Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Postacademic Rant 3 - Journal Publication

I'm still around, but immersed in work projects this week and unable to come up with a coherent original post. So ... in accordance with my post last month, I think I'll take this opportunity to post another postacademic rant to keep everyone entertained until the writing bug bites me once again.

Since my most popular blog post around here continues to be "I Hate Research," I thought some of you would enjoy reading my angry thoughts about journal publication ... something that I've grown to conclude requires an irrational number of hours of work for something that has no tangible benefit to anyone or anything other than your own ego or CV.

Again ... these rants include cursing, and were written right after I made the decision to leave - therefore, the anger and frustration is pretty raw. So, language is pretty NSFW if you care about that kind of thing.

F*ck Journal Publication

So grad school and academia sounds immensely interesting and important, right? You spend years/decades conducting studies and writing up the results of your “groundbreaking” research, all with the grand purpose of changing the world and contributing to the breadth of existing knowledge in your field. It sounds sooooo immensely important and useful and interesting, doesn't it? I know it did to me, when I started grad school. I was going to study one particular social institution and set of social policies ... and my research was going to change the world. 

Then, of course, I got out of coursework and into the research portion of my career, and suddenly realized the ugly truth ... in order to advance my academic career, I had to publish all of my "groundbreaking, world-changing research" in academic journals that only a tiny portion of the world even knows exist and will ever read ... thanks to how obscure the journal's topics are, how arcane the academic jargon and writing style are, and how insanely high the subscription fees are. I slowly began to realize that even though I knew what an academic journal was, almost no one else in the real world had any clue ... nor had any idea how to find such things and read this "groundbreaking research" I was conducting.

How is it that that type of work is supposed to have an effect on anything? How the hell am I contributing to the “life of the mind” and the “larger academic knowledge” if no one even knows where my paper is published or can get access to it without shelling out hundreds if not thousands of dollars????? What purpose is all of this "important research" serve, if no one other than a tiny handful of other academics will ever read it? What purpose does that even serve???

Oh yeah, that’s right … it serves the purpose of stroking my own ego to see my name in print, and it serves the purpose of letting my department act like they are impressive because they have such a high number of research monographs in print. Whoop-de-do.

Most academics are not contributing to larger knowledge. They’re not out there being rewarded for making sure the public and the news media or policymakers understands their research. Nope. You spend months if not years writing some paper, only to have it gain approval by 4 or 5 professors/grad students in your field (probably not until after any controversial or truly "groundbreaking" aspects of it have been winnowed away in order to conform to the tiny niche area you're trying to publish in) … just to have it locked away in a journal no one can access, never again seeing the light of day.

I remember a few years ago, being at a conference and sitting in on a great presentation showing the benefits of desegregation programs on student outcomes. There was a guy in the audience from the US Department of Education, and he asked the author of the presentation/paper what he planned to do with it next. The clear implication was that the Department of Education person was interested in the paper and was hoping it would get out into the public eye.

The author’s response? “Well, I think I’m going to publish it in X journal, and then maybe do a slightly different version of the paper and try to get it published in Y journal.” The Department of Ed guy pushed back, trying to get the author to talk about what "real world" implications this paper could have, since it showed considerable promise. The author had clearly never thought of such a thing before ... this paper was an academic exercise to him, and nothing more. Even though he was ostensibly interested in "making schools better," it never crossed his mind to try to ensure that his research (which strongly suggested a way that schools could improve) would reach the outside world. It had obviously never even occurred to him that his research could have real world effects, or that policymakers might be interested.

This was completely baffling to me. Upon looking back, I think this may have been the moment at which I truly lost my interest in an academic career. I told everyone I knew about that experience ... and most grad students responded with "well, you know how faculty at R-1 schools are..."

Well, fuck that noise. What a load of crap. A faculty member at an R-1 school, with all of their research training and ability, is exactly the kind of person who should be strategizing about how to get his research out to the general public and to actual institutions who could use it whenever possible. It's fine if you want to write a few ego-stroking papers here and there. But ultimately, if you wind up with some important research that could actually help the world become a better place? What kind of self-centered freakshow doesn't even consider disseminating that research to the outside world?

