Scholarly Economics

You might be asking yourself, 'How about a Grim post fully in favor of capitalism for a change?' I can do that.
The first scholarly journals appeared in 1665, and since then, they have not paid authors, peer reviewers, or editors. “All the key players have been giving away their work for 350 years,” says Suber. “Scholars write journal articles for impact, not for money. They are freed to do this because they have salaries from their institutions.” Yet the physical aspects of print technology, still cutting-edge in the seventeenth century, today limit scholars’ ability to circulate their ideas and findings. Now, Suber says, “the Internet allows them to give it away to the whole world.”...

CONSIDER for a moment the business model of traditional subscription journals. Scholars contribute their articles to the journals for free; they receive no royalties or other revenue. Scholars also act as peer reviewers and provide other editorial services to the journals on a pro bono basis.
There is, actually, no guarantee that salaries from institutions exist to provide for those giving away their work. The people who need to give away work the most are graduate students and adjuncts hoping to receive, someday, one of the increasingly-few tenure track jobs. Grad students are actually paying for the privilege of access to the libraries and research facilities that would allow them to give away work for free. Adjuncts are being paid, but usually at poverty-line levels for schedules that make additional research work a massive burden. Those who run the journals enjoy tremendous prestige, which they bestow where they will in return for free labor to produce free research which -- if it is successful -- increases the prestige of the journal as well as the author. That increased prestige for the journal produces subscriptions, and therefore revenue: but there are no royalties to the author.

Academic conferences run on a similarly exploitative model. Those same grad students producing free work for the journals will show up early to perform free labor for the conference. Usually these conferences cost money to attend, which leads to the strange spectacle of unpaid graduate students taking money to pass on to the conference itself. They money passes through their hands and by their labor, but none of it accrues to them. They may shuttle people back and forth from airports to hotels to conference centers. They may fetch donuts and coffee for conference attendees. A capitalist model would have this being done by taxi drivers and caterers and temps from the employment service: jobs without a great deal of prestige, but whose members are at least paid for their time.

The tenured scholars exploiting the grad students and adjuncts are at least engaged in the business of education -- they are, at least, actively involved in the pursuit and distribution of knowledge. The school administrations have absorbed the lion's share of the recent increases in tuition, while leading the charge to reduce tenured faculty as teachers in favor of badly-paid adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants. This serves no one's interests except the administrators'. Students are injured by having teachers who are not as experienced or distinguished. Faculty are injured by being trapped in adjunct positions for most or all of their careers. Grad students gain valuable experience as teachers, but graduate into a career path in which their options are far less attractive than even a few years ago, and in which ever more "free work" is expected of them if they are to be considered for one of the increasingly-few tenure track positions.

This is a model built on a love of learning rather than a love of money, which seems wise and proper. It is insulated from much of the disciplines imposed by capitalism, which are alleged to lead to inequalities and unfairness. Yet it appears to be one of the most unfair and exploitative systems out there: one that provides wealth and prestige to the people at the top, on the backs of a great deal of "free" labor being provided by those struggling honorably below. It does not appear that capitalism can be blamed for these outcomes: at least under a capitalist system, the weakest members of the system would still be paid something.


Anonymous said...

If one looks at the academic system as a guild, then the labor "paid" by grad students and adjuncts makes a touch of sense. These are the dues owed to the guild masters in exchange for their guidance and for their assistance in advancing within the ranks of the guild. Going to different graduate schools and conferences is a form of what the French referred to as the Grand Tour and the Germans call a wandering year - working briefly under different masters in order to learn different regional skills.

Is it exploitative? Oh heck yes, especially now that the tenure system is falling apart and the academic job market is, shall we say, poor. I'm not especially fond of it, but by now it is enshrined (and entrenched) tradition.


douglas said...

The whole higher education system has become a big, multifaceted swindle. They sucker kids who shouldn't be in college to take out loans and go. They swindle the government to provide more funding (from our pockets) and guarantees for student loans. They see higher and higher costs for administration, and deliver less and less in the classroom. It's rotten from top to bottom frankly, not least for the issues you bring up here.

I'm not teaching this term, and may well not be back, and I can't say I miss it that much. The exercise of teaching itself, yes, and the interaction with students, sure, but the rest of it, not so much. All the bogus hoo-hah you have to do to work your way up to being considered for tenure, without anyone making much effort to see if you're effective in the classroom, made certain that I would not be pursuing a career in academia. It was fun to dabble, though.

MikeD said...

Red beat me to it. It is nothing more than a guild system. In order to advance within academe, you must put in your research time (for free). You will not be considered eligible for advancement (or tenure) unless you do. Refusal to do so shuts you out of the guild. It is protectionism at its very worst, and it is frankly, a monopoly which has been ignored by the government because of the "tradition" of it all. If you tried to operate any other industry in the same manner as colleges and universities operate, they'd be slammed with anti-trust laws in a heartbeat.