You just got the journal editor’s email. Your article was accepted. Congratulations!
Now what happens?
The next steps used to be automatic: sign your author rights over to the publisher, check your proofs, wait for the article to appear and then bask in glory -- or at least update your CV and tenure file.
But times have changed. Institutional mandates for open access, rising awareness of author rights and growing options for disseminating work online mean that automatic assignment of author rights to publishers is not always desirable, or even possible. At the same time, dwindling institutional subscription budgets, increased pressure on corporate publishers to show profits and dependence of small scholarly associations on journal revenues mean that publishers scramble to capture as many salable rights as they can.
As a consequence, authors increasingly find themselves negotiating with publishers to see their work to completion, even after they successfully navigate academic peer review.
This situation is bad for authors, who start at a huge disadvantage in any negotiations with publishers. Multinational corporate publishers work with hundreds of journals and thousands of authors at once, and few journals are short of submissions. Publishers can always walk away from the table and wait for a more compliant author to come along.
But for authors, a decision to walk away involves a variety of unsatisfactory compromises. Starting over at another journal triggers another peer-review cycle and incurs costly delays. There’s no guarantee that the next journal will be more open to negotiation. And author-friendly alternatives, such as new open-access journals, often lack the prestige of more established journals. In an academic world with tightening job markets and rising tenure requirements, these compromises can have negative career consequences.
Turning authors into negotiators after peer review also undermines the peer-review process and threatens editorial autonomy. Once an article has passed peer review, there is no good academic reason not to publish. Peer reviewers and editors have agreed that the paper should be published. The academic decision has already been made. If publishers respected the peer-review process, academic decisions would be final, and publication would be a reward for academic quality.
Instead, publishers increasingly use academic decisions as business leverage to extract more concessions from authors before publication. For example, in my own field, the sociology of religion, both leading subfield journals have recently reduced the scope of rights granted back to authors by significantly extending embargo periods on published articles. Both journals have also moved to web-based publication agreements, making it difficult to attach the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition addendum that helps authors retain important rights. Things are getting worse, not better.
So how do we fix these problems? How can we keep the power of peer review in the hands of academics? How can we start leveling the playing field for authors?
It’s a big challenge. Any solution needs to empower authors to walk away from negotiations without incurring career-threatening penalties and to offer a way to leverage academic decisions for the benefit of authors rather than publishers.
My suggestion? Make journal acceptance portable.
This solution is radical, but it’s not complicated. Making journal acceptance portable means that journals would honor acceptance decisions from other journals, publish those articles without additional peer review and explicitly credit the original journal’s acceptance for publication. This solution could be applied to existing journals with more generous publication terms or to new open-access journals designed for maximum author flexibility.
How would it work?
For illustrative purposes, let’s say we start a new open-access journal called the Journal of Prestige Redistribution.
First, the editors of JPR would make a list of trusted journals. That would involve reaching a working consensus about, for example, the most prestigious journals for a given field or subfield. The trusted journal list would establish JPR’s scope and would assure readers that every JPR article originally passed peer review at a prestigious journal in their field. Articles accepted at trusted journals would automatically be eligible for publication in JPR, without further review.
Second, JPR would establish a protocol for verifying that a paper successfully passed peer review at a trusted journal. A model for this protocol already exists. Publons, a service that gives credit to reviewers for reviewing journal submissions, verifies those reviews using the confirmation email from the relevant journal. Following that model, authors who wish to transfer their acceptance to JPR could simply provide JPR editors with the acceptance letter from the journal’s academic editor.
Third, JPR would publish accepted articles without further peer review, giving explicit credit to the journal at which peer review took place. For example, JPR might publish each paper with a header or footnote that says, “This paper passed academic peer review at Leading Academic Journal. Subsequent to acceptance, business negotiations with Corporate Journal Publisher broke down.” This notice would guarantee the visibility of the paper’s peer-review pedigree and reinforce the distinction between academic merit and business interests.
Ideally the resulting publications would combine the best parts of our current scholarly publishing system: the imprimatur of established, prestigious journals and the author-friendly policies of newer alternatives. By making acceptances portable, JPR-like journals could empower authors to negotiate from a stronger position, knowing that walking away would not mean starting over. And, as the (hypothetical) name suggests, JPR journals could liberate from any given corporate publisher the prestige that quality academic peer reviewing provides, restoring editorial autonomy to the publishing process.
So why not do it?
One objection is that academic editors who are hard-pressed to find peer reviewers may see a JPR publication as free riding on their peer-review process. But arguably every paper rejected after peer review is also a free rider. Making acceptances portable likely would have little effect on submissions or editorial workload. But it would put pressure on publishers to improve terms and conditions for authors. Admittedly, that pressure could create awkwardness for editors who cooperate with publishers to limit author rights.
