Response to George Monbiot’s Rant against Academic Publishers

In the US, we have the phrase ‘waving a flag and kissing a baby’ for somebody who plays to the gallery. And this is exactly what George Monbiot has done in his Guardian rant against academic publishing houses. Running neck-and-neck with the various teaching quality assurances and research assessment exercises we routinely undergo in the UK, publishers must lead the academic hate list. And while I don’t wish to defend – or even explain – the sort of profit margins that Monbiot cites, I do want to defend publishers as an important counterbalance to the inherently conservative character of such time-honoured academic institutions as peer review.

For his own part, Monbiot appears to be a blind believer in the value of peer review. Indeed, his article appears to have been triggered by the costs to his readers who want to check whether the peer-reviewed research he cites in his articles says what he claims it does. This suggests that if Monbiot’s readers trusted him more, he probably wouldn’t have been moved to rail against publishers in the first place. But I digress.

No one doubts that commercial publishers are in the business of making money. But the way they make money is by doing something that academics value but that they would not do for themselves, left to their own devices. What I mean is captured in two words: ‘innovation’ and ‘extension’.

Innovation: Peer review processes are about insuring the quality of knowledge, which is ultimately a backward-looking exercise — i.e. do the results follow from what is presented as evidence and what we already know? In contrast, innovation is about risk-taking, i.e. arguing that if you suspend or replace some of the old assumptions, you get more interesting results. This is classic entrepreneurship (a la Schumpeter) and publishers are always on the lookout for people who can write books and edit journals that will reconfigure the knowledge system in such innovative ways, resulting in new income streams. The success of cultural studies and gender studies in the 1980s was due more to visionary commissioning editors than the then-dominant academic gatekeepers. I speak from experience. Towards the end of that period, I founded a journal, Social Epistemology — still in existence after 25 years — that depended on just such an editor, since I had proposed the new journal while waiting to defend my Ph.D. (i.e. as someone with hardly any academic status).

Extension: Publishers, not academics, drive the textbook market. It seems that if academics had their way, textbooks would be abolished altogether as failing to contribute to how either teaching or research are assessed. Yet, textbooks remain very important symbols of the integration of teaching and research that is supposed to distinguish academic life from other forms of knowledge production. They are the most convincing indicator that academics produce a body of knowledge that a larger public should find out about. While it is fashionable to mock Anthony Giddens for having spent his career as a glorified sociology textbook writer, nevertheless that skill made it easy for him to speak to larger publics, thereby demonstrating the relevance of sociology. Indeed, I wonder had commercial publishing not played such a large role in steering the course of British sociology, would a public figure like Giddens have ever emerged, given the relatively parochial character of the discipline as it is institutionalised in this country.

Once again, I do not mean to justify Elsevier’s profits. But simply letting academics self-organize their knowledge flows is no panacea. Publishers provide an important counterbalance.

Categories: Articles, Higher Education

12 replies »

  1. Surely we could find examples of publishers stifling innovation and extension? That’s not to disagree with you necessarily though, and I wholeheartedly agree that Monbiot is playing to the gallery – I hope his rhetoric at least provokes more nuanced debate on the topic.

    Something else which is interesting and important (and I wouldn’t necessarily defend, other than note we need to consider…) is the role of publishers in the embargo process.

    A colleague recently self-published a (peer reviewed) report online. However, when he issued an embargo (so as to facilitate well-researched press on a complex topic) this was broken by a blogger who covered the report in rather a one-sided way, framing debate on it in a way that resulted in many people missing the main point of the report/ even mis-reading it.

    Journals and publishing firms can enforce embargoes with the threat of pulling all embargoed papers to press, a lone academic cannot do so nearly so easily, unless I suppose they organise with their university or learned society (some won’t give embargoed work to bloggers, but that’s a red herring in this story – many bloggers would happily play by embargo game).

