Category Archives: engaged scholarship

Short article on radical scholarship

Batterbury, S.P.J. 2015. Who are the radical academics today? The Winnower  6pp.


This brief article suggests radical scholarship needs redefinition in the reality of contemporary university life. It must include the conduct of research that supports justice; greater relevance and engagement outside the university; and more attention to  “…the ethics by which and toward which knowledge is produced”, meaning the maintenance of sound personal ethics in everyday life. To be rude, selfish and unduly ambitious demeans any remaining progressive agenda in today’s universities.

Please comment on the Winnower site.  Read by 2300 people in a  month!

Earlier blog version with comments:

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Higher Education’s Silent Killer

Marc Spooner. 2015. Higher Education’s Silent Killer. Briarpatch Magazine. 1 Sept.

“The audit culture distorts scholars’ work by tabulating academic worth through the simplest algorithm: one that considers, for the most part, only peer-reviewed publication, journal impact rankings, and the size of research grants. Whole realms of endeavour are devalued or left out of the equation altogether, including activities such as “slow” research, alternative forms of scholarship and dissemination, devotion to teaching, or actually acting on one’s research findings – all vital aspects of the academic enterprise”enterprise. “


Filed under academic relevance, engaged scholarship, tenure

Academics anonymous, and Fred Inglis, open letter to university leaders

In the spirit of this,

Fred Inglis “Today’s intellectuals: too obedient?” Times Higher, 28 Aug 2014

somebody also wrote this.

These days I do ask a lot of questions before acting. But ‘restructuring’ of universities is one of a couple of issues that never ceases to amaze me. Whole groups of friends, Departments, teaching, professional staff, all decimated to raise prestige, save costs, or pursue a top-down vision.  The current situation in Australia is catching up with the UK’s  very fast. This is not good:-

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Return to the University of Reading after 29 years

I  graduated with a degree in Human and Physical Geography from the University of Reading in 1985, which is 29 years ago. This UK summer I returned to the campus for my first proper visit, to attend the Norma Wilkinson Memorial Lecture. I have forgotten who Norma Wilkinson was, but lots of well known geographers have given the lecture over the years, including David Harvey.

Returning was a strange experience. I attended the University in 1982 after having got an “E” (the lowest pass) for geography in my British school A-levels in 1981, and therefore working in a factory during a gap year. I retook  the A-level at a crammer college in London with much greater success. Without that effort and expense  I could not have gone to Reading and not become an academic later on.

The first year at uni was miserable, but the second and third were great, and I learned enough to set me up for life – initially in urban consultancy in London at PMA, and then a PhD program in the USA. You can read one of my undergrad student essays here – a rather un-radical but empiricist account of contributions to public policy written in 1984. For the geographers among the readership, I was taught by John Short, Andrew Kirby, John Townshend, Andy Millington, Sir Peter Hall who died just a week ago, Mike Breheny, John Soussan, Paul Longley,  Sophie Bowlby, John Silk and several others. There were fieldtrips to Tunisia, the Netherlands, Dorset, and various freezing and waterlogged quarries and ‘exposures’ of sediments around south east UK. If this cast of characters was submitted to the UK’s contemporary infernal ‘research ranking exercises’   today (The REF), I am sure the Department  would come out very well. Hall seemed to produce a major work almost every year, Mike Breheny too. John Short has continued to do so.  The physical geographers were excellent and most moved to top positions elsewhere. At the time, Cambridge was dominant as a geography Department in the UK  but it focussed on cultural and historical work and the various lecturers, whose work we absorbed in our own seminars, were too scholarly for my interests at the time.  Oxford was still teaching old-school regional geography – the Department was later reinvigorated considerably. Reading’s work was more contemporary than these, akin to Leeds or Bristol – understanding contemporary change in the white heat of S.E. UK’s technologically driven industrial change (Reading was situated in the middle of it) and there was a good deal of applied work on sustainability issues and international development.

As students, we went to the Library (yes the physical library show right – it is still there) and I became expert at pulling references and ideas together for essays and reports, and ‘surveying a field’ of study and what is going on within it. Useful skills, 30 yrs later, and reflected in the fact that I still work on many things at once.  I attended all the lectures over the three years, bar about two. I did all the readings. I felt part of the Department, even as an undergrad. I got a first class degree, much to my surprise. I was one of three from that cohort to go onto a PhD.

