The Politics of Journal Publishing in Cultural Studies

by Jonathan Sterne on May 3, 2010

Thanks to his blog, I learned that Ted Striphas’ important, horrifying and inspiring piece on the politics of academic journal publishing–“Acknowleged Goods”–just appeared in the Journal of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. (And I agree with Jason Mittel, the first commenter, that he should just post the essay for people to read.) The same post also makes mention of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “Googlization of Universities” piece.

There are several things I like about Ted’s essay. The section on alienation nicely critiques not only the substance but the mechanics of the contracts we sign when contributing to journals or edited books. Basically, presses create a fake sense of urgency with contract signing so that you don’t consider carefully what rights you are signing away. This is probably one of the most nefarious aspects of the whole process. Ted writes that they are playing to authors’ guilt about possibly holding up an issue (as your signature will be the big bottleneck in the process) but there is also the coercion factor–that many authors who do not yet have tenure feel that they are not in a position to negotiate for their rights with publishers.

Since becoming radicalized around this issue (and thanks for including my story, Ted) I have systematically raised the issue with publishers through attaching a simple SPARC Authors’ Addendum to my publication contracts. Surprisingly, many presses are extremely inflexible regarding the two basic rights I think all authors ought to have:

1. To repost an electronic offprint of the published article on a personal or institutional website.
2. To automatically have the right to include the work in a larger work of your own (with or without substantial revision), as is often the case where an author will contribute a book chapter to someone else’s collection and also use a very similar version in his or her own forthcoming book.

Part of me wants to simply refuse to publish with any entity that does not grant me those basic rights, but the reality is that my own sense of obligation to friends or younger scholars in my field (to whom I might contribute an essay in a collection or special journal issue) probably will lead me back into the fold. And I know that open access isn’t an easy solution either because there are real funding issues if we want to make open access a sustainable model. But the idea that my scholarship is “work for hire” for a for-profit press that pays almost nothing is totally unacceptable. In one case of a book chapter I offered to refuse the nominal $200 fee for my essay if the press would grant me the two rights above. Tellingly, they didn’t think that was such a good deal. So why should I? And I had a little argument with the editors about authors being paid for their work. I am paid for my work by a public institution in the form of a salary. But that would suggest that my work ought to be publicly available. . . .

Ted’s work on the cost of institutional subscriptions and the implication of major publishers in larger conglomerates is also salutary. Anyone concerned with the future of publishing should read the piece and reflect upon his or her own publication practices.

I suspect that the old journal model in the humanities will eventually fall away anyway because once you eliminate the need for a bound codex to be mailed to hundreds of addresses on a quarterly basis, all sorts of things can happen in a digital environment. It is clear that the main obstacles to innovation in this realm will be entrenched forces who have a vested interest in reactionary intellectual property politics or hypertrophying some aspect of the status quo.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: