The link below is to an article that takes a look at conditions and wages for Australian book editors.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the dos and donts of book promotion.
People across the global book trade have been engrossed by a ripe scandal engulfing one of their own – publisher-turned-author Dan Mallory, whose novel The Woman in the Window was one of the runaway bestsellers of 2018. One tweet summed up the buzz:
The comment from the literary agent Laura Williams refers to a lengthy article in the New Yorker about Mallory, who writes under the pseudonym A J Finn. As the headline explosively proclaimed, Mallory’s life “contains even stranger twists” than his fiction.
These twists, according to the New Yorker, include repeated lies: about his mother’s death from cancer, his own cancer diagnoses, an Oxford PhD, a job offer from a rival publishing company which leveraged promotion. He also, the article suggests, may have impersonated his brother, sent abusive emails, and – most curious of all – left plastic cups of urine in the New York office of his boss (“messages of disdain, or … territorial marking”, speculated the New Yorker – although it went on to quote a spokesperson for Mallory saying he hadn’t been responsible for that).
The article is careful to present evidence for these revelations via both named and anonymous sources, or to state that certain allegations are unproven. The revelations are either denied by Mallory, or blamed in a statement on “dissembling” produced by severe mental illness.
Even more curiously, Mallory’s uncompleted PhD focused on Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr Ripley – that twisty tale of a man who murders and then impersonates another. His own The Woman in the Window presents its readers with an unreliable first-person narrator who witnesses – or does she? – a crime.
An unreliable narrator – and an unreliable author? Literary liars and impersonators weave their tales through publishing history. Remember the “memoirs” of James Frey, A Million Little Pieces, which presented as fact made-up scenes of drug addiction and alcoholism?
Fiction-writing fraudsters also abound: prize-winning Australian Helen Darville falsely presented herself as the Ukrainian “Helen Demidenko” and wore peasant blouses ti publicise her book: The Hand That Signed the Paper. Meanwhile JT LeRoy’s novelised tales of an abusive boyhood turned out to be entirely invented, their author represented in public by a (possibly) transgender impersonator.
Mallory joins an infamous line of literary hoaxers, then. But what might this torrid tale tell us about the mental and physical health of the publishing industry?
Social media commentators quickly identified an issue beyond the tricksy questions of truth and lies: that of Mallory’s rapid career trajectory. A “Waspy” family background was polished by an elite US college education, employment at a New York publisher, postgraduate studies at Oxford, a London publishing job and promotion. Then back across the Atlantic to a $200,000 salary and a book deal brokered through his professional networks.
As one much-retweeted comment put it, alongside all the tawdry revelations of the story, it also spoke volumes about the problematic pattern of publishing career paths.
The New Yorker has multiple accounts of how Mallory seemingly charmed writers and fellow publishers, and there’s no implication – other than light borrowing of plots and characterisation – that his writing is not his own. Good looks operated alongside that charm, until the beguilement revealed its multiple deceptions. But the question of how to get ahead in publishing, and those who get to make such rapid ascents, remains.
Glass ceilings, whiteness and class
Publishing and the literary world have serious issues of access and inclusion. The roughly equal number of men and women in board positions in UK publishing does not represent the preponderance of female staff lower down company hierarchies – about 66-80% of people in the industry are women, surveys variously report.
Unsurprisingly this glass ceiling creates a gender pay gap: 16% in 2017 and some even worse figures in 2018’s mandatory reporting from larger companies. Publishing also has its sleaze and #MeToo claims.
In terms of ethnic diversity, a 2018 UK Publishers Association survey showed the BAME workforce of publishing to be under 12%. This is marginally below the 2011 census figure of 13% in England and Wales, but it’s far below the 40% of London, where UK publishing is highly centralised (itself presenting issues of regional diversity).
Repeated surveys have demonstrated publishing’s diversity deficit. Scholarship from Anamik Saha and Melanie Ramdarshan Bold focuses on the challenges of cultural production for writers of colour. Over a period from 2006-2016, Ramdarshan Bold identified, only 8% of young adult books published in the UK were by writers of colour.
Like other creative industries, publishing is a middle-class activity, with working-class publishers and writers frequently recounting stories of prejudice and cultural condescension – eg. in publisher Laura Waddell’s Nasty Women chapter, and in Dead Ink’s anthology of working-class essays Know Your Place.
The 2018 report Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries shows publishing’s class demographic to be “especially grave”. Less than 13% of publishers are from working-class backgrounds, while more than 33% have upper middle-class origins.
The whiff of privilege
Such individual and statistical accounts of exclusion demonstrate why the wild story of one already-privileged individual bluffing his way higher and higher up the publishing echelons has caused so much consternation. If the story is true, Mallory repeatedly fooled university admissions offices and publishers’ employment processes. But what employment practices enabled him to rise, even when his story had started to unravel? And how did his apparent charm and good taste enable him to fail upwards? The answers to these questions remain in a dysfunctional swirl of rumour, anonymous sources, non-disclosure agreements and myth-making that probably won’t hurt Mallory’s book sales.
But there are wider systemic and institutionalised issues at play here: the urine scent-marking in the editor’s office (whether proven to be Mallory or not) is a metaphor for the regimes of value in operation within publishing. There is a mystique about taste – a whiff of privilege – that prevails unhelpfully and often prejudicially in the publishing industry. Such inequitable practices govern which hot new literary property we pick up next.
I am Norma Dunning. I am a beneficiary of Nunavut; my ancestral ties lie in the village of Whale Cove. I have never been there. My folks left the North shortly before my birth. I am southern Inuk, born and raised.
I am a writer. I have always been a writer. I would dream of publishing my writing, but it was easier and safer not to. I kept all of it in a drawer. I would think about publishing, and then I would think about the process of publishing. As an Indigenous, female writer I didn’t want to take it. I didn’t want to take the criticism.
I didn’t want to take the reworking of my words into a form that is standard Western format, or into the practices that are expected and accepted within literary work. I know that I do not write in the ways that most non-Indigenous writers do. I didn’t want my work re-colonized.
I have a small reputation of being a poet, and my poetry manuscript is usually rejected twice a year. Over the last seven years, I am often invited to read my poetry at various local events. I am very honoured to have been asked, but I am the poet who shows up without her book of published poems. I am the poet with her work attached to a clipboard. I am surprised that my first published work, Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, is a book of short stories. There’s irony in that.
Inuit peoples live in two worlds
Writing for me is not a hobby. Writing is a part of my being, a part of daily living. It is for me what breathing is for others. It is physical in that if I am not creating a story or a poem, I do not feel well. I know that of myself. It is spiritual and emotional. Producing the written word is the only place where I can be who I am, without expectations, without criticism and without someone looking over my shoulder telling me that I am wrong.
Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival.
When I was studying for my BA degree, my minor was in creative writing. I have since taken many university creative writing courses and I received two prestigious awards for my efforts through the University of Alberta. Creative thinking is a requirement for my doctoral work, and taking writing courses has helped me. However, the other students in the writing classes were not always supportive. I heard their criticisms every week.
While not every class was good or productive, I was exposed to the writing of non-Inuit poets and writers from long ago. I enjoyed their old works, which were new to me. I thought about how they could spend time running up hill and down dale and always remain writing in their predictable and trained writing format. I cannot write about butterflies or bumblebees. In time, I published the odd poem here and there, but never a story. The stories were mine. It took many years to decide to share them.
Deciding to publish
Until one winter afternoon, close to Christmas. I was standing in a lineup at a post office. It was a long line, filled with people wanting their packages to exotic places to be stamped “Express!” I held my thick, brown envelope addressed to the University of Alberta Press close to my chest. I thought I could do this another day, but I knew that if I stepped out of the lineup, I would never send that envelope out anywhere. When I was asked if I wanted a rush delivery, I gasped, “No!”
The longer it took for anyone to read my work, the longer I was safe. The longer the characters that I had created could stay only mine. If no one ever read it, I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The longer the envelope took to deliver, the longer my creative world belonged to only me. I didn’t hear back from the press for over a year. I kept telling myself that was OK. Things take time. Inuit are patient.
When I was told that the press accepted my work, I was stunned. Perhaps part of being an Indigenous writer is the expectation of rejection. I did not get what I was used to. I was assigned to my editor, who is a Namibian man, born and raised. He knows colonialism very well. He lives it, like me. The path to publishing became less complicated. I knew one thing; my words were safe with him. He got it.
However, there was one long discussion over the use of a comma or a period. I had written the sounds of two Inuit women throat singing. I had written it without any grammar. I knew how the song sounded in my head, but what I had to think about was a non-Inuit readers’ understanding.