Return to place is always bittersweet. I vary rarely go down memory lane – it is cluttered and bypassed. On campus, I discovered the basic layout of the place unchanged. Some rather objectionable 60s-80s buildings are still there (like this, the

Lego building) I went to the old Geography building I remember well, but it was deserted – Geography has just moved out to relocate elsewhere on campus (I think the Geog building opened in 1983 next to Geology, because in my first year we still had some portacabins). There are more shops and cafés on campus (we did not have much in the 1980s except a Student Union with a beer-stained carpet and a shop) and it seems there are plans for more construction. The Norma Wilkinson lecture was held in the old Geology building (Geology was a Department that was later axed at some stage), in which I had to take lectures on regional science back in 1983. Little had changed in the theatre – it still had an overhead projector and whiteboard, and uncomfortable seats. I reflected that my own university in Australia is far better endowed, with some excellent teaching facilities, for which we are grateful. It is also much larger and has high fees, of course.

None of my former lecturers are currently on the permanent staff.  The Professoriate in the Department today were promoted far younger than the people I remember there from the 1980s, except Peter Hall (who was a Professor at 37!) –– and I am sure they are doing a good job and probably re-inventing whatever ‘traditions’ the Department had from previous decades – if these are even acknowledged. I wish them well. They do make me feel old, though.

My overwhelming sense is of misplaced memories. As an undergrad, the campus seems large, super-modern, and situated at the centre of things in SE England. We really thought we were in some sort of ‘core’ location. Today the university feels smaller to me and less central, and the town centre, which was never very nice, has grown in its density and levels of capital investment. Certainly the university has had to cut back – closing Schools, Departments and even campuses over the years (all phrased positively as ‘consolidation’, of course). The town now has many more commercial office developments and high street shopping, and the railway station on the main line to the West Country and London has  grown massively in size. The town still feels like an unfinished project – still some building sites and empty offices. But it has changed in other ways – I noticed a Bike Kitchen, a voluntary sector phenomenon I have been studying elsewhere, and a ‘Global Cafe & Bar‘ linked to a  social solidarity centre – countercultural elements we did not have in the 1980s at all. The hastily built housing estate where we rented a place in in Lower Earley seems to have  survived (Woodmere Close, where a group of us had a variety of decrepit vehicles, upsetting the upwardly mobile neighbours – I even started building a Dutton kit car in the garage).

What I took from Reading, I suppose,  was a combined interest in assisting equitable transitions in the world (this entered the field of applied geography we were taught in those days, but not all we learned in the 1980s was actually progressive) and international environmental and development in Africa. Lectures were detailed and well prepared. I’m grateful for what I learned, and I actually saw through the sentiments gained through study in my own projects later on. Life may have been very different without having gone there. Having parked my bike on memory lane for an afternoon in July, it is now time to head back to the present.

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Who are the radical academics today?

Bill Bunge's Detroit Expedition map 1968 - radical cartography that had a big impact (please cite it if you use this essay) We can usefully redefine what radical scholarship is in the contemporary period where universities are financially challenged, and changing their roles considerably. It is possible to hold to radical ideas of social and environmental justice as a scholar and academic, and to thrive within the university environment? Perhaps in the 1950s and 1960s, hard. The author of the map above, Bill Bunge, was such an example. Today, yes. But now there are multiple aspects of  being ‘radical’. These include vision and personal politics, adapting to a changing audience, to different media in the internet age, and working in a rapidly changing political economy.  I concentrate on three aspects particularly pertinent to scholarship. The third of these is relatively new in such debates. I think we need to break down ‘radicalism’ in the university context into three areas.

The first is  externally focussed research to promote and support justice. The ‘external’ mission (i.e. dealing with issues outside one’s immediate academic demands and  surroundings)  for a radical scholar, has evolved  since the 1960s. The period has seen the decline of state socialism and the rise of neoliberal regimes that seek the maximization of utility, rather than equality. The work of radical scholars, opposed to free market capitalism,  has anchors in several traditions of thought, particularly political economy. But in practice it includes supporting the vulnerable, environmental causes, justice in many forms, attacking corrupt regimes and institutions, and exposing hypocrisy particularly in capitalist regimes.

The  reaction to  the McCarthyism in the US in the early 1950s (the second Red Scare with accusations of communism in US life), the civil rights movement, anti-War protests, and the other liberative social movements of the 1960s aided the introduction and acceptance  of radical ideas towards the end of the decade. These included  Marxism and feminism, that have worked their way into the universities where they have stayed and enriched them (Casenave 1988). This tradition is ongoing, strong, and while perhaps too  concentrated in producing academic outputs (ideas in books, journals etc.) rather than in creating “spaces of hope” and better policy in society itself, it still has a great  importance. A generation of radical scholars have practiced what Paul Robbins calls “wielding the hatchet” – exposing the darker secrets of colonialism, capitalism, greed and inequality. As Alastair Bonnett (2011)  says, since the last 1960s “radicalism has survived by becoming institutionalised. This has allowed academic radicalism to become culturally self-sufficient, with little need to seek popular approval.” One thinks of scholars like Noam Chomsky, Don Mitchell, Henry Giroux and David Harvey, the latter still an unrepentant Marxist and yet the most highly cited human geographer.  The strength of their messages about the arms race, the hypocrisy of western governments, capitalism and environmental violence is combined with erudite scholarship. Giroux and Harvey have – sometimes against criticism – offered visions of how the world could be, not just how it shouldn’t be. These messages and arguments, and the people who produce them, only endanger their careers if they hit too close to home –  attacking potential university funders, which can include industry and government. Otherwise, these and hundreds of other radical scholars tend to  pursue successful academic careers.

Alistair Bonnet again (2011) : “Institutionalisation does not mean evisceration. But it does have consequences. One of these is having to dance to the tune of an increasingly managerial academic culture.”  In my own discipline (geography) this is most certainly the case. Radical geographers publish, obtain research grants (this is the dancing part!), and proceed up the academic hierarchies quite nicely. Many get serious accolades. Those mentioned above, and others like them, rarely had their careers blocked because of their beliefs or actions, and neither did they divert away for long periods into activism. This is because as Don Mitchell says, the academic metier is generally limited in its practical engagement, unless you choose to interpret it in radical ways as a few, like Jean Dreze have done (Mitchell 2008).

* The second dimension is about increased relevance and engagement(Stoddart 1975). Michael  Burawoy, the Berkeley sociologist, theorised that sociology can no longer restrict itself to the academic realm. He begins by noting “The dialectic of progress governs our individual careers as well as our collective discipline. The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials.” (Burawoy 2004: 5). The same could be said of many disciplines.   “Public Sociology endeavors to bring sociology into dialogue with audiences beyond the academy, an open dialogue in which both sides deepen their understanding of public issues. Working with the public rather than studying them, liberates the academic discipline and provides new and progressive avenues for change. He includes students as partof the public constituency. ” Somewhat predictably, in the university “…advocacy of public sociology has generated much heat in many a cool place”. Indeed it has (Watts 2001 and Clive Barnett’s comments on ‘British critical geography’ 2013).

The debate about relevance and application of scholarly ideas is something I treat in a forthcoming book, but the gist of the argument is that, following Burawoy, it is perfectly possible to pursue classical scholarly work (“professional” in Burawoy’s terms) while doing much more – working with constituencies outside the university completely, designing initiatives together, and committing to practical rather than only to in-theory concepts of justice. This does not demean the academic profession, and indeed outside certain rather goal-oriented Departments, this can and does occur across the social sciences. But if engaged and public work does not result in referred outputs and lucrative grants, it again troubles the neoliberal university model where we use metrics to judge the faulty based  on research output. As Dick Peet said (AAG, 2013), frankly  a lack of research output can put a radical scholar in trouble with the university and emperil jobs. But a focus on engagement is quite radical in its own way, and its practitioners do not have to be formenting revolution to be deemed ‘radical’ .  This point is debated  (Castree 2000).

The third dimension of radicalism today is one that scholars are far less anxious to talk about. It is about ” the ethics by which and toward which knowledge is produced” (Michael Coughlear, EAnth listserv,  February 25, 2013). Scholars are nested within departments,within universities. Their practices in this space  can be radical, politically conservative, helpful to others, or selfish.  We are no longer in the situation where radical scholars feel constantly hounded, oppressed, marginalised, and attacked in the university (at least not in western countries, in those with relatively liberal employment regulations). We need to redefine what radical scholarship is in this context. A radical scholar is a term that now includes something more than a certain type of scholarship, I think.  It is also about  rejecting conformity with the  behavioral norms that neoliberal, cash-strapped universities have forced upon us. It is about solidarity with those in the university sector that are oppressed – e.g. low wage, those threatened with dismissal, and the thousands scraping a living on adjunct status. But it is more than that – it is also about doing what the neoliberal search for cash tends to marginalize – teaching, helping others, niceness/goodness, and selflessness (Cahn 2010, Martin 2011). I almost  never see these latter behaviours linked to radical scholarship – commentators on this blog (below) think this comes from a different tradition.

