There are no magic fixes for academic publishing

Earlier this week, Rufus Pollock published a proposal for reforming academic publishing. I do agree with some of the basic assumptions behind this piece: that academic publishing is hopelessly broken and doesn’t serve anybody well except for-profit publishers, and that technology can play a significant part in the solution. (I have in fact said these things before.) But here’s the thing: this is a social problem, and social problems do not easily lend themselves to purely technical solutions. None of the problems Pollock’s proposed solutions address are the actual problems that need solving to make academic research widely available to the public at no cost at the point of use.

There are three factors we need to consider to better understand the problems we actually need to solve: 1. the traditional model of academic publishing; 2. open access both as intended and as implemented; 3. what academics actually get CV points for (which is slightly different to what we actually care about, but that’s a separate problem).

1. I’ll stick to the model for academic papers. Books are slightly different but similarly broken. Academic journals, which is where most academic papers appear, are traditionally run by one of a handful of academic publishing houses. Sage, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and Taylor & Francis between them publish 50% of all academic papers. Their costs are fairly minimal. Most journals will have a paid editor and some production staff. Print distribution does happen but with the advent of electronic journals it’s in severe decline. Importantly, there are two big-ticket items that publishers don’t pay for: content, and quality assurance. Content is provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points. Quality assurance (also known as peer review) is also provided free by academics because that’s how we get CV points/get to snark at our colleagues/arch-nemeses.

Getting hold of a single academic paper through this model costs the end user anywhere between US$30 and US$120. Subscriptions significantly lower the cost per paper, as do subscription packages – but most people don’t want to read every single paper in a specific journal over the course of a year, so subscriptions/packages only make sense for large institutions, mainly academic libraries. There’s another part to this system that Pollock picks up on, which is indexing, i.e. making papers discoverable. I actually don’t know how the indexing business model works but if I were to guess based on how broken the rest of the industry is, journals and libraries both pay subscription fees for anything other than maybe Google Scholar. (Google is in a different business and also only partially useful for indexing academic papers.)

2. It is a perfectly reasonable position to look at the above and declare it broken. It’s broken in several ways, but most glaringly in that both the people who create the content and the people who (indirectly, through taxes) pay for the vast majority of research to be done in the first place, can’t access the content without putting money in the pockets of large private corporations who have contributed, at most, a bit of branding and a bit of admin to the entire thing. And since we have the internet, it seems entirely reasonable to go “just publish it all online for free!” And thus Open Access was born. Except you still have massively powerful corporations in the system who aren’t going to keel over so easily and lose their nearly pure profit. So the first thing they tried was to discredit the system. “Oh, but if you have Open Access then who will do quality assurance? It’ll be a free for all!” And when that didn’t work well enough (it did do some damage to the credibility of Open Access unfortunately) they lobbied until Open Access got redesigned in a way that would still let them profit from it in much the same way as before.

This is how Open Access works: there are two levels – green and gold. Some journals operate both, some only one. There might even still be a few out there that offer neither. Green level OA works on time: the journal has exclusive distribution rights for a given amount of time (normally between 6 and 24 months), after which the paper becomes Open Access and can be accessed by everyone for free (which may or may not be hosted by the journal – but most UK universities now have their own OA research repositories where stuff gets hosted). Add 24 months to the academic publishing cycle, which can take several years in the first place, and by the time the general public gets to read “cutting edge research”, it’s based on ten-year-old data. In physics, where the speed of light doesn’t change that much, this is mildly inconvenient. In computer science, which moves at the speed of Moore’s Law, this system is not even remotely fit for purpose. (Let’s not talk about the arts and humanities, that’s an entirely separate rant.)

