Roughly a year ago, I embarked upon the ‘Way of Wendy’ – I used Wendy Belcher’s magic 12-week programme to help me draft and write my very first single-author paper, based on material from my thesis. Now, I’m on the other side of that process: the paper I started in January 2021 has just been published. It has been a really *interesting process, and I have some thoughts to share with you all.
Firstly, thank God for Wendy and her 12-week plan. When I got stuck, being able to go back and read some really sensible advice on what I was supposed to be doing helped SO MUCH. I cannot recommend her programme highly enough.
Secondly, the review process was crucial and really improved the paper – but it was very hard. I went through two rounds of revisions. By the time the first set of comments came back to me, I was so wound up and anxious that when I read them, my brain somehow filtered out all the good stuff and just left me with the criticism. I was so upset that I put the paper and the reviewer’s comments aside, feeling utterly dejected. I only picked it up again because I got an automated email from the publisher after two months informing me of the re-submission deadline. Then, panic drove me to re-read the comments… and they weren’t so bad.
I could see the reasoning behind the criticism. I agreed with most of it. The reviewers were actually really encouraging, and I saw they were giving me an opportunity to highlight an aspect of my work that I had deliberately played down. This experience resonated so closely with a story in Wendy’s book about someone else who thought the worst when they got an ‘R & R’ (revise and resubmit) on their paper: in Wendy’s example, the dejected author didn’t even read the journal’s communication, so assured were they of rejection! Then, their spouse arrived home, read the letter, and congratulated them on having their paper accepted. I really laughed at myself when I realised how similarly I had reacted.
Thirdly, academic publishing is broken. I knew that already, but every interaction with the system just reiterates and reinforces how problematic it is.
Let’s talk about who is doing the work. Academics, obviously. But what’s not obvious from the outside is that journals are often run by academics on top of their ‘day’ jobs. The editors, the reviewers, the authors – we’re all working on these jobs in addition to a regular workload.
These jobs – writing, editing, reviewing – are seen as integral parts of ‘being an academic’ and academic institutions expect to see evidence that their employees are active in these spheres. But very few of them will happily set aside time in the work allocation model for this work – which means it happens unpaid, out-of-hours.
A very few, very big, very powerful and prestigious journals are established enough that they have dedicated staff employed directly to do certain jobs. But the majority are run, edited, marketed, planned, written and reviewed by academics working on their own time. For free.
This is a lot of work. The only ‘return’ that we get is the prestige of having papers published and cited, and often the number of papers we have out directly impacts our chances of getting hired or funded – which is how we end up with ‘publish or perish’ as the status quo. Our chances of having a published paper cited increase if it is freely accessible – but many journals (which, again, only exist because academics work on them for free) are locked behind the paywalls of large publishing houses. So, you’d only be able to access the paper for free if you were already a member of an academic institution whose library pays for access to the journal.
In recognition of this problem, publishing houses have come up with another money-making scam: Open Access publishing. If you want your paper to be freely available regardless of whether institutions have paid for access to the journal, you can choose a licensing option which will instead pay the publisher directly to bypass the paywall. The publisher is seeking to recoup some profits, in the form of a lump sum, to make up for not charging people $60 to read a Pdf or for charging libraries for access to their own staff’s work. They do this by levying an ‘article processing charge’ (APC).
A rather innocuous term for such a bitter pill.
If you are employed by an academic institution, they may (note the indefinite) pay the APC for you. But only if you’re publishing in the ‘right kind of journal.’ Many departments have lists of specific journals that they prefer their staff to publish in, so heaven forbid that you’re working in an interdisciplinary space or taking a new approach. Creativity is not encouraged.
But if you’re like me, and are presently “independent” (AKA unemployed but with academic aspirations), then you have no institution to even ask about paying the APC. So, you cannot publish Open Access. So, fewer people will be able to download and read your work, so fewer people will cite it, so your cite-score will be lower and your Altmetrics will suffer and your job prospects will be lower.
Let’s just simplify that real quick: I do the work [for free], another academic reviews it [for free], another academic edits it [for free] and then we have to pay a massive, powerful, rich publisher to publish it. My paper’s APC was worked out at £2,375.00. That is completely unaffordable without institutional backing.
All this just leads me back to the point that many, many others have made before; academia is for the rich and privileged. There are locked gates at every step. And as frustrating as my situation is, I know that I am still more privileged than others, because I am supported financially by my long-suffering husband. Without his support, I would not be able to sit here and whine about the broken system, because I’d be living with my parents while working to make ends meet.
I know this type of blog post is overdone (as Paul G Raven said, “It’s a crowded genre” – thanks Paul) but I can’t change it so I just wanted to vent. And I have. And now, I shall go and play in my garden.