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7 years ago, someone set several fires in the biggest hotel in Washington DC, causing a very difficult night for many political scientists, who had gathered for the annual meeting/end-of-summer-nerdfest of the American Political Science Association (APSA). I have long suspected APSA was the worst- a holiday weekend, right before school started in my neck of the woods, often overlapping with religious holidays for some folks- a terrible time to get away. It was always extremely hot, always very expensive (and never enough funding), and the coffee shops were always too crowded. Wars, hurricanes, and labor disputes have disrupted annual meetings before, and then someone started setting fires.
The APSA fire was not fun, but it was actually not the worst part of my weekend. When I finally made it home late the next day, I got the call that my dad died. Totally unrelated to the fire, hundreds of miles away, and yet these two events are forever connected for me. On the bright side, I had a full travel bag of summer season professional dark clothes already packed, so I was ready to hit the road again and do the whole “bury my dad thing” without any extra packing needed. On the less bright side, everything else. I can’t disassociate the two events. And since, as a tenure-track junior faculty member, I had to try to do APSA, I’ve been really weird at a bunch of them. If we’ve met at APSA, trust me when I say I’m usually not that weird (I’m still very, very strange, just not quite that weird).
In 2019, APSA returned to the scene of the crime, holding its meeting in DC again. I booked a room at the hotel that did not go on fire, had a panic attack in the Wardman Park exhibition hall (the last time I ever talked to my dad was when I called to tell my parents that a publisher was interested in my book proposal, and he yelled hello from the other room while I talked to my mom), and decided that probably going forward, APSA was not for me. I’d rather spend the money and time doing a writing retreat (okay, checking into a hotel with some awesome friends and writing during the day while taking breaks for fun, food, swimming in the pool, and hate-watching various HGTV-style shows- but what really is a writing retreat anyway?).
Ironically, 2020 decided that in person conferences were not for anyone, at least for a while. And APSA has finally moved the annual meeting later in the fall, so I won’t say I’ll never go again. I do miss the chance to connect with scholars and friends, see interesting research, and get inspired by my fellow political science nerds. But APSA is the reason I didn’t submit anything for this year; when I forced myself back to the exhibition hall before my last session in 2019 (to try to form new associations/work through my feelings) I chatted with a very nice lady from Fulbright about how they had a teaching-specific fellowship and had been trying to expand their outreach to scholars at community colleges. I think my dad would be proud (though if he were alive, the idea that I’m taking his granddaughters to a different continent would probably not be his favorite thing).
I’m not a numerologist by any means, but halves and the number 8 are really hitting me these days, giving me some rather Proustian vibes. In April, I hit a big milestone birthday which is a multiple of 8, and June contains the 16th anniversary of marrying this guy; we’ve been more than friends for exactly half of our lives now, which is wild- half of our lives before we were an us, half (and hopefully lots more to come) as a team. I’ve just finished my 8th semester as a tenure track/tenured professor. In the spirit of 9 months in/9months out photos, I realized I’m now equidistant from graduating from my PhD in spring of 2013 as I was at graduation from my start in the fall of 2005- 8 years in, 8 years out.
Because we got married the summer before I started grad school, the first octade (octet?) of our marriage was linked to and defined by me being in graduate school in many ways, with the second being defined by my hustling and trying to get established in my profession (which felt a lot like catching up, since I only started my “real” job at 32). At many points, it’s felt like a big gamble- it would be great if it worked, but it doesn’t for so many folks (Allison Harbin called it a pyramid scheme, #accurate), and we wouldn’t know whether it would for a long while. In the meanwhile, there were diapers to change, classes to teach, papers to write, and all of the highs and lows of life if you’re lucky, which I have very much been.
8 years is the longest I’ve been anywhere professionally- having earned tenure last year, it feels good to know that I’ve got a professional home, that I’m getting established enough at to help make some small changes. This is the bookend/echo of the joyful feeling of getting a tenure-track position while finishing my PhD, which felt amazing after 8 years of adjuncting and stitching 1-year fellowships together. And I’ve just found out that I have been promoted to Full Professor, which is flip-flapping wild. So our gamble paid off.
Every so often, I feel like a complete fraud. I’ve published (much!!!) less than many of my colleagues at other institutions. When I do manage to publish, my methods and research topics are not considered prestigious. But with age comes a little wisdom: meritocracy is a myth, and comparison is the thief of joy. I am proud of my work, and that (plus my paycheck and health benefits) is more than enough. I really love teaching and my students, and with a little more luck, I’ll get to do that for a very long time. I’ve found ways to thrive in the corner I’ve carved out in my very specific context, and been really, really lucky. More than that, I’m really excited for what the next octet brings- tenure and promotion are an immense privilege, which I intend to use to improve my institution, for students and for colleagues. I’m beyond excited to see what the next 8 years will bring, starting with sabbatical- a Fulbright to teach at Doshisha University, and time to finish my next book (which has been languishing for way, way too long).
There are probably 800 people who I need to thank, as none of the last 8 years would have been possible without the support of my family, colleagues, co-authors, friends, collaborators, and twitter folks, and this post has already gotten too long. So then I’ll spend the next 8 years trying to thank those folks, and trying to be that person for the next round coming up the lane.