On this latter point, I find some of my colleagues in the higher education sector (at research institutions) are so driven by publication and research (some of it radical, of course) that the other things that are required in our contracts – teaching and service, including reviewing the work of others, supporting younger scholars, etc., working in the community  – are avoided or certainly marginalised. This, of course,  leaves much of that work to other people prepared to step up (usually those with the shorter cvs and the nicer and more helpful dispositions), or to adjuncts. Every time a teaching/research faculty member gets a higher research percentage in their contract,  or refuses to do something that they are best placed to do, others have to cover the work (permanent people in some cases, poorer paid adjuncts in others). So, while teaching brings in far more money that research in almost all cases in the social sciences (despite being less prioritised or ‘prestigious’) and doing it is for the greater good and for that of the students, it sits in the second tier of responsibilities among many radical scholars.  This is not universally true, but my experience since 1995 has been in research universities, where it almost always is.

Teaching is one forum capable of imparting some radical and challenging ideas – e.g. a forensic analysis of corporate behaviour or the capitalist state. But ‘writing time’ is what faculty always  complain is lacking, not teaching time. In addition, writing academic tracts that are narrowly read and often inaccessible behind paywalls  is part of the old publishing order that will hold back debate and marginalizes the social sciences (I develop this here – academic publishing decisions also have a social conscience).

‘Service’ is a North American term that encompasses  the glue that holds universities together. Some of this is best done by academics – from sitting on committees to recruiting students.  It also includes  refereeing  the work of others to enable publication, and generally assisting students and fellow faculty (despite these things being less prioritised for individual advancement). Avoiding these things is not comradely, but depends on your stage of career. The new managerial class in universities – those who are not coming through the academic ranks – are often annoying to radical scholars. But in order to require less of those people, the radicals actually have to do a fair bit of that work themselves. You will actually see some radicals in top university positions, and this is a good thing. ” Being oriented to helping is a counter to the usual self-interested preoccupation  with workloads, status and personal advancement, and is likely to contribute to a greater sense of satisfaction” (Martin 2011: 54).

The problem, to sum up this third point,  is that many full time research/teaching  academics like me are hired to do a multi-task job, but spent a lot of time preferring to escape from certain tasks to focus more on others (usually research – evidence of 20 years of conversations and observing). They are also set within a system that generally facilitates this, while actually asking for teaching as well, for financial and symbolic gain for the university, causing junior people to work very long hours on both. So a radical scholar that is good at both can go very far. The question raised above is whether they have to push anybody out of the way to do this. Focusing on personal advancement in the university sector is not actually radical or helpful when it has negative effects on others. Inger Mewburn from ANU on her blog writes about the problem of academic “assholes”. These are the selfish people. You know who they are… is all about personal status maximization for these guys, and  “Some ambitious sorts work to cut out others, whom they see as competitors, from opportunity” she says. Since the neoliberal research university prioritizes research performance and grant income, above all else (followed by teaching) and if that is what you do, some find it tempting to act in a  cut-throat and non-collegial way to protect their research area or their time. And in most circumstances you get away with this, especially if your research  fame is established – basically you will not get fired to being rude and unpleasant. Especially if protected by tenure. Some people in university cultures are just guilt free and unpleasant in this way, as an article in the THES 2013 says.

There are other options too – think of  Ted Trainer in Australia as well as Jean Dreze in India, both of whom keep one foot in the university sector while pursuing radical and exemplary lives outside of it (see forthcoming book when out). As Ben Wisner pointed out to me (6/4/13), the  argument needs to recognise life stages – early career scholars have to scramble to an extent, while a middle career stage, perhaps with family, may necessarily involve less activism and more do-able research and teaching tasks. The need to do everything drops away at retirement.

Conclusion Academic radicalism is now situated in an altered social context from the period of its formation. In the context of the mainstream neoliberal university today, assisting others in and outside  the sector and doing your share, is actually progressive, even radical. While research and writing  is a vital part of what we do, and provides the evidence to support social change, it does not make you a progressive or radical scholar to behave unpleasantly while carving out the time and space to do it. If this hurts others, or leads you to ignore them or any sense of obligation to them. This  is the case even if your substantive research is ‘radical’ or progressive  in its content. If you are rude and selfish, drop the radical label. You don’t deserve it.

