This post is something I initially wrote for my newsletter. I had come across something that I wanted to write about even though I didn’t have a neat conclusion or lesson. I value freedom and autonomy. I know freedom and autonomy are important factors for many people who choose an academic career. I also value community and collective action, which makes me uncomfortable with some of the highly individualistic ways that freedom and autonomy get discussed.
A blog post I came across recently provides an entry into this intersection between academic freedom and collective work. It illustrates the ways in which grand values like academic freedom are constituted through mundane processes and practices. It also points to the ways in which struggles over workload and recognition may be the surface manifestation of struggles over deeper values.
The thought provoking situation
The subject of the post (What a Journal Makes: As we say goodbye to the European Law Journal) is the appointment of editors-in-chief of an academic journal. To emphasize the general issues, I will remove the names of the publisher and journal in my discussion. You can read the original post for the details of the specific case.
A disagreement between the publisher and the editorial and advisory boards of the journal arose when the publisher appointed new editors without consulting the editorial board or the advisory board of the journal. After an initial protest, the publisher agreed to a new process led by a committee of the board, but would not agree to formalize this process in the contract.
“It [formalizing the process] is a modest point, but one of vital importance: it clears the way to a model where Editors respond to the Board, not to the publisher, and where Editors work for the journal, not as remunerated contractors for the publisher. In other words, it is a fundamental condition for safeguarding academic autonomy.”
This dispute about a specific journal and a specific publisher highlights the tensions inherent in the involvement of commercial publishers in scholarly publishing. The proposal to contractually formalize a process in which editors are responsible to the editorial and advisory boards (made up of academics) rather than to the commercial publisher is based on a view of publishing as a service to the scholarly community.
“We saw [the publisher] as a prestigious publishing house that should be generously rewarded for services rendered to the intellectual project that is [the journal]. We saw sales and revenue and impact factors as slightly irritating but necessary means to the end of sharing that intellectual project with the wider academic community. And yes, we thought and still think that the intellectual project of the [journal] is ‘owned’ by the academic community of editors, authors, reviewers and readers whose efforts have made the [journal] into a leading journal of [the field].”
The thoughts it provoked
While this assumption may seem naive, especially in hindsight, it is more likely a deliberate lack of transparency on the part of commercial publishers which enables the exploitation of this market. Commercial publishers have an interest in maintaining some of the practices valued by scholars for reasons that extend beyond the voluntary (and thus cost-effective) labour scholars provide. The value of a scholarly journal depends on the perceived independence of the editors and editorial board, and of the process of peer review that they manage.
Furthermore, not all journals are published under the same terms, even by the same publisher. I am certain that some scholarly associations have made contractual arrangements with commercial publishers to publish their journals on exactly the basis outlined in the quoted passage. The scholarly association owns the intellectual property of the journal and licenses it to a commercial publisher in return for certain benefits such as access to international markets and member benefits. However, many scholarly journals were created by commercial publishers and the intellectual property is owned by them. (See Fyfe et al (2017) Untangling Academic Publishing for summary of the history of scholarly publishing.)
Academic freedom and the collective control of the intellectual project by those who contribute to it as “editors, authors, reviewers and readers” are the values underpinning the voluntary nature of peer review and other editorial work in scholarly publishing. Some recognition of the value of this work to the academic community may be given by your institution in your workload, especially if you are journal editor. Publishers may also offer some recognition of the value of the work to them through an honorarium paid to you, a financial transfer to your institution to pay for some of your time, or funding for an editorial assistant. However, the amounts are usually nominal. The rewards for undertaking this labour are intrinsic to the value of the collective project.
Thinking about this particular example and the issues it raises allows us to see the ways in which academic freedom depends on both legal formalities (e.g. intellectual property, contract terms) and more mundane practices like the willingness to participate in peer review, sit on editorial and advisory boards, and edit journals, book series, and so on.
This example also highlights the effectiveness of withdrawing your labour collectively to effect change. The initial agreement to change the appointment process was a result of the editors and Board resigning. When they were unable to secure a long-term commitment to academic control over the appointment of editors, they made the no doubt difficult decision to resign and create a different home for their editorial project elsewhere. If the intellectual community extends beyond editors and boards, your values may also inform where you give your labour as a reader, writer, and peer reviewer. Even if your choices are limited, it is probably a good idea to consider the terms of ownership and control when making choices about where to submit work and where to focus your peer review and editorial labour.
Change, like so many things in academe, will come slowly and require collective action. The first step is to notice the ways in which your values are supported or undermined by the various processes you engage with.
Originally sent to both the General Newsletter and the Client newsletter on 14 February 2020. It has been lightly edited.