Gold OA simply shifts which university department pays the publisher: if you want your paper to be published under Gold OA, you as the author – or your institution – have to pay the publisher for the privilege. Depending on journal, field and publisher, we’re talking US$1,000 – US$6,000 per paper. Now, the assumption here is that eventually all academic publishing will transition to full OA so libraries won’t have to pay subscription fees to access articles anymore, and therefore the money that’s currently being spent on that can be spent on on Article Processing Charges instead, and universities won’t be any worse off. There are about six million problems with this. For a start there is what is now looking like it’ll be quite a lengthy transition period. Between nuclear fusion and full OA, my money is on getting nuclear fusion first. During this transition period, universities are stuck having to pay both ways. The people this screws over most are PhD students and early career researchers, particularly the ones not funded by research councils. If you’re funded by a research council, there may be some money as part of your funding for dissemination and OA publication. If you’re not, tough luck, Gold OA is something you can only dream about. Other people this screws over are increasingly casualised researchers (often also early career) and independent scholars who don’t have an institution or funder behind them (who, unsurprisingly, are mostly from already marginalised groups). To add insult to injury, people who don’t understand the gory details of OA tend to view Gold OA as vanity publishing.

And yes, there are independent academic journals which run entirely not for profit on the Green OA model, making papers available immediately. They are few and far between, those that do exist have to fight hard to establish credibility and reputation (because of the work publishers did to discredit OA originally), and of course this model relies entirely on people wanting to contribute to their community for very little reward. Some examples of this working well are Transformative Works and Cultures which is a fan studies journal run by the Organisation for Tranformative Works, and the one where the entire academic staff of one of the biggest linguistics journals told Elsevier they could stick it and started an OA journal instead. But in the vast majority of cases we’re still stuck with the big publishers.

But what about arXiv.org I hear you ask! Which brings us neatly to 3: what do academics actually get CV points for?

3. (This bit covers the more or less gory details of research funding in the UK, but the broad principles of prestige, peer review, and funding being tied to publication applies, with minor tweaks to the exact metrics, to anyone wanting to pursue an academic career at a Western university.) Research at UK universities is funded in two main ways: by the research councils, which tend to fund specific projects, and (in England) by HEFCE which allocates generic lump sums of money every five years or so. I used to know the percentage split of how much money comes in from HEFCE and how much from research councils but I don’t anymore – either way, the HEFCE money is a significant chunk for many universities. How much HEFCE money a university gets is determined by an arcane process called the REF (Research Excellence Framework), where every five or so years universities submit their research output to a panel (by subject) and the panel decides how good the research output is, on a scale from one to four stars (four being world-leading). Every star on every paper means a certain amount of money annually for the university. A four-star paper is worth about £10k a year, which means that if you have four four-star papers in a given REF period, your salary is more or less covered by the HEFCE money that brings in. Which in turn means you might be able to get a/keep your job for the next REF cycle. (It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it.)

Theoretically the REF panel judges papers on their own merits, not on where they were published. Practically, the sheer volume of work they have to get through… Yeah. There’s a strong incentive to publish in established, high-impact-factor (don’t ask), for-profit journals. There is literally zero incentive to just chuck your paper on something like arXiv and run. The reason arXiv works for the community that uses it is that it’s a pre-publication archive: the papers, in slightly altered form, are still published in the big academic journals where they get their impact factor and REF eligibility etc. (Now, HEFCE has said that any paper published after April 1, 2016, to be eligible for the 2020 REF, needs to be in an OA repository. What this means in practice is that if your paper is still embargoed under Green OA, or is in a non-OA journal but is sitting behind a password on your institutional repository, your’re fine. Which is some great hoop-jumping for not a lot of direct benefit to the general public.)

So these are the actual problems any review of Open Access or any other solution seeking to make academic research available to the public should be looking to solve. Pollock’s proposed model doesn’t come near it. From what I can see, it eliminates peer review entirely. Now, peer review is broken in several interesting ways, but unless we fix how research is funded and academics are employed, it’s one of the less bad ways of doing quality assurance on academic research. Because all three of Pollock’s filtering/selection models eliminate the double-blind aspect of peer review, the system automatically becomes even less accessible to marginalised groups (aka the “try hanging out on Reddit as not-a-cishet-white-dude phenomenon”). Because it doesn’t take into account any of how research itself is funded and what the key stakeholders in this process (researchers, their employers and funders) actually care about, the model is completely unworkable. And because it doesn’t take into account the vested interests which shape the current system (for-profit publishers), even if it was workable there’s no clear path to implementation.

All of which is why requirements engineering is an art, and why you shouldn’t try to fix complex social problems with technical solutions.

Purple Prose – Help us make something amazing!

[The Purple Prose crowdfunding page is here. Help us make it happen!]

A little over a year ago I came across a blog post or a tweet, I can’t quite remember. Someone wanted to put together a book. A book about the experiences of bisexual people in the UK, by the bi community, for the bi community. I have some experience with being bi in the UK, I thought. I can write some things.

I was in the process of quitting a job that had involved, among other things, working on LGBT workplace issues for over a decade. The workplace chapter poured out of me in a day: ten years’ experience, 5000 words, just happened. I was also in the process of starting a PhD all about the politics of culture, identity and representation. It made sense that I would compile a chapter on the representation of bisexuality in fiction. I contributed other bits and pieces: some thoughts on internalised biphobia, my coming out story, snippets on what my sexuality meant to me.

I followed the progress of the book on our mailing list as questions were asked and answered, other chapters were compiled, the wordcount slowly ticked up. Then we had a publisher, and a deadline, and now we have a crowdfunding campaign. But the most amazing thing is that this week I got my hands on a copy of the first complete draft. I was only going to check that my chapters were ok… and then I started reading. And I couldn’t stop. I laughed out loud on the tube, I cried in a cafe, I learned so many things.

There are so many different voices here, so many experiences. Some things are similar: most of us have experienced biphobia at times, or felt erased and invisible, or felt unwelcome in spaces that should have been safe. Most of us keep having to come out again and again, often to the same people. But there is also a huge diversity. Purple Prose doesn’t play respectability politics. It shows you the bi community in all its intersectional glory.

We have a chapter on gender and bisexuality, featuring among other things the experiences of many non-binary bisexual people, previously unrepresented. We have a chapter on bisexuality and non-monogamy, one on bisexuality, disability and mental health, and one on the experiences of bisexual black and minority ethnic people. We have a chapter on how bisexuality may intersect with other attractions and orientations, both sexual and romantic; a chapter on bisexuality and faith, and one showcasing the experiences of bi people of different generations. We have people who have found a home in the bi community, and others writing very frank and honest accounts challenging that community to do better by them.

Where we stand united is in challenging society at large to do better by all of us. To stop erasing us, to accept all of us rather than just focus on those who meet a certain “respectability” standard. To make sure that bi kids growing up today don’t have to deal with the kinds of crap that was thrown at us.

As I watched this project grow from Katy’s idea, to having a dedicated group of contributors, to actually putting words on the page, my main thought was that I wished I’d had a book like that when I was growing up. I hoped that this book would help young bi people trying to work out their sexual and romantic orientations and navigate a world that continues to be binary and monosexist. But as I practically inhaled the first draft, I realised we had produced so much more. I have been a bi activist for many years now, one way or another, and I thought I knew what being bi meant, to me and to others. And yes, I knew some things. But it turns out I had plenty to learn too, and I am immensely grateful to all the other Purple Prose contributors for sharing their stories, their thoughts, their feelings and experiences.

The thing is, we are now very very close to making this book a reality. It’s written and being edited as we speak. We have a publisher. But we need a little bit of capital to get us to the finish line. So if you are bi, if there are bi people in your life, or if you simply want to make the world a better place for bi people, head over to the Purple Prose Indiegogo page and help us make it happen. If you fund us to the tune of £5 or more, you will get a copy of the book. If you want to club together with some friends, or your work LGBT network and make a bigger donation, you can get me or some of the other awesome contributors to speak at your event. But even if all you can give is £2, you will have our sincere thanks and the knowledge that you have helped the bi community create something amazing.

[Ada Lovelace Day] The Truth

[Content Note: Contains references to sexual assault and rampant misogyny.]

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today, and over the years I have profiled various women in the sciences, technology, engineering and maths to celebrate. But this year, Ada Lovelace Day follows close on the heels of the publication of an article exposing decades-long sexual assault by a leading astronomer at Berkeley and the complete failure of the university to deal with this in anything even resembling an appropriate manner. And this has made me realise that while the work Ada Lovelace Day does in inspiring girls to pursue careers in STEM is hugely important, it is also absolutely vital that we tell girls the truth.