I have begun to think about where ‘radical and critical’ geography sits in all of this. Among people with secure teaching and research jobs, I actually think we should redefine it to include dimension two and three (radical internal) rather than just dimension one (radical external).  So I think doing your teaching and service commitments while fully employed, and engaging more widely as well is actually radical, in a neoliberal university. But there are very few examples. You can do ‘radical’ research as part of your job for sure, but the other side of this is retaining commitment in the workplace while you are actually doing that work. If personal radical research projects went slower because of  the publically engaged nature of scholarship or a lack of ‘writing/research time’,  I think this would illustrate a greater commitment to social justice. To change the status quo, which discourages people from being nice and radical at the same time, we need better leadership and new norms. We need institutional recognition that working hard on other things is equally as valid as research and revenue-raising. This means redefining  the  criteria for academic promotion, for those who are in such positions (many are not).  Although I am not a great supporter of the tenure system in North America, because it is exclusionary, a fourth criteria  could be added to tenure criteria – some measure of  goodness or collegiality (the current three are research, teaching and service).   This is not unproblematic  (watch candidates for promotion, who have been told to do more service or to help others, suddenly step up, then drop off again once promoted!).**

This does not exhaust the discussion.  There is much more to say about radical teaching initiatives  for example (one of which I ran for 3.5 years) and ‘occupy’ campaigns. A fuller  assessment the role of the radical academic in mainstream western society  is not offered here. I am happy to debate this ‘new radicalism’ idea or take any suggestions. In the meantime, avoid the assholes, radical or not (and they usually are not) if you can! * Dick Peet suggested to me (AAG meetings, 2013) that when Dick Walker finally achieved tenure at Berkeley in 1982 was a moment at which time radical geography entered ‘the US academy’, if not  the mainstream, in a more obvious way. He is right – Walker himself said “Leftists had never gotten tenure at Berkeley before my peer group, the 1968ers, came along. Michael Burawoy, Michael Reich, Ann Markusen and I were all up at the same time and we were the first to break that barrier” (Walker 2012).  But the shift from ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’ was for many people not so obvious  – I wonder if it was simply a transition aided by civil rights, the Vietnam war, and other global movements in which more radical positions moved more to the centre. (this was stressed by several people at the AAG meetings). **Note this very suggestion came up in a June 2013 report by US academics.

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing” 

   -Raymond Williams (1921-1988)

** Outside the constraints of the 6 year-to-tenure model in America there is more freedom to redefine these criteria for advancement and to embed these as a process, not as a hurdle. We actually have a weak version of this at my own university, where there are multiple criteria of performance assessed annually including ‘engagement’, and a workload model in place.


Alastair Bonnett. 2011. Are radical journals selling out? THES 3 November 2011
Michael Burawoy 2004  For public sociology. Address to the American Sociological Association (August 15, 2004)  AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, 2005, VOL. 70

Castree N, 2000. Professionalisation, activism, and the university: whither ‘critical geography’? Environment and Planning A 32(6) 955 – 970.

Cazenave, Noël A..1988.From a committed achiever to a radical social scientist: The life course dialectics of a “Marginal” black american sociologist.The American Sociologist19, 4, pp 347-354

Martin B. 2011. On being a happy academicAustralian Universities’ Review, 53,  1, pp. 50-56

Mitchell D. 2008. Confessions of a Desk-Bound Radical. Antipode 40 (2008), 448-454.

Cahn SM. 2010. Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia. new edition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Stoddart, D.  1975. Kropotkin, Reclus and ‘Relevant’ Geography. Area: 188-190.

Walker, R. 2012. From the Age of Dino-Sauers to the Anthropo-Scene: Reminiscences of life in Berkeley Geography, 1975-2012. Retirement talk, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley, April 25, 2012

Watts, M.J.  “1968 and all that…” Progress in Human Geography 25: 157-188.

(book mark – read this and this


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Open access journal publishing – the change is coming

Updated 2015

This is about publishing academic articles, and where and how this should happen.

Working in a university with up to 40% of my time devoted to research, it is nice to publish work that people appreciate and read, and this is also necessary to retain your place in a research university. I’ve published in a few academic  journals that have quite high standards, as well as writing in books and online outlets. I never really considered the ethics of publishing until recently. Most of the main journals are still run by big publishers, like Springer, Elsevier. I sign the copyright to the article away to them on publication. They prepare then sell the journals, either singly or in bulk packages, to university libraries and other institutions. So if you are a member of the public you have no access to most articles of this type – but you can buy an individual article from them online, usually for $20-30 each. For example, in Geoforum, a note of appreciation for editor Hilary Backhouse, not even an article,  will cost you $19.95 to download! For university people, you have to hope your university has bought that journal from the publisher and stocks it online or in hard copy.