    Obviously one option is to get rid of embargoes all together. Which there is an argument to be made for. But I doubt that’s going to happen soon.

  2. Muddled thinking here.
    Monbiot wasn’t talking about books but journals. There are lots of textbook publishers who don’t do journals. And while publishers may have been needed to start a journal 25 years ago, anyone can now start a journal on the web.

  3. Steve,
    Just a small point.
    “if Monbiot’s readers trusted him more, he probably wouldn’t have been moved to rail against publishers in the first place”
    Monbiot writes about issues so controversial that talking about ‘trusting the author’ becomes irrelevant. You might trust the author, but you MUST be able to check the facts if you are to reach an informed position

    • Exactly the point I was about to make. Academic research is not (or at least should not be) based on how much a reader ‘trusts’ an author. Rather, it is based on the readers’ ability to follow an author’s train of thought and logic.

  4. Sorry but indeed, this is muddled, and doesn’t add much to the debate. When reading an article that discusses a scientific research paper, I *always* want to check the original research paper if it’s available, so suggesting that Monbiot is untrustworthy because readers might wish to do the same is a little odd. In addition, the points about innovation and extension seem irrelevant. One example of “innovation” is cited from 25 years ago, and the “extension” is actually about textbooks, an entirely different can of publishing worms.

  5. All of this is nice, but Monbiot was making a blanket statement about academic publishing, and frankly given that he’s hardly hiding his candle under a bushel, he could simply e-mail the pdfs of the relevant articles to specific people who wanted to access the information. To me his article reads like a pet peeve (i.e. too many people asking Monbiot about evidence) amplified into a major problem. The jury is out as to whether academics can establish serious journals without the help of publishers — outside of perhaps quite narrow specialist fields where the practitioners all know each other. In any case, the entire mentality displayed in Monbiot’s article is wrong: The value of publishers should not be judged primarily by whether they make life easy for academics in their day-to-day activities. The proactive character of publishers as a counterbalance to the regressive tendencies of academics needs to be acknowledged.

    • Steve, I wouldn’t trust academics to self-manage publishing. But they don’t need to – they just need to make greater use of open access publishing (for which most funders will pay), AND university archives

  6. “he could simply e-mail the pdfs of the relevant articles to specific people who wanted to access the information”

    Sure you can do that because it’s an entirely private one-to-one communication. But the infrastructure which now exists to do this in a systematic and effective way (e.g. is off limits, assuming that the publishers have any inclination to actually police their pay walls.

  7. This seems an oddly tangential discussion to Monbiot’s main argument. I assume from the phrasing that the author of this piece is based in the US? I wonder if, because of this, he doesn’t realise the centrality to Monbiot’s argument of the issue of funding.

    In the UK (and many other European countries), all universities are public, state-funded institutions, and outside of the hard sciences most research funding also comes from the state. Therefore, as a European academic, my salary is paid by the state, and in return for it part of what I do is research and publish. Given that the taxpayer has already paid for me to do my research, Monbiot is arguing that they shouldn’t then have to pay (prohibitive) fees to read my research. It’s an argument which contains a great deal of force in higher education systems such as the UK, though I realise that in the US it may seem less pressing.

  8. Jilly, I think everyone here works in the UK. I work at Warwick, which is only 23% funded by the state nowadays, though we are officially still a ‘state-funded’ university. (By the way, that’s about the same percentage as for high-end public universities in the US.) There may be some European countries, where the taxpayer is still the majority funder of academic work but that will disappear too because it is economically unsustainable in the long run. In short, the old welfare state arguments have passed their sell-by date. Of course, there may be more general public good arguments for saying that knowledge should be made freely available to all, in which case academics can go ahead and organize themselves into peer groups and take to the web — and hope they get the respect and attention of everyone else. Interestingly, they’re not doing that in droves or with amazing success, Even though, by the logic of your argument, the taxpayer would have them do so. Clearly the issue is more complicated than Monbiot would have us believe.

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