What’s the Point of Academic Publishing?

Who reads poetry? (Photographer: Idle Ethnographer TM)

Who reads poetry? (Photographer: Idle Ethnographer TM)

What’s the point of academic publishing? It’s such an integral part of the academic role in the contemporary university that it can be jarring to step back and ponder a question like this. It was addressed by Sarah Kendzior in a great article recently,

Publishing and labor are two of academia’s most contentious issues, and they are usually debated separately. But when the rate of contingency hires and publications rise together—with the assumption that the latter is a means to avoid the former—they need to be taken as a broader problem: the self-defeating mechanization of scholarship. Scholars are encouraged to sacrifice integrity and ingenuity to careerism that does not reward them with a career.

Graduate students are told that publishing frequently and in traditional journals is key to landing a job. “In many if not most fields it is now necessary to have at least one refereed journal article while still ABD,” writes Karen Kelsky, Vitae columnist and academic advisor for hire, on her blog. But the harsh truth is that many scholars with multiple journal articles —and even multiple books—still do not find full-time employment. Academic publishing is no guarantee of anything, except possibly thepaywalled obsolescence of your work.

For tenure-track academics, publishing is a strategic enterprise. It’s less about the production of knowledge than where that knowledge will be held (or withheld) and what effect that has on the author’s career. But for graduate students and contingent faculty, academic publishing is less a strategy than a rigged bet.

With the odds of finding a tenure-track job against them, graduate students are told to plan for a backup career, while simultaneously being told to publish jargon-filled research in paywalled journals. Scholars who bet on that insular system find themselves stranded when that system fails them, as it does most. Appeasing academics means alienating alternatives.


Is it possible to reconcile writing as a communicative activity with publishing as a strategic enterprise? Is the strategic value of publishing overstated in an age of contingent employment within the academy? There’s something existentially compelling about Kendzior’s call to reclaim the intrinsic value of writing,

Making your work “count” on its own intellectual merit helps rescue you from the sense of personal failure that accompanies loss on the job market. When you orient your scholarship toward a future that never comes, it can start to feel like you have no future. When you orient your scholarship toward its obvious yet overlooked purpose—furthering human knowledge—its value does not need to be determined by others, because the value lies in the work itself. This is what counts.

But is there a risk that this could become a palliative, subjectively comforting while objective circumstances remain unchanged? Is it instead feasible to hack the system and find room for this meaningful authorship as part of a strategic enterprise?

Categories: Higher Education

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