And the truth is ugly. The truth is that Geoff Marcy is far from an isolated case. The truth is that Nobel laureates in your field may feel entitled to make you the punch line of a joke. The truth is that in a corporate career in technology your boss may ask you when International Men’s Day is. The truth is that you will be offered as a perk in job adverts, that you will be (illegally) asked about your childcare plans in job interviews, that in all likelihood you will be consistently underpaid compared to male colleagues with the same amount of experience doing the same job as you just as well. The truth is that these things happen to middle class white women, and god help you if you’re marginalised and oppressed on another axis as well. The truth is that all those micro- and macroaggressions add up.

The truth is that your best bet is to invest significant amounts of time and energy to keep yourself and other women safe. Not because this should in any way be your responsibility, but because no one else will. You may have to stand up to your boss in front of your younger and more impressionable colleagues and tell him that International Men’s Day is all the other 364 days of the year. You may have to walk out of job interviews in tears. You may have to pass on applying for that start-up job because it would involve working with dickbags who see you as a perk. You may have to seek out other women in departments you’re applying to to find out which of your prospective male colleagues you should avoid. (Or later, you may have to be the one warning younger women.) You may have to make a choice between filing a complaint for sexual harassment and finishing your thesis.

The truth is also that you’re not responsible for the shitty state our society is in, or for the behaviour of entitled male colleagues towards you or other women, and that you can’t single-handedly fix it. The truth is that standing up to your boss, or filing a complaint may hurt your career, and may cause you even more distress than the original incident, and you would be fully justified not to do it. The truth is that neither choice will make you feel good about yourself.

This is not to tell you that you shouldn’t pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or maths. It’s not even to tell you that these fields are that much worse than others: we’ve seen similar bullshit in politics, investment banking, the legal profession, and pretty much any male-dominated field. The corollary is that any field which somehow becomes female-dominated also automatically becomes devalued. So, you know, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But please please do pursue careers in those fields! The only way anything might change is if enough of us bang our heads against those brick walls that they (the walls!) eventually crack. Be aware, though, that chances are that your head will crack first. Walk into this with your eyes open, do what you can to keep yourself safe, seek out and build support networks around you, try to help others where you can. That’s the best you can do. That’s the best any of us can do.

Call for Papers: Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives

Sex and Sexualities in Popular Culture: Feminist Perspectives

Call for Papers for a 1-day postgraduate symposium hosted by the Digital Cultures Research Centre

Popular culture, as can be seen through the GamerGate controversy for one example, has a profound impact on feminist issues and discourses. Representations of sex and sexualities influence public opinion and individual attitudes and perceptions. Discussions – in both media and academia – are continuing to take place about the impact of Fifty Shades, sexism and misogyny in computer game and comic book fandom, the sexualisation of girls and the sexual desires of both young and adult women. Moral panics abound surrounding Fifty Shades and the “irrational” behaviour of One Direction fans, while LGBTQIA+ identities and sexualities are often represented tokenistically at best. Creative practitioners can easily come under fire for poor representations of sex and sexualities, as evidenced most recently by the reception of Joss Whedon’s treatment of Black Widow in The Avengers: Age of Ultron; equally they can be celebrated for their efforts, as was the case with BioWare’s inclusion of a consent negotiation scene in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

This one-day symposium will open up debates and explore the nuances of sex and sexualities within popular culture and will afford a platform for postgraduate students (MA/MSc onwards) and creative practitioners exploring these areas to meet peers, share work and learn from each other. We aim to create a space safe for experimentation – both with new ideas and with presentation formats. We therefore encourage a range of submissions, including workshops, discussions, pecha kucha, as well as the traditional 20-minute paper format.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • Representations of women’s desire and sexualities in popular culture
  • Non-cis- and heteronormative sexualities in popular culture, especially beyond “gay and lesbian”
  • Representations of sex work
  • Infertility and sexual dysfunction
  • Sexual intersections: race, disability, religion, class and socioeconomic status, gender
  • Sex and sexualities in gaming
  • Sexual pleasure in popular culture
  • Invisibility: (a)sexualities unrepresented
  • Sex, sexualities and social media
  • Sex and sexualities in fan and transformative works

Please submit a 300-word abstract and a 100-word bio to milena2.popova@live.uwe.ac.uk and bethanvjones@hotmail.com by September 27th, 2015.