Oh, that's right ... only a self-centered academic who is obsessed only with getting lines on their CV and mentally masturbating to other faculty about how awesome and smart they are. Who cares if anyone else can ever read your paper, as long as you know it's there and can use your "three hundred publications in top journals" to lord over all of the other academics in your field?

Only thinking about your own career, and promoting myths about the reach and importance that your work will have, while focusing only on getting published in obscure academic journals that no one reads?* That’s academia for you, and it’s fucking delusional and pointless.

I’d rather be a garbage person for the rest of my life than to pretend that this “groundbreaking research” in academic journals is at all important, or will ever make a differences outside of padding my CV. I'm done.

And if I wanted to write something strictly for my own benefit/ego, I'll write a novel or a play or posts for my blog. Hell, at least that will be entertaining ... oh, and no one will expect me to spend 20 pages giving kudos to all of the novelists/playwrights/bloggers who wrote some tangentially related material 40 years ago for a lit review. :)

Fuck publishing in journals.

(*My most high-profile publication came out five years ago. When talking about my CV, people often mention it as something I should be proud of. Do you know how many people have ever commented on the substance of that paper to me (other than my co-author)? An administrator at a school I interviewed with, and my cousin who is not in academia but works at a library. That's right, folks ... two people; neither of whom are academics. That's academic publishing for you.)


  1. To be fair, most academics would much rather get their work out there. However "publish or perish" is real, and you don't get points at tenure review for publishing in the wall street journal. I doubt most academics are publishing in such places to stroke their own ego. It is to get tenure, usually with the idea that they will worry about the public after that. (Very few remember when they get there.)

    Having said that, you forgot what to me is the most irritating thing about publishing in journals. The time lag. You submit something today and if you are LUCKY it might hit the journal in 2013. I know some fields are better than the social sciences, but I am still waiting for a paper from 2007 to come out. The information from it is hardly useful now.

    Oh, and the other thing about journals and the research enterprise in general. Whenever I would talk to practitioners in my field about my research they would look at me like I was an idiot. I was out there struggling to prove what they intuitively knew based on their experience, and they couldn't believe anyone either bothered or thought it was a good idea.

  2. Oh yes, that's a fair point ... I definitely don't think *everyone* is just ego stroking by publishing in journals. "Publish or perish" is definitely a real thing that contributes heavily to the singleminded focus on journal publication, absolutely. (Although I've definitely known a few people who seemed to enjoy seeing their name in print an AWFUL lot, as well. :)

    Forgive me - as I wrote in the intro post, these "rants" were written sometime in March or April, when I was far angrier at "academic types" in general than I am now. Now, I'm over that, and really just frustrated with the system (crappy job market, adjuncthood, and yes ... the publish or perish thing).

    Oh, and that's an important point about publication lag time. My most recent publication also used data that was nearly five years old and referenced a policy that had been changed significantly before the paper was published. It counted toward my CV, of course, (and let's face it, I doubt I would have had a tremendous impact on the policy direction... :). But still, any possible useful impact the paper could have had was long gone before it appeared in print.

    I think I focused more on the "this is pointless" aspect of journal publication because as a grad student, I was primarily interested in teaching. As a result, the "spending time to do basically nothing" part was what got to me me. Had I been more focused on research during my career, I'm sure I would have been comparatively more frustrated with the lag time issue.

  3. " I doubt most academics are publishing in such places to stroke their own ego."

    From my vantage point, this is right on.

    I had a prof my second year who told us this big story about his/her IMPORTANT JOURNAL ARTICLE from the 1980s--got her/him the job with our swell department, etc. etc.

    Looked it up. Only SIX citations since date of publication, three of which were the prof him/herself.

    So three people cited your "groundbreaking" study in as many decades? And you pretend that the work you're doing is meaningful?

    I'm outpublishing a lot of my grad school peers, but most of my pubs suck for various reasons (old data, PI's questionable methods or conclusions, lit review that was current way back when it was accepted--years before eventual publication).

    And the worst part? I've worked hard to publish because I thought it would make me more competitive on the job market. Turns out that some of the folks from our program are getting aced out on the job market by people with no pubs, but who have Dr. Famous Adviser or come from better schools.

    What a waste of time (or as one of our dept's profs recently wrote in an email to the department, "waist of time").

