by HEFCE (the academic funding council for England), ends up being spent on journal and database access by academic libraries. [1]

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Beneath The University, The (Digital) Commons

UPDATE (8 September): In the comments, Lee Jones reminds me of the Directory of Open Access Journals, which gives some more info on existing outlets. Monbiot also tweeted details of a petition to make all publicly-funded research available for free within a year of publication, which you should sign (yes, I know it’s just a petition, but start somewhere OK?)

1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and doesn’t give you a key, the lock is not there for your benefit;

2. It’s hard to monetise fame, but it’s impossible to monetise obscurity;

3. Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.

Despite the focus on the artist and her output, Cory Doctorow’s three propositions for understanding copyright against creativity also speak to the products of the university (and both videos are worth watching). In short, the addition of copyright ‘protection’ to your work acts to restrict it, doesn’t actually drive higher resources to artists, and can’t really work in practice, thus requiring extending circles of criminalisation and monitoring. Contemporary copyright is a way of creating an obstacle course, one where the people who put in the work of limiting access are also the ones who you pay down the line for the access. In short, “they have created a problem that they know how to solve, and it works for them”.

In July, Aaron Swartz was charged under US federal hacking laws for downloading more than a few academic articles via MIT. It was about 4.8 million papers, since you ask. Wired reports that the penalty for this may amount to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Worse, there is some evidence that the prosecution is being driven by the state rather than JSTOR alone. He’s due in court this Thursday. After some germination, both George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre have entered the fray with astute and biting pieces on the profitable stupidity of these arrangements and their detrimental impact on the free exchange of knowledge, scientific progress, the public good, etcetera.

The problems of intellectual property and who gets to profit from it are general, but the scandal is in the specificity of different productive spheres. After all, an artist is not like a university lecturer.

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