The pain, the pain

I should have written “I’m done!”nearly three years ago. I couldn’t face it. Finishing my PhD was soul-destroying. I had several changes in supervision* and a sizeable disagreement with my incoming supervisors about the work I had already produced, which resulted in a lot of wasted time. Simultaneously, I was becoming increasingly unsure about whether I really wanted to work in academia. Although my department (social statistics and demography) was lively and apparently well-funded, there were a lot of rather depressed and aimless PhD students in the building, and a number of excellent post-doc researchers scrabbling around for short teaching contracts and otherwise working for free in an attempt to increase their publication count.

In academia you must publish or perish. It’s clear to me that academic publishing is broken in a pretty fundamental way. Academics research and write the content. Some of them are paid to do this and some aren’t. Then more academics run the journals, acting as editors and editorial assistants, and sitting on editorial boards. Most of them are not paid, though a few receive an honorarium. Articles are submitted and then go out to reviewers (this is the ‘peer review’ process that everyone gets so excited about). These reviewers are also academics. None of them are paid for reviewing articles. Finally, an article appears in print. None of the people who produced it made any money, and none of the universities or funding bodies made any money either, but you can be sure that the publishing company did. (You can tell that it did by checking online – most academic research is held behind a pay-wall.) If I wanted to publish papers from my PhD now, I wouldn’t be paid for that labour.

Additionally, a big change is underway in academic journals, from a subscription model to ‘pay to play’. I first wrote about this in 2013. It’s clear (to me, to a Martian, to anyone really) that publicly funded research should be publicly available. So public funders (in the UK, that’s the research councils) have begun to insist on it. Journals have obliged by offering a ‘gold’ payment option, which allows academics to effectively pay the subscription fee themselves to allow their article to appear in the public domain. (By the way, of course it’s usually the research councils paying the fee, not individuals.) Alternatively, there is a free ‘green’ embargoed option, which a research council may be minded to accept instead. This gives the journal publishers some months to make money from the publicly funded article before it appears in the public domain.

Of course, nothing in academic life could be as simple as just ‘making research freely available’. As John Holmwood argues, this only really stands up well to scrutiny when there’s no money to be made directly from the research concerned. That might well be true in the humanities and social science, but is less likely to be true in the more eminently patent-able STEM subjects. In any case, my intention here is not to solve the problem, but merely to demonstrate its scope and apparent intractability.

Thus, if I wanted to make a career in academia, I would first have to do considerable unpaid work to produce the publications which are a prerequisite. In addition, since I no longer have funding or an institution from which to obtain funding, I would be limited in the journals I could target, assuming I didn’t wish to pay the ‘gold’ open access publishing fee myself. The (post-award) requirements of my (long since spent) funding require that I pursue open access publishing for my work, so I am prevented from choosing a subscription only journal.

Even if I could overcome these objections, my work would still have to pass a peer review. Since I haven’t worked on it for three years, I suspect that the first reviewer request would be to update my references. But I have only very limited access to academic research (that access comes from my undergraduate institution which funds an alumni subscription to JSTOR – god bless the University of Oxford and all who sail in her) which makes an update a particularly frustrating task. And if you want to read a no doubt excellent BMJ article on the problems of peer review, you’ll have to stump up £23.

And this is just ONE of the ways that we are funding and then losing perfectly good research and researchers. I may be back to enumerate the others. Or I may cut the strings and never look back. It remains to be seen.

*Through it all, the wonderful John Mohan never gave up on me and my research, and he still hasn’t. These days you can find his research group, the Third Sector Research Centre, here at the University of Birmingham.

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