I sang it to myself for 45 minutes. Was it “Oooma” insert period or “Oooma” insert comma? There were emails and phone calls around two simple sentences. I learned to think about how grammar shapes understanding. What if I was a foreigner reading this passage; how would it sound in my head? We worked it through because my editor took the time to build a good working relationship with me. He didn’t dive in and try to make me or my words “right.” He didn’t push for the quick fix that I know all too well. When non-Inuit do that, it is a signal for me to run.
As Aboriginal artists, we inherently analyze the people around us, because we walk inside two worlds. Aboriginal artists do the hard work, the heavy lifting. We put out into the world the truth of Canada’s grand narrative. Aboriginal artists take the whispered secrets and put them onto paper. It is not easy work.
If my book does any one thing, I hope it brings other Inuit writers to a publisher. I hope other Inuit writers realize that they can do this too. They can put their work out there. They can publish. Be fearless. Stand by your words, and believe that no matter where you stand, you are Inuk.
It seems too obvious to point out that publishing is a cultural activity, not just a process for corporations to make money. That being said, we rarely talk or write about publishing without talking about money, about book sales.
That’s because, even though contemporary publishing has seen the emergence of diverse independent publishers and the self-publishing boom, it is still dominated by multinational corporations. And corporations are all about the numbers.
Most books are produced by one of the “big five” publishing multinationals (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster).
Katherine Bode of Australian National University puts this figure at 74% of books in Australia. These transnational corporations are, by their very nature, focused on the creation of profit rather than the creation of culture.
In fact, for some of those multinational corporations, books and writing aren’t even the largest part of their business.
HarperCollins and Hachette are both subsidiaries of media companies (News Corp and Lagardère respectively). Commercial or “traditional” publishing is not so much aimed at telling a story and hopefully making a profit but at making a profit by telling a story.
In this publishing climate culture is always subsumed to business. The book and its story or narrative are merely a vehicle to generate sales and as such are understood as a unit of exchange rather than as an artefact of expression and/ or meaning.
In other words, publishing is viewed as a business not as a cultural activity. This perception of publishing as a business, even a creative one, means that the question of book sales dominates our conversations about it, rather than questions around how readers use books and book culture to develop a sense of the society in which they live and/ or a sense of themselves.
When we talk about publishing there is little discussion about the ways it contributes to culture, to the formation and expression of identity, to constructing notions of gendered, social, ethnic or national belonging.
Multinational corporations are not about culture, not about identity and belonging. And here lies the big problem. Culture (literature, music, cinema etc.) is about the mediation and expression of identity and belonging.
Although culture is sometimes, perhaps even often, accessed as part of a commercial transaction, it doesn’t need that transaction to fulfil its purpose, which is to communicate, express or muse over something.
Culture can and does thrive without being bought and sold. The huge amount of free culture on the internet attests to that. More to the point, the thing we value about culture doesn’t depend on a financial exchange but on a human exchange, an exchange of ideas and/ or experiences.
Most of us (the sane ones) do not value a cultural artefact or experience because of what it costs but because of the meaning we take or make from it. We also value it because of the effort, skill and expertise its creator put into it.
I appreciate Mark Rothko’s painting Untitled (yellow and blue) because of its simplicity, skillful use of colour and the delight I get from it, not because it is worth US$46.5 million.
I appreciate JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books because the character Hermione Granger kills me, not because Rowling made her publishers a gazillion bucks.
The process of finding meaning in the books we read, or making meaning from them, is one that goes far beyond any commercial transaction. These days it also goes beyond the page.
Our experience of a book is now supplemented by perusing reviews and blogs, engaging with print and screen media items about the book and its author, viewing or reading author interviews, attending book and writing related events and festivals and, for many of us, by participating in fan communities.
Few of these engagements depend on a financial transaction (excepting a festival entry fee here or there).
Though high sales figures might give an indication of social significance in a specific (often passing) moment, it doesn’t give us any sense at all of lasting cultural value.
The Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer were socially significant for a while, but it is doubtful that they will be valued (or even remembered) a hundred years from now, or even 50 years from now.
Not even the most ardent Twilight fan is likely to say that Meyer’s books are great cultural works.
Likewise, consider Peyton Place, the 1956 blockbuster novel by Grace Metalious. Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies within the first ten days of its release and stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks.
Even so, until you read Grace Metalious’ name here it is likely you had never encountered it before. Grace Metalious is no Jane Austen, not even an Ernest Hemingway. Many books that are commercially and thereby socially significant for a time fail to find a long-term place of prominence in our culture.
When we talk about publishing these days, we have to talk about much more than book sales, even more than the written word and books themselves. We need to talk about all the things we do with and around books, our engagement with book culture.
In other words, we need to talk about publishing as a cultural practice, as something that contributes to or even constitutes who we are as individuals, who we are as citizens. We need to talk about publishing as a socio-cultural activity that helps us to understand our place in the world.
Publishing expresses and shapes our societies. It even plays a part in the kind of nations we live in. It would be wise, therefore, to broaden the conversation about it to more than sales figures.
In short, we need to shift our attention from publishing as a business process to thinking about publishing as an act of culture.
It’s hard to imagine that too many economists in Australia will receive Christmas cards from book publishers this year. A long campaign of lobbying, culminating with the recent Harper review into competition policy, has resulted in the Commonwealth government deciding to remove restrictions on the parallel importation of books.
To most economists this is a long-overdue reform that will increase efficiency. A group of ten prominent Australian economists today signed an open letter calling on the federal parliament to follow through on lifting the restrictions.
To Australian book publishers, and some noteworthy authors, it is an act of public vandalism, threatening the future viability of their industry.
As an economist who loves reading books, I’ve always taken a keen interest in the debate over parallel import restrictions. And I’ve always thought that there was a fairly straightforward solution – which I am going to describe and argue for in this article.
Why Australian book publishing needs support
It is easy to make the argument that books by Australian authors make a big contribution to our lives. By having an Australian outlook or content, they don’t just provide entertainment or learning, they do it in a way that has a particular interest and relevance to us.
But just because something is good doesn’t mean it needs government support. An economist starts from the position that if a product is good, plenty of people will buy it, which gives an appropriate return to its supplier. Only if the market is failing to deliver a return to the supplier that reflects the full benefit to society from the product, do economists believe that the government might need to intervene.
In the case of Australian books, I believe that such an argument does exist. Here I give two reasons why the market may not get it right – and why government support may therefore be needed.
First, the knowledge about Australian public affairs that is contained in books, and the expertise that authors develop by writing those books, allows for a more informed and productive public discourse on government policy making. This is not a benefit that anyone pays for when they buy a book – but it is a benefit to Australian society all the same.
In my own area of economics, recent books by Ross Garnaut and John Edwards on the coming decade in the Australian economy, and historical perspectives by Ian McLean and George Megalogenis, have all been important source materials for debate on what policy makers should be doing.
Second, much of our thinking about Australian identity and values is formed through the perspectives and stories that are expressed in books – whether it be novels or history or biography.
There is no single book that does this. Rather, it is the putting together of the whole of what is being written about and by Australians that enables us to do this thinking. This is a collective benefit from having an Australian book industry – and as such will always be undervalued in the market.
Why parallel import restrictions should be removed
Parallel import restrictions provide the original publisher of a book with the exclusive right to bring that book into Australia for commercial purposes. This allows publishers to treat Australia as a separate market from the rest of the world, and increases their market power compared to book buyers in this country.
The result is that (due to the smaller scale of market and our high average income level) publishers charge higher prices for books in Australia than in most other countries. This addition to book prices in Australia is a cost borne by book buyers. Publishers argue it is a necessary cost to ensure there is a strong local publishing industry.
But there is a problem with this argument. The parallel import restrictions mean that we pay more for every book we buy, not just Australian titles. Suppose that 20% of the volume of book sales in Australia is by Australian authors.
This implies that (roughly speaking) for every A$200 extra we pay in prices for books that goes to Australian authors and their publishers, we are also providing A$800 extra to international authors.
In other words, parallel import restrictions are poorly targeted, and hence an expensive way for Australian consumers to support the local publishing industry.
A better policy
If our objective is to give extra funding to Australian authors and their publishers, why not do this via subsidies or direct payments to them? With such a policy it would be possible to provide the same level of support to the Australian book industry as it receives from parallel import restrictions, but without supporting international authors and their publishers.
Of course, subsidies and payments to the book industry already happen through bodies such as the Australian Council. What I am suggesting is that there should be an increase in the extent of this funding of the book industry to compensate for the removal of parallel import restrictions.
It should be possible to work out the current value that the Australian book industry derives from the import restrictions, and when the restrictions are removed, to increase the amount of funding to the industry by that amount.
That would leave the Australian book industry just as well off as before the removal of parallel import restrictions, and Australian book buyers would be better off as a result of lower prices.
Heading in the wrong direction
The Commonwealth government has announced that it will implement the Harper committee recommendation to remove parallel import restrictions for books. Unfortunately, at the same time, it is removing funding to the Australian book industry.
Instead of increasing funding to compensate for the removal of parallel import restrictions, this week another round of cuts (including the abolition of the Book Council of Australia) was announced.
There can be no doubt of the outcome from this policy mix. Removing import restrictions together with decreasing government funding will unambiguously reduce the size of the Australian book industry; and with that we will lose the many associated benefits to Australian society.
It has now been 20 years since Amazon sold its first book: the titillating-sounding Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, by Douglas Hofstadter. Since then publishers have often expressed concern over Amazon. Recent public spates with Hachette and Penguin Random House have heightened the public’s awareness of this fraught relationship.
It has been presented as a David and Goliath battle. This is despite the underdogs’ status as the largest publishing houses in the world. As Amazon has become the primary destination for books online, it has been able to lower book prices through their influence over the book trade. Many have argued that this has reduced the book to “a thing of minimal value”.
Despite this pervasive narrative of the evil overlord milking its underlings for all their worth, Amazon has actually offered some positive changes in the publishing industry over the last 20 years. Most notably, the website has increased the visibility of books as a form of entertainment in a competitive media environment. This is an achievement that should not be diminished in our increasingly digital world.
In Amazon’s early years, Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO, was keen to avoid stocking books. Instead, he wanted to work as a go-between for customers and wholesalers. Instead of building costly warehouses, Amazon would instead buy books as customers ordered them. This would pass the savings on to the customers. (It wasn’t long, however, until Amazon started building large warehouses to ensure faster delivery times.)
This promise of a large selection of books required a large database of available books for customers to search. Prior to Amazon’s launch, this data was available to those who needed it from Bowker’s Books in Print, an expensive data source run by the people who controlled the International Standardised Book Number (ISBN) standard in the USA.
ISBN was the principle way in which people discovered books, and Bowker controlled this by documenting the availability of published and forthcoming titles. This made them one of the most powerful companies in the publishing industry and also created a division between traditional and self-published books.
Bowker allowed third parties to re-use their information, so Amazon linked this data to their website. Users could now see any book Bowker reported as available. This led to Amazon’s boasts that they had the largest bookstore in the world, despite their lack of inventory in their early years. But many other book retailers had exactly the same potential inventory through access to the same suppliers and Bowker’s Books in Print.
Amazon’s decision to open up the data in Bowker’s Books in Print to customers democratised the ability to discover of books that had previously been locked in to the sales system of physical book stores. And as Amazon’s reputation improved, they soon collected more data than Bowker.
For the first time, users could access data about what publishers had recently released and basic information about forthcoming titles. Even if customers did not buy books from Amazon, they could still access the information. This change benefited publishers as readers who can quickly find information about new books are more likely to buy new books.
As Amazon expanded beyond books, ISBN was no longer the most useful form for recalling information about items they sold. So the company came up with a new version: Amazon Standardized Identifier Numbers (ASINs), Amazon’s equivalent of ISBNs. This allowed customers to shop for books, toys and electronics in one place.
The ASIN is central to any Amazon catalogue record and with Amazon’s expansion into selling eBooks and second hand books, it connects various editions of books. ASINs are the glue that connect eBooks on the Kindle to shared highlights, associated reviews, and second hand print copies on sale. Publishers, and their supporters, can use ASINs as a way of directing customers to relevant titles in new ways.
Will Cookson’s Bookindy is an example of this. The mobile app allows readers to find out if a particular book is available for sale cheaper than Amazon in an independent bookstore nearby. So Amazon’s advantage of being the largest source of book-related information is transformed into a way to build the local economy.
ASINs are primarily useful for finding and purchasing books from within the Amazon bookstore, but this is changing. For example, many self-published eBooks don’t have ISBNs, so Amazon’s data structure can be used to discover current trends in the publishing industry. Amazon’s data allows publishers to track the popularity of books in all forms and shape their future catalogues based on their findings.
While ISBNs will remain the standard for print books, ASIN and Amazon’s large amount of data clearly benefits publishers through increasing their visibility. Amazon have forever altered bookselling and the publishing industry, but this does not mean that its large database cannot be an invaluable resource for publishers who wish to direct customers to new books outside of Amazon.
I was never capable of the precision required by childhood’s frequent forays into organized arts and crafts. My personal style was much too messy, so my many artistic endeavors were more of the sketch-and-doodle variety; I often colored outside the lines, literally and figuratively (indeed, coloring outside the lines was my favorite metaphor in my teenage diaries).
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It’s never been easy for readers to know what to believe in academic research. The entire history of science publishing has been riddled with controversy and debate from its very beginning when Hobbes and Boyle, scientists at the Royal Society in London, argued over the scientific method itself.
Even a cursory glance at academic publishing since then shows articles contradicting each others’ findings, papers subsequently shown to contain half truths (even in the serious matter of clinical trials) and yet more that are simply fabricated. Shaky and controversial results have been a part of science since it began to be documented.
Enter a new apparent villain – “predatory open access” publishing, now claimed by some to be overwhelming the literature with questionable research. As highlighted in the recent documentary on Radio National, and subsequently discussed in The Conversation, there has been a proliferation of dodgy new journals and publishers who call themselves “open access” and who eagerly court academics to be editorial board members, to submit their articles and to attend and speak at conferences.
These activities have led to concern over whether any open access publications can be trusted. Librarians in institutions in Australia and elsewhere attempt to keep abreast of all these “predatory” journals and publishers.
In a more positive endeavour, an organisation of legitimate open access publishers (OASPA) has come together and they and other journal associations and the Directory of Open Access Journals have produced ways to assess journals.
Although the extent of the problem is not known (and may even be exaggerated by ever-expanding blacklists), some academics still submit to questionable journals, newspapers give publicity to bizarre articles from them, and non-academic readers rightly wonder what on earth is going on.
It’s worth remembering how new this all is. Whereas scholarly publishing is 350 years old, it is only 25 years since the web began; academic online publishing followed about 20 years ago. Open access – a part of the wider open scholarship movement (which seeks to enhance integrity and good scholarship) – is barely 15 years old.
What we are witnessing is the oft-repeated story of what happens when any new technology appears. Alongside an explosion of opportunities for good, there will always be those that seek to exploit, such as these predatory publishers.
But just as no one ever assumed that everything in print was trustworthy, neither should that be the case for open access content. And in the end the content is what matters – whether delivered by open access, subscription publishing, or a printed document.
To complicate matters further, alongside this revolution in access, the academic literature itself is evolving apace with papers being put online before review and revisions of papers made available with peer review histories alongside.
Even the format of the academic paper is changing. Datasets or single figures with little explanation attached to them can now be be published. The concept of an academic paper that is a definitive statement of “truth” is finally being laid to rest.
It was never a realistic concept and arguably has led to much confusion about the nature of truth, especially in science. Science evolves incrementally. Each finding builds on evidence from before, some of which will stand up to scrutiny via replication, and some not.
As the amount of information available increases exponentially, the challenge for everyone is to learn how to filter and assess the information presented, wherever it is published.
For scientists, one way of deciding how important an article is has traditionally been which journal it has been published in. However, even prestigious journals publish work that is unreliable. Hence there are initiatives such as the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment which discourages judging papers only by where they are published.
For non-academic readers, understanding what to trust is even more challenging. Whether the article has been peer-reviewed is a good starting point.
Most important of all perhaps is the need for a modicum of common sense – the type of judgements we apply every day to claims about items in our daily lives: can I see the whole paper or am I just seeing an exerpt? How big was the study being reported? Do the claims seem sensible? Is the result backed up by other things I have read? And what do other experts in this area think of the research?
Radio National’s Background Briefing recently presented a grim academic tale of identity theft, shambolic conferences, exploitation, sham peer review and pseudoscience.
Presenter Hagar Cohen provided an eye-opening introduction to predatory academic publishing and conferences, with a particular focus on the publisher OMICS Group. It was also a very human story, including researchers travelling across the globe only to find they’re attending an imitation of an academic conference.
Why do predatory and vanity academic publishers and conferences exist? Why are they flourishing now? And what can they tell us about the failings of academia?
