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