Abstract deadline: September 27th, 2015

Conference date and location: November 7th, 2015, Digital Cultures Research Centre, The Watershed, Bristol

Eligibility: Postgraduate students (MA/MSc onwards) and creative practitioners

Send abstracts to:  milena2.popova@live.uwe.ac.uk and bethanvjones@hotmail.com

Life, indeed, doesn’t come with trigger warnings, but…

[cn/tw: discussion of trigger warnings; mention of issues which may warrant trigger warnings, such as sexual violence; descriptions of being triggered]

Someone who is, loosely speaking, a colleague (an academic in the humanities) wrote yesterday in the Guardian that life doesn’t come with trigger warnings, and therefore books shouldn’t either.

I see this debate rehashed in various contexts (fandom, academia, school teaching) roughly once a week. We can’t coddle students; this element of the work I’m teaching has to be a surprise to the audience or it won’t work; go to therapy instead of class if you’re so upset; I can’t possibly warn for everything that might upset someone. Aside from the fact that therapy isn’t available to the vast majority of trauma survivors (and particularly to women who’ve experienced sexual violence), let me tell you why, if you’re so reluctant to use trigger warnings in an educational context, you’re a poor educator.

As an educator, your primary goal should be to facilitate students’ learning. Now here’s what happens every time one of your students encounters triggering content unprepared in one of your classes or assigned readings. I’m basing this on my own experiences which, frankly, are fairly mild. The first thing I experience are intrusive thoughts: memories of my abuse experience, not so bad that I can’t tell where I am or think that it’s happening to me again, but bad enough that I need to pay attention to those thoughts, and relive part of the experience. I then tend to try to redirect and refocus these thoughts: often to regret, sometimes to anger, as much as possible to some kind of rationalisation – either of why this happened to me or why I’m being triggered at this moment. If I’m lucky, that’s about it, I can then move on and away from these thoughts. In the occasional instances where I’m not so lucky, I experience physical reactions: feeling cold, shaking, unable to warm up for hours; involuntary sounds; on a couple of occasions curling up in a ball, sobbing, crying, heart racing, struggling to breathe.

Guess what I’m not doing while all of this is going on. I am not paying attention to anything you might be saying in class, or any ongoing discussion, or anything that’s happening in the film you’re showing. I’m not engaging with the work or with you or with any content. This might be for 30 seconds, or five minutes, but in a few extreme cases it may take me the rest of the day to process these feelings and recover. This does not facilitate my learning.

If, on the other hand, I am prepared for potentially triggering content, I am much better at putting myself in a frame of mind that allows me to engage with said content in the ways you want me to: rationally, critically, and even emotionally. I can pay attention, I can learn the things you’re trying to teach me, I can think about it and reach my own conclusions. If your top priority as an educator is to facilitate students’ learning, then using trigger warnings allows you to do exactly that.

Now, you may argue that it’s only a tiny minority of students that are affected in this way. The stats say otherwise. Nearly one in two women in the UK has experienced sexual assault, domestic abuse, or stalking. That’s not even counting the people who may be affected by other kinds of trauma: eating disorders, drug use, depression, suicidal thoughts, self harm, racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia. As a working estimate, you may be letting down somewhere between a quarter and a third of your class by not providing trigger warnings.

And yes, of course it’s difficult to predict what people will be triggered by. My own triggers are often subtle and not obvious: a particular quality of lighting, certain turns of phrase, as much as outright depictions of sexual violence or abuse. But eliminating the obvious ones (there are plenty of lists on the internet if you’re struggling for ideas) would go a long way towards creating safer spaces for learning – which is what you as an educator should be aiming at.

I research sexual consent, so every time I talk about my research, at conferences and in lectures, I give trigger warnings. I’ve had a couple of people walk out when the warning was given. I’d much rather they did that and ensured they were safe, than them ending up triggered and having this affect the rest of their day or week. In that state of mind they’re highly unlikely to engage with what I have to say anyway, and for good reason. But apart from those couple of cases, the vast majority of people stay, and engage, and I would hope that they’re able to learn something. Which is ultimately what I, as an educator, want.

Surviving

(In which the blogger is hurt and raw and makes some possibly ill-advised political predictions.)

