paulThe tensions between access, popularity and prestige all stand to make collective action toward open access complicated. While favouring systematic transformation of the unfair scholarly economy, Paul Kirby notes there are good reasons to doubt the efficacy of a large-scale boycott of closed journals. Rather, a more subtle strategy might be more effective at changing the system without any penalty to early-career researchers and the plurality of scholarship.

Yesterday, in an act of minimal defiance, I declined a request for peer review on the grounds that the journal was owned by Taylor and Francis, and therefore charges authors £1,788 per piece for open access, or imposes an 18 month restriction on repository versions. In the wake of the OA debate, this situation seems increasingly ludicrous: for the short term at least, an increase in journal profit streams, made possible by the sanctity of unpaid academic input. The principle (saying no to closed journal peer review) is not inviolable, but a reluctance to subsidise shareholders with free labour seemed an appropriate response to the current balance of forces.

Paper Weaving

Image credit: Joel Penner (CC BY)

So far so good, you might think, but there is a lingering issue of ethics. It was suggested, following a previous act of review rejection, that some hypocrisy might be at work. Am I not proposing the withdrawal of a service that others would perform for me without complaint? Since the infrastructure of the academy rests on the provision of reviews, and since academics benefit from having their published work certified, submission to any closed journal, without providing reviews to the same, is tantamount to parasitism. A use of colleagues’ labour without returning the favour, all easily accomplished in an accounting system that positively celebrates the anonymity of authors and reviewers.

The most forceful of open access advocates would point out at this stage that the answer to this dilemma is pretty straightforward: don’t review for closes access journals and don’t publish in them. Simply move your labour – writing, reviewing, editorial board-ing – as quickly as possible to the more open journals. The more of us who do that, the quicker the transition to proper open access will be. This is true, but it won’t quite do. For two reasons.

First, whatever is to be wished for, the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences currently lack open access journals prestigious enough to make submission to them a low cost option in the economy of reputation. This is a corollary of the market dominance enjoyed by closed journals: scholars are penalised if they step outside of this reputational system. This point that has been raised before, and clearly depends considerably on the exact field, and the national context. On the UK scene, even where academics stress that they themselves would never pre-judge a piece by publication venue, they usually hold that someone else (the Big Other of the REF, policy makers, ranking systems, managers) will, and so they are driven to conform in any case, thus becoming entangled in a chronic game of second-guessing. More clearly still, this disproportionately affects junior and precarious scholars, who have most to lose by moving outside a system still primarily functioning according to logics that precede them.

Second, and more crucially, journals are not just empty vessels, and are not interchangeable in content, editorial policy or audience. This is perhaps more so for disciplines where articles do other than report the results of an experiment. Scientists may struggle to understand this (and are predisposed to diagnose it as an intellectual failing) but pieces in, say, international political theory, are interventions of a kind that will not be equally welcomed regardless of a journal’s Editorial Board or publication history. More bizarrely still, that this is not a function of bad faith or mendacity on the parts of Editors (even if that may sometimes be the case), but is a feature of the subject matter itself. Reasonable people, in other words, disagree. The variety of journals is thus both an example of‘camp structure’ to be bemoaned, but also a guarantee of plurality. There is an element here of self-fulfilling prophecy, since journals with a reputation for hostility towards particular sub-fields will get less of those submissions, and policies may be more open than is often assumed.

But there is still a difference in journal audiences, and this cannot be dismissed merely by proposing a super-repository (although that would certainly help). The desire to be read in a certain tradition, and in the wake of particular historical arguments, is not unreasonable. The same piece will simply not be seen by the same colleagues (or publics) in International Security as it would be in Millennium as it would be in Signs as it would be in Political Geography, and so on. It is tough enough to get published at all without ruling out whole swathes of valuable journals because they are corporate. This perhaps paradoxically puts otherwise marginal and disenchanted academics more dependent on closed journals, since welcoming spaces with some reputational clout are a rarer commodity. And it proves seductive for new initiatives too, as in the case of  Transgender Studies Quarterly, which was successful in a Kickstarter campaign to fund its incorporation with Duke University Press. We can afford some disappointment that open access did not seem viable to the Editors, but their argument – that a nascent and misunderstood sub-field in some sense needs the cache of a university press – will seem unreasonable only to the most blinkered of enthusiasts.

Those might alone be good reasons to doubt the efficacy of a Costs of Knowledge-type boycott of closed journals (and, worse, many will not embrace a boycott out of straight-forward cowardice). But if we do want to initiate some kind of movement at least, a more subtle strategy might be to slowly re-align resources towards the least-bad-offenders and make clear our reasons when doing so. Cambridge University Press, for example, seem to be the best closed journal host, Sage somewhere in the middle, and Taylor and Francis and Elsevier the worst when it comes to openness. So publish with the best wherever possible, always turn down the worst for peer review, and help out more radical initiatives whenever it is in your power. And try and keep yourself honest in your judgements. Commit to a soft boycott, if you will.

If there is a hypocrisy here, let it be a strategic hypocrisy, one which admits itself openly whilst pointing firmly at the Naked Emperor. Because it is that context, that structure of incentives and privatisation of knowledge, that system of academic accounting, which produces the situation. Any advice, especially to young researchers, that they should publish open access regardless of the context (because it is the publicly good thing to do) is bad advice, and sacrifices individuals to a one-dimensional analysis of the journal system. Indeed, the idea that academics should be bound by an ethic of reciprocity in a system which seldom upholds it in internally (within the university) and positively celebrates its absence externally (in the market) borders on the ludicrous.

Back, then, to collective action problems in the systematic transformation of intellectual economies. Yes, this is to play a game or sorts: to seek the most from a set of choices stacked against you (or rather, stacked artificially to force a choice between popularity and prestige) whilst still committing to a change in the coordinates. But so what?

This originally appeared on The Disorder of Things and is reposted with the author’s permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Paul Kirby (@PabloK) is Lecturer in International Security at the University of Sussex, UK, where he works primarily on gender violence and the politics of war. For the last years he has also been active on issues of open access and academic precarity. He received his PhD from the Department of International Relations at the LSE in late 2012, and is a contributor to the global politics group blog The Disorder Of Things (

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