Architectural Blatherations

The Academic Publishing Rort

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The Good Oil

Bloomsbury Publishing has added a new title to its stable of academic journals, Architecture and Culture (AC), the journal of the Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA)1. This is an endeavour well-worth doing. We applaud it. As a discipline, architecture is notoriously introverted and self-centered; and architecture academics {professors} – who are not that bright at the best of times – could certainly do with some engagement with the humanities. Our gripe is with the entire model of academic publishing as it exists in the 21st century.

The Journal “Architecture and Culture”

According to its webpage:

Architecture and Culture, the international, peer-reviewed journal of the Architectural Humanities Research Association, investigates the relationship between architecture and the culture that shapes and is shaped by it.

Architecture and Culture publishes explorations that are rigorously speculative, purposively imaginative, visually and verbally stimulating. … Architecture and Culture aims to promote a conversation between all those who are curious about what architecture might be and what it can do.

Damn fine objectives, even if we are not quite sure what rigorously speculative means.

Architecture and Culture publishes twice a year, with a double issue in November. It is available in print and online editions. Let's call it three issues a year. According to this page, an institution wanting to pay for three pdfs from the 2014 series would have to cough up $USD 283, a sharp rise from the $USD 92 they charged for the 2013 series. That's just three fat pdfs. If the institution also wants to receive some shiny new paper products, they will pay $USD 331.

How Academic Publishing Used to Work

Contrary to the opinions of their students, academics {professors} gain prestige not by teaching but by publishing research. They do so by sending papers derived from their research to journals. There are respected and hallowed journals, and shonky journals. You are meant to aim for respected journals.

From the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660, at the very beginning of the Scientific Revolution, until about 2000, the academic publishing system worked like this:

  • You submit a paper to the journal of your choice, starting from the most prestigious.
  • The editor of the journal sends the paper to a collection of experts for their opinions. This is peer review. You can find an excellent podcast describing the process from Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York.
  • In about zero cases, all the experts say it should be published right now. In all other cases the experts throw in their two bits and ask for changes. The editor sends back their requests and asks you to resubmit.
  • Rinse, repeat. The process can take from weeks to months.

The Economics of This Process

For at least the past century, the journal publishers have been on a gravy-train to heaven. The economics work like this:

  • The salary of the academic {professor} writing the paper is paid by his or her university. The journal does not pay the academic one penny for the paper, and in many cases actually charges the academic a page cost for the honour of publishing in the journal.
  • The editors and reviewers used by the journal are also paid for by their universities. The publisher, again, pays not a penny for their labour.
  • The publisher publishes the paper in a journal, and charges university libraries large sums of money for the journal.

So: the publisher gets its labour for free, courtesy of the universities, and then has the chutzpah to charge the universities for the products of this very same labour. Which the universities have already paid for. PZ Myers at Pharyngula summarises it all neatly.

Academics like to think they are smart, but the fact that a few large publishers (Elsevier, Wiley and Springer) have been shafting them and their universities up the a**e for a century would suggest otherwise.

1. The AHRA really should remove its membership page. Apart from privacy concerns, it does nothing for the organisation's credibility that the very first member is listed is Mr hijkl73791 abcde42530 (page retrieved 31 October 2013).

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