What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Scholarly Publishing, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Work Towards Open Access
My graduate training in scholarly publishing consisted of “You should publish stuff. It should be peer-reviewed.” Not exactly a full training in scholarly communication. Considering that doing and publishing scholarly research accounts for roughly one-third of my job responsibilities as a tenured associate professor, I wish they had spent more time on it, and maybe you already know about this (in which case, feel free to stop reading). But if you’ve never stopped to think about how the journal publishing sausage gets made, you may find this useful.
As I’ve explored OER and open educational practices, I have been very fortunate to learn a bit about scholarly publishing models, and frankly, they’re a big-time scam. Or, if we wish to be social scientists about it, publishers of academic journals exhibit significant rent-seeking behavior: they seek to substantially increase their wealth without adding substantially to the value of the product or service they offer. Researchers, often funded by the public through grants or institutional support, do research, which they publish in scholarly journals for free (they also provide free labor as reviewers for journals). The scholarly journals are run by a few large publishing companies, five of which are responsible for half of all scholarly journal articles published in a given year. These companies run the journals, publish the articles which they got for free, and then charge libraries and the public exorbitant subscription fees (often in the form of “big deal” bundled databases) for access to the research articles, even if the articles were publicly-funded. Some institutions and funders have caught on to the irrationality of this system- locking up knowledge behind prohibitive paywalls seems wrong, holds back science, and cheats the public, who often has paid to support the research.
The movement towards Open Access is meant to remedy several of these problems. The NIH, the EU, and major research funders have begun to require grant outputs to be published openly (and include funds in grants for paying APCs). Faced with losing their source of free articles, publishers adapted, and were suddenly eager to offer open access options- they merely ask for authors to cover the cost of production that would have been covered by the fees they would have charged for access to the article: thus was the Article Publishing Charges (APC) born. APCs vary by company and journal, and are often upwards of $2,500. This reminds me of when traditional textbook publishers initially decried the quality and rigor of OER course materials, then suddenly switched to offering “inclusive access” courses that sneak course material charges into students’ fees without their knowledge or consent. In both cases, this isn’t surprising- profit seekers are going to seek profit.
The APC is How Much???
And they seeking it big-time. Nature Springer made waves with their announcement of going completely open, but as Dr. Julie Novkov pointed out this morning on Twitter, the devil is in the details: Nature Springer will charge APCs around $10,000 per article (with lower fees for scholars from lower income countries). And APCs are only one part of the equation- for previously published research, or research where scholars don’t have the funding for large APCs, much excellent research remains behind paywalls, which should more accurately be called pay-forts or pay-nuclear armaments, as the prices are far more prohibitive than a mere wall. The costs of library journal subscriptions rise steadily, while state and federal investment in higher education continues to fall. The COVID-19 pandemic is a dual crisis for library budgets- emergency moves to distance learning drastically increase the demand for electronic resources, while the economic impact on colleges and universities wreaks’ havoc on these institutions’ budgets.
So What Do We Do?
I need to point out that it is my institutional and geographic privilege that allowed me to remain ignorant of these problems for so long. As a researcher based in the US, database subscription rates are indexed to my country’s institutions budgetary level; in countries with smaller GDPs, open access fees are wildly out of sync with institutional and individual budgets, even when discounts are offered. Scholars in countries with lower GDPs are much more aware of the costs of publishing open journal articles. So it seems only right that I use that institutional and geographic privilege to work towards more equitable open access. Your position and privilege (full-time vs. adjunct, tenure-track vs. late career) will determine what you are able to do- but you likely can do something. I’m particularly talking to my tenured and promoted colleagues, who often have the most institutional power- they sit on the committees that write and decide on tenure and promotion guidelines and they help set the expectations in their departments and with their graduate students.
Scholars at all levels should learn more about Open Access- there is much more information than I’ve put here, and much better written, by people who know this stuff far better than I do (this article is a great start). Reach out to the scholarly communications librarian at your institution- they can inform you about what initiatives are already in place at your institution and point you towards resources for your own learning. Librarians are brilliant and amazing in general, and open librarians are extra awesome. Then get involved- share the information you’ve found with your colleagues who are not familiar with this rent-seeking behavior. Help dispel myths on your campus (no, not all OA journals are predatory, no APCs are not pay-to-publish). Publish openly if you can, preferably at truly open journals which don’t charge massive fees.
What if, like the UC system, more institutions banded together to reduce the fees charged by scholarly publishers, both at the APC end and at the subscription end? Many institutions are working on ways to make their scholars’ work more openly available, through institutional repositories and negotiations directly with publishers (here is information on the approach at Harvard, MIT, and the Europen Union Institute). The Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies (ROARMAP) maintains a database of hundreds of policies from funders and research organizations, including 834 universities/research institutions, so there are plenty of models to follow for those institutions who wish to explore their options.
More radically, what if we stop thinking about how to reform the existing journals and their profit-seeking corporate managers, and look at creating new journals? It seems like the services corporate journals provide (for which they charge exorbitant subscription fees) are the online review management systems, copyediting, and printing- what if scholars and their institutions decide to take over those responsibilities and start their own truly OA journals? It’s not the lark it sounds like- many truly OA journals already exist, and models could be adapted and innovated from. Yes, it would cost money and/or resources, but those could be creatively managed or repurposed as well? We’ve already largely moved past physical copies of journals, so printing expenses are negligible. Universities have websites- could they not spare server space for journals? Instead of contracting out copyediting, what if institutions funded graduate students as copy editors? Which would then give students experience in running open access journals- positive externalities! What if professional associations took back management of their journals and/or absorbed the cost of running them?