“Publish or perish” is a simplification of academic life, but contains an element of truth. There’s little point undertaking research if you don’t tell anybody about it, and this has been true for centuries. Four centuries ago, astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler discussed their observations, calculations and methods in books.
Understandably, academic publications, citations of publications and conference presentations have become metrics for academic performance. One can (and should) argue about the legitimacy of such metrics, but they are a fact of modern academic life.
Peer review of manuscripts by academics is also critical to academic publishing. Does the manuscript add to the body of knowledge? Does the manuscript accurately discuss previous work? Are there significant errors in the manuscript? Does the manuscript clearly communicate relevant methods, results and arguments? Are the conclusions of the manuscript justified?
Peer review is imperfect, but prevents many dubious manuscripts from being published. It effectively excludes authors who are unwilling or unable to meet the standards of mainstream academic publishing.
Vanity and predators
Both vanity and predatory academic publishers exploit opportunities created by legitimate peer review and academic performance metrics. In particular, they allow authors to publish articles that would never survive legitimate peer review.
Vanity academic journals have existed for decades, and these imitations of legitimate journals often promote particular (discredited) ideas or have strong ideological biases. For example, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons may sound respectable, but publishes pseudoscience including HIV-AIDS denial, climate contrarianism and anti-vaccination scaremongering.
More recently, there has been an explosion of predatory journals, which seek to make large profits by publishing (for a fee) virtually anything that comes their way. While predatory publishers claim to peer-review articles, this is often a sham.
For example, on Background Briefing I discussed “Discovering the Total Contents of the Universe”, which was published in an OMICS journal. This article was supposedly peer-reviewed, but isn’t based on observations nor a scientific methodology. Instead, it makes claims about aliens based on “ancient Indian scriptures” and “a mathematical language, which has long been forgotten by mankind”. To be blunt, it is nonsense.
While most academics ignore dubious journals, such publications have an impact beyond academia. The vanity Journal of Cosmology often publishes bogus claims of alien life, which sections of the media credulously repeat.
I’ve also seen activists reference studies from predatory journals in an attempt to bolster their arguments.
Predatory publishers often exploit the goodwill of legitimate academics. Being invited to present at a conference or edit a journal is usually evidence of being held in high esteem by your peers. It can be an opportunity too good to miss, but with predatory publishers there’s a sting in the tail.
Predatory publishers often invite academics to join editorial boards, giving journals an air of legitimacy. However, they often ignore academics’ feedback on manuscripts or even use academics’ names without permission.
Similarly, predatory outfits will invite academics to present at conferences, for a hefty fee, but those conferences may be pale imitations of real conferences. Background Briefing attended a shambolic conference in Brisbane with fewer than 30 attendees. Many of the speakers listed on the program did not attend. One has to wonder if the missing speakers even knew they were on the conference program.
University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall maintains a list of hundreds of potentially predatory publishers, which produce thousands of dodgy journals. Most of these publishers have appeared in the past decade.
This proliferation is an unfortunate side effect of online open access publishing. Online publications do not have the overheads of printed journals, as they require only a website and correctly formatted PDF documents. Conference venues across the globe can be booked online with a credit card. Since this requires only a computer, many predatory publishers operate from modest offices or suburban houses.
Traditionally journals have been available via subscription only, often at considerable expense to institutions. Open access publications are available to everyone instantly, which potentially unlocks academic knowledge, but requires fees from the authors (or funding agencies) to remain viable. This opens the door for predatory publishers seeking to prise money from authors, resulting in thousands of new suspect journals.
Can the vanity and predatory publishers provide lessons for academia? Clearly, no sector of the community (including academia) is free from shonky online operators.
While it would be cute to assume there are just good and bad publishers, sometimes the practices of the dodgy operators can be found elsewhere. Springer and IEEE have published gibberish produced by a computer program. Elsevier publishes Homeopathy, despite homeopathy having no scientific basis. Academics must strive to maintain and improve academic standards, including at major publishers.
It would also be wrong to assume that functioning peer review is a simple arbiter of right and wrong. There is a spectrum of peer review, with quality varying from journal to journal. Peer review is only a quality-control process that can sometimes fail, even at the best journals.
That said, those who knowingly avoid peer review by submitting to vanity and predatory publishers are effectively avoiding scrutiny and rigour. They are deliberately avoiding what is needed to advance knowledge and understanding.