The southern hemisphere’s cold weather is a certain signal that the winter conference season is upon us.
In the coming weeks academics — from many disciplines — will spend freezing nights in student dorms and days exchanging disciplinary gossip on the plight of the universities and on what is new in their chosen field.
But after these issues, the single most important conversation between them will be how to negotiate the regime of publication that pervades contemporary academic life not only in South Africa but also across the world.
The obligation that academic staff must publish is invariably presented as a virtuous thing. It is right and proper for academics to expand and extend the boundaries of their respective disciplines by publishing in outlets, as approved by their peers.
Moreover, a public that is often sceptical of the usefulness of universities is often told that academics publish in “the public good”.
But if academic publishing is so significant in the profession, why is it that the young and talented in the academy increasingly resist it, calling it formulaic, at best, and, at worst, a sweatshop?
And why is it that old academic hands are simply no longer interested in contributing to the peer-review system that is at the heart of the system and without which the standing of the entire industry will falter?
For one thing, there is a dark, manipulative side in the ceaseless pressure to publish. So funding agencies use publication records to distribute money or rank scholars. Meanwhile academic managers use the publication record as a means to bring individuals in line.
For another, the current system privileges the journal over the book. This is very damaging to the humanities.
If these reflect academic concerns, there are many, many economic ones. The costs of accessing journals — even in electronic form — punish university budgets because they strengthen the bottom line of publishing houses.
The devaluation of the rand against major currencies has only added to the cost.
But the deepest scandal — there is no other word for it — is that, on average, a published work may not be read or cited in the short term. Often it may take years before a paper is recognised in the global academic community.
Local South African policy is not very helpful either.
Take the state subsidy for publications: the department of higher education and training must be satisfied that the publication is “accredited” (the code word for acceptable) by criteria that sometimes seem arbitrary.
This leads to great confusion. Will that publication qualify for the subsidy? Who can say for certain? Some outcomes are confusing. So it is bizarre when a university hesitates to submit a book written by the country’s leading academic because it may not be “accredited”. Or worse, if a potential hiring by a university may be refused on the grounds that any potential publications would attract no accreditation.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that there are calls for a rethink not only of the industry as a whole, but also of the “publish or perish” syndrome that currently seems inescapable.
Let us be clear: research and publishing are the oxygen of academic life. But the regimes of control that surround contemporary approaches to publishing are choking creativity and, with it, the profession itself. —theconversation.com
Peter Vale is a professor of humanities and the director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Johannesburg and Steven Karataglidis is a professor of physics at the university