I’ve been at a conference for the last two days so I’m still processing the election result. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in some ways we could have seen this coming. And while I’m in many ways delighted for the SNP and somewhat gleeful at the complete collapse of the Lib Dems, both will bring deep structural problems with them. I am considering dropping some long-term activism work to focus on alleviating some of the immediate and very real harm our new lizard overlords will cause, but at the same time I’m very aware that we can’t afford to drop long-term work because that will only come back to bite us. This government will cause misery, suffering and death in the short term, but in many ways that is only a smoke screen for longer-term projects which will just perpetuate and multiply that suffering. Here’s the five things I’m most worried about on that longer term front:

  1. The EU referendum. I genuinely don’t think that David Cameron has lost connection with reality to the extent that he believes Britain would be better off out of the EU. Leaving the EU would very much be an act of cutting off your nose to spite your face. But I do believe that for a series of short-term gains with both his backbenchers and certain sections of the electorate he has talked himself into a corner and set events into motion that he will not be able to control. A UK exit from the EU would be pointless at best and geopolitically disastrous at worst.
  2. The Human Rights Act. The dominant discourse on human rights in this country continues to baffle me. There’s a certain theme of cutting off your nose to spite your face going on here. It’s almost as if the British public doesn’t realise that they, too, are human. Scrapping the Human Rights Act will of course exacerbate a lot of the short-term immediate hurt this government will cause as many will lose a last recourse to justice, and will entrench inequalities and injustices in the long run.
  3. The Gerrymandering Bill. As if First Past The Post isn’t sufficiently fucked up, this will exacerbate some of the worst issues of the current electoral system and make future Tory majorities more likely. This is the last nail in the coffin of electoral reform for at least a generation.
  4. The Snoopers’ Charter and other surveillance. Granted, a Labour majority government would have probably pushed this one through as well, but this is now a near-certainty. Strengthening the surveillance apparatus of the state is bad news for anyone who is in any way marginalised and attempting to resist. It’s only a matter of time until it’s also bad news for those who believe that they have nothing to hide and thus nothing to fear. Some may also remember that the “emergency” Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 has a sunset clause and can only be renewed by passing new primary legislation. DRIP expires in the middle of this Parliament, I am not holding my breath for it to not be renewed.
  5. Scotland. I have mixed feelings about this one. If the Scots do manage a second run at independence and do get away, I shall wish them much joy. (I actually think even if the Tories are now prepared to genuinely put Devo Max on the table, that will exacerbate the issues and hasten the demise of the Union.) None of which changes the fact that Scottish independence would leave the rest of the UK even more thoroughly screwed.

So yes. Survival will become even more difficult over the next five years, and it is vital that we try and alleviate the pain. But we need to at least keep an eye on the long term, lest those five years turn to fifty.

 

[Elsewhere] LGBT+ History Month: Identity and the Problem of (Evolving) Language

During the 2014 Winter Olympics (the ones that Russia hosted right after implementing Section 28′s bigger, meaner evil twin), I played something called the Tchaikovsky Drinking Game. It went a bit like this:

  • Non-Russians use music by gay Russian composer: take a drink.
  • Russians use music by gay Russian composer who is also a national treasure: take two drinks.
  • Entire Russian national team walks into stadium to the sound of t.A.T.u: down the bottle.

Read more over at Rainbow Teaching.

[Elsewhere] pornresearcher.eu

My research blog finally looks like it might be up and running. It’s mainly a place for me to think out loud about stuff I’ve read, publish chunks of writing that may or may not make into papers or a thesis, attempt some rudimentary outreach, and hopefully further down the line engage in a dialogue with the fandom community.

Current posts include reviews of the two big fandom ethnographies from the 1990s (Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women and Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers), and some quite raw musings on consent and empathy [TW rape/sexual assault].

[Elsewhere] Ladies’ Things

With Marvel having made six movies with lead actors called Chris, the calls for a woman-led movie have been getting louder. And while we’re going to have to wait until 2018 to see Captain Marvel, and a Black Widow movie is still not on the cards, our appetites have been more than whetted with the latest superhero show to hit our screens; Agent Carter.

Read more at The Geek Agenda.