  4. Oops--what I meant to convey above, "From my vantage point, this is right on," was that actually profs ARE publishing in arcane journals just to stroke their own ego. The profs I know hold non-academic publication, or non-academic activities in general in very low regard.

    The worst part for me, in sociology (with the glut of marxists, feminists, critical race folks), is having to choke down all this rhetoric valorizing the activities of academics--these grad students/profs actually think they are activists (!) and believe they're changing the world--knowing that in practical terms, academics look down upon the unwashed masses and have no meaningful contact with them.

    The real activists I know all think academia and academic "research" is a joke. It's seems clear to everyone outside the academy that the point of academic research is to advance the career of the researcher, nothing more.

    I like this Reza Aslan interview excerpt a lot:

    NS: […] What can scholars do to be able to speak relevantly, the way you have, to the public—and to each other as well?

    RA: I’m very pessimistic about this. Academics have been reveling so long in their own private language, speaking to each other and not to anyone else, that it’s going to be very hard to break through the current paradigm.


  5. Your second paragraph in the most recent comment is one I completely agree with. Perhaps I'm speaking too broadly in making sweeping generalizations about "academics," but I completely agree that among sociologists, there definitely *is* a widespread assertion that their research "matters" and that they're "working to make a better world" ... which is laughable when you consider the audience for academic journals and (as you say) the limited contact those folks have with the outside world. That has absolutely been my experience, in my department/discipline.

    I don't know how much publications matter or don't matter for the job market anymore...I know that students from my department who have impressive publications have generally found jobs, but not top-ranked R1 jobs. I don't know if it can be chalked up quite so directly to pubs not mattering as much though...but rather to that idea of "fit" we were talking about a few months ago. There just are far too many qualified candidates for too few jobs. So people get left in the lurch.

  6. Aslan goes on to say that after the publication of his bestselling book, his department turned their back on him. I actually went to his school, and know that profs and grad students smirked when Aslan and his book/media appearances came up in conversation. All I could think, especially when it was profs doing the eye-rolling, was, "In your wet dreams, buddy. Your work will never garner that type of attention." Gimme a break!

  7. "I don't know how much publications matter or don't matter for the job market anymore...I know that students from my department who have impressive publications have generally found jobs, but not top-ranked R1 jobs. I don't know if it can be chalked up quite so directly to pubs not mattering as much though...but rather to that idea of "fit" we were talking about a few months ago. There just are far too many qualified candidates for too few jobs. So people get left in the lurch."

    One of the best ideas to come out of your blog is to search academic job postings. I've been doing it and they turn my stomach:

    Women's Studies. Okay, good. 1 hour+ drive from home, often in hellish traffic on a really sucky freeway. Okay, less good, but perhaps manageable. Need someone to teach in subfield for which I'll never get hired. Oh crap, nobody wants to hire a white, middle class feminist. Wants someone with specialization in a particular niche that I know absolutely nothing about and couldn't give a crap about. Get fucked.

    No fit here.

    Revisiting the delusional academics who think they're activists/changing the world trope...the profs at my school love to have their pictures taken holding microphones, like they're single-handedly rallying the masses to revolt. I know at least one of these great social movements folks bonged a highly qualified grad school applicant because s/he wrote about having a commitment to activism in his/her personal statement. Another great marxist owned a fancy house in the hills which burned down, and her/his grad students took up a pool so the prof and spouse would have new mountain bikes. A feminist grad student is continually baffled when I tell her how the non-academic folks I know talk about gender and sexuality--apparently she doesn't know anyone who didn't go to an elite school and who doesn't consider gender a "performance."

  8. "One of the best ideas to come out of your blog is to search academic job postings. I've been doing it and they turn my stomach:"

    Jeez. Don't comment when tired. What I meant was "search academic job listings (preferably years) before you actually go on the market."

  9. I'm so glad that you're looking at job listings already. I was completely blindsided by the market - up until I actually went out, I thought I could basically pick and choose where I'd want to live and would never find myself deciding on a one-year VAP contract in Nowheresville, Tiny State. I was sadly mistaken...

  10. Thanks for your contributions, JC. They make me think ... (I'm currently an undergraduate and thinking about whether or not an academic career would be the right choice for me.)