Then, of course, there is the possibility of fraud. An unscrupulous author might find a way to forge an acceptance email, for example. Or an author could attempt to publish a different version of the paper than the version originally accepted. Those are legitimate problems, but they are not distinct to the JPR model. Perhaps even you have pulled out a few paragraphs from the final version after satisfying reviewer No. 2?
Probably the biggest objection is that corporate publishers will see portable acceptances as a threat, thereby becoming motivated to alter their submission terms and conditions or enforce new rules on editors and reviewers, in order to prevent JPR-like journals from succeeding. But corporate publishers already see challenges to their business interests as a threat. Academics are not obliged to defend those business interests.
Which brings up a final concern. Who will step up? Editors, authors and professional associations are all entangled in a scholarly publishing system that increasingly favors corporate publishers over academic contributors. Reform by any individual, editor or association is difficult. Defending academic interests requires mobilizing supportive communities and institutions. It’s possible that academe just isn’t ready to support a JPR proposal.
Whether we’re ready or not, scholarly publishing is changing. We don’t know exactly what future changes will look like. But we must be willing to explore options that benefit authors and support academic autonomy. Sure, some options might disadvantage some publishing companies or threaten established status hierarchies. They might even make some enemies. But they also might create a more generative, equitable and author-centered academic publishing future.
I’ve recently completed a stint on the English department hiring committee of my home institution, the U.S. Naval Academy. I’ve read hundreds of written applications for positions in our undergraduate institution, and over the 29 years I’ve taught there I’ve seen dozens of those invited to campus to present themselves and what they do.
What we do at Annapolis is a little different than at many undergraduate schools -- a combination of community college with more esoteric studies. We do offer an English major and honors major, but we still primarily exist to teach the required two-semester English writing-and-literature introduction to freshmen, who by and large are bad writers. (Our average verbal SAT scores, for those who still think in these terms, are about 630, with many in the 500s and even 400s.) What we do at that level is basic. Many freshmen (called “plebes” at Annapolis) assure me that “you can say anything you want about a poem” and have never heard of iambic pentameter. They write papers with no clear thesis and full of mistakes ranging from sentence fragments to utterly misused words to verbs that don’t agree with subjects and modifiers so misplaced the reader gets the opposite information of what was intended.
It sounds depressing, but welcome to reality. Still, we are hiring for tenure-track jobs, and all but a very few hires do subsequently get tenure. So our situation is attractive in today’s beyond-abysmal job market -- not to mention the fact that our campus is pretty and our students at least overtly respectful and snappily, if uniformly (get it? -- it’s military!), dressed.
All our candidates write letters and send CVs and writing samples, and a tiny fraction of these arrive to give us presentations that always highlight and explain their “research” in graduate school (or beyond for those out for a few years). This is almost always on the pattern of “Concept X borrowed from theory Y is applied to works A, B and C that have something in common: time, author, country/group of origin, leading to this result: Z.”
Some are more clever than others; the most aha-inducing of them pull an unexpected rabbit out of a hat. These works show that certain a widely held view is in fact untenable, with the clear subtext of: come to my class and read these works the way I teach them to be led inexorably to this conclusion, too. Well, I always think, that kind of limits the people who will see the world that way, doesn’t it?
These applications and presentations are the more predictable in that the concept X that is applied to A, B and C is chosen from the same short list of thinkers who have dominated English graduate programs for the last 70 years (in case you need to ask: anti-imperialistic, anti-realistic and anti-phallocratic). It’s astonishing to me that the thinkers who were riding high when I first entered this business in the ’70s still hold a death grip on young minds. In all that time, we haven’t gotten beyond the magical pairing of Derrida, who taught us that the world was really a written text taught in a classroom (no prize for saying why this is so attractive to literature professors) and Foucault, who gave marginalized groups a vocabulary for showing how texts had wrought their marginalization (and so how attacks on these texts could, apparently, reverse that situation). It’s all about texts. You are freed by my class: read my dissertation, hire me!
Perhaps it’s my Fulbright time at the Free University of what was then West Berlin that taught me to be suspicious -- from my journeys over the wall to East Berlin and by following its literary life -- of the necessity of giving a sheen of legitimation to everything by quoting from the short list of what the Party viewed as approved thinkers. There in East Germany, it was Marx, Engels and Lenin. Now it’s the cargo cult of Derrida and Foucault, the bringers of the gospel having long since departed.
The big question in hiring somebody right out of graduate school is thus always: Can this person come out of the graduate school bubble enough to deal with teenagers who have never read serious literature and don’t particularly want to? Can she deal with the fact that nobody she’s talking to (except the three people who come to listen to her paper at the Modern Language Association conference) has ever even heard of the people who seemed so important to her for so long?
Some Ph.D.s can, some can’t. Since, to balance the books, research universities rely on graduate assistants teaching undergraduates (as well as on the gypsy scholars post-Ph.D. that most of these graduate students will become), many are, in fact, aware that there is a world of the uninitiated out there and they have to be able to talk to them, too. But to a person, they let loose in their letters and presentations for jobs, talking -- they seem to believe -- to the one set of people who will understand the importance of their “research.” Advice from the MLA often suggests they should, after all.
The word is borrowed from science, as indeed is the pretense of adding to a store of knowledge; this is the basis of their conviction that we should hire someone who has wandered in realms of gold. Their dissertation wasn’t just an intellectual exercise to see if they could stand the slog, it was research adding to knowledge. Of course this is nonsense. What we do in literature graduate programs isn’t research and the result isn’t knowledge.
The nature of real (scientific) research is that it’s reproducible. Other people can run the same combinations and get the same results. And the idea of research assumes that they would want to, because doing so answers a generally shared question. What we’ve found is a fact about the objective world that all are, or should be, interested in.
The point of writing a literature Ph.D. dissertation, however, is to combine idea with example so as to reach a conclusion nobody has ever gotten before and that nobody will ever get again. That’s because followers’ “research” will be on new examples or with other ideas chosen from the short list of party-approved thinkers. (And when they’re out of favor, they’re out! Remember William Empson? The craze for Wallace Stevens?) Nobody tries to apply the same thinkers to the same texts to see if we get the same results. That’s because you showed your originality by achieving surprising results. Now it’s the turn of the new gal to show her originality. Fireworks: one after the other. Pretty, sure.
The notion of research in literary studies is an untenable combination of faith in Romantic genius with a scientific vocabulary. Besides, one of the clever tenets of the party line in almost all English graduate schools is that there is in fact no such thing as objectivity. Nietzsche and then Derrida are supposed to have slain that dragon for all time, and Foucault is held to have shown that facts are a whip the dominant power uses to keep the marginalized in their place. So how is what English Ph.D. students do anything other than simply keeping themselves amused and their universities in low-cost undergraduate teachers?
It’s no wonder then that English graduate programs, lacking any other basis, hold their own meta paraphernalia to be the basis of objectivity. If you write an article that appears in the MLA listings, you are real and have added to the store of knowledge. The paradigm of the humanities is the ultimate imperialism. Esse est percipi (by us), as Bishop Berkeley would have said.We think of ourselves as creators: we have caused things to exist by writing about them for a journal that is indexed. What if nobody reads it? Students are going to work for McKinsey and so by definition don’t care? We rarely ask this question. If those who do merely pat us on the back for our “brilliant insight” or “trenchant analysis”? What is this but a thumbs-up like on Facebook?
Showing what happens when I alone apply arbitrarily chosen X to arbitrarily chosen A, B and C is not research. I grant it’s facts, as a journal of my moods would be facts. But who cares? It doesn’t prove anything. My lawn has many blades of grass; I have only the most cursory knowledge of it. I could study it all; I could devote a lifetime to it. Why not? Just don’t ask others to care.
Let’s say that one day your Ph.D. adviser makes the revolting discovery that poetry in Borneo before 1850 is an “undertheorized” neglected field. Go for it, she says to the hungry graduate student. To me the lawn looks like a lawn, spotty here, lush there. I have no knowledge of which blades go in what direction, if there are patterns, if square inch 22B differs from 22A, or anything. My ignorance, indeed our ignorance, of the specifics of my lawn is abysmal. This is clearly begging for research. And poetry in Borneo before 1850 is also the subject of a dissertation. But only from a specific theoretical viewpoint! Which the candidate then presents to us in Annapolis.
Nobody will ever reproduce this: first, they don’t care about my lawn, and the point of focusing on poetry in Borneo in 1850 from this one point of view was that others weren’t doing so. Second, the larger issue applicable to others isn’t clear, and third, because the lawn changes and the viewer is a particular one, the research can’t be reproduced. Nobody will ever check the results of either my studies on my lawn or Bornean poetry because they were my personal views of a manifold that nobody else cares about -- one with no connection to the world except the fact that this grass too exists, or that we can place Borneo on an objective time/space grid.
We in the humanities have an erroneous view of science if we believe that what we do is scientific. Most fundamentally of all, nobody cares. Not true in science. Science may be objective, but it too has the subjective basis that others have to care. Certain projects get funded for specific reasons because they seem useful, now or later. There is just too much knowledge in the world to go after it all.
There has to be a reason for scientific investigation -- and for research in the humanities too. It’s high time we started looking for the reasons. And they have to go beyond getting us a Ph.D., a job or tenure. Nobody but us cares about that, just as nobody but me cares about my lawn or what I say about the blades of grass that constitute it.
Remember that when you apply for a job: nobody but you (OK, never say nobody) cares about your research. The question is, can you deal with sleepy students? Do you know what the point is of dragging them through Shakespeare or Toni Morrison? The skill set required for enlivening a classroom is something else entirely. You have to know why you bother. And they don’t teach that in graduate schools.
Bruce Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. His numerous books and shorter pieces are listed at www.brucefleming.net.