Some academics, particularly junior ones, feel they have to (or actually they need to) publish in the top journals that are owned by the major publishers and to assure their careers, and to get professional advancement. And sometimes, an article just ‘fits’ best with one of these journals.  In North America there is the specific hurdle of preparing a dossier for tenure after 6 years in the job,  for which you need a solid research portfolio before being considered for a permanent contract. Senior gatekeepers in disciplines often do not always appreciate that a brilliant piece of work can be published outside the top journals.

Thinking hard about publishing

George Monbiot’s populist comments in 2011 prompted me to think hard about academic journal publishing. He accuses the main publishers of making excessive profits and locking up research outputs. He does not spare his criticism – they are ripping off academics by charging for material that was produced by them, then selling it back to them at high cost, through their libraries. And as a believer in peer-reviewed literature, Monbiot points out that the public cannot even check his sources for his article because they can’t get behind a publisher’s paywall to do so!

The Open Access debate ramped up when a bunch of mathematicians pointed  out, around the same time,  that Elsevier, in particular, was worthy of a boycott until they made our work more available, more accessible, and cheaper.  The campaign (Cost of Knowledge)  has argued quite cogently that this company charged very high prices for journals (particularly in Maths), and these costs were locking up their work only to people who had access through their institutions (even if the work was publicly or taxpayer funded). The campaign, which has attracted over 14,000 signatures,  was partially successful for maths with some journal price reductions later put in place, and opening up of some more OA articles from archives.However the campaign flagged as of late 2013,and in 2015 there is little monitoring or movement.

One great quote by  Roberto Alamino on the Cost of Knowledge:   “I wonder why the scientific community took so long to notice what was happening… we were supposed to be the smart guys…”  Quite. And in fact, over the decades and with the arrival of advanced computer software, publishers have less work to do and yet prices at the point of sale have increased. The movement that this campaign has inspired been dubbed the “Academic Spring“, a great turn of phrase. Mike Taylor has called publishing behind a paywall “immoral”, which has made people think. Nature, one of the hardest journals to get published in, launched an issue and a page devoted exclusively to the OA debate in March 2013. An entire Board just resigned. Scott Aaronson’s thoughts are priceless.

Furthermore, through 2011 and 2012 there were some high profile announcements from Harvard University, and the Russell Group in the UK, among others, about the crippling bills they were getting from the major publishers to stock their journals in their libraries (electronically or in paper copies). The large profit margins of the journals and Elsevier were again mentioned. Some publishers, including one I work with, do at least offer cheaper deals for subscriptions by developing country universities. There is some debate about this.

The Elsevier campaign has had some partial wins (eg in maths), but Elsevier have not responded by dramatically reducing their journal costs across-the-board, or by allowing authors to retain copyright for its ‘conventional’ journals.  They have responded in smaller ways – e.g. at Geoforum journal, they have offered some incentives and prizes to young authors, after the editors published an open letter asking exactly what value for money they were getting from using this publisher (see also Nick Blomley’s 2006 editorial). For comparison,  a Melbourne  presentation from Oct 2012 by an Elsevier staffer gave a company line – the various protests are not mentioned at all, nor the high charges made to convert an article to OA.  Fortunately, in the UK (the Finch report in mid 2012, and the aid agency DfID) and in the USA (White House report 2013 and NIH rules, and here), there is growing movement by western governments to  make publicly funded  research available in open access form, although governments are mostly unwilling to pay Gold open access fees to commercial publishers, which is upsetting universities worried that will have to fund some of these themselves. Implications for one academic field in the UK  summarised here by Lee Jones (Aug 2013). The Finch report may actually benefit publishers, if publishing fees are paid to their OA journals, as this article  argues.

The publishers are certainly not happy about all aspects of this, and Elsevier were widely condemned in the US in 2012 for resisting this and related measures (but had to withdraw this stance). In 2013, Taylor&Francis delayed publication of an article in Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation criticising commercial publishing models. Read it here. Publishers are concerned about more content being forced to appear online for free, but surely the move is inexorable, folks? The US will henceforth demand material from its US government grants become publicly available after one year (the initial discussion was suggesting only six months embargo, but anyway…). The same has happened in Canada for health research  (see comment below). There is an argument that only highly selective journals “filter” articles that are really important, but this is hard to prove and may be changing. A recent 2013 paper by Cook et al on climate science consensus  in the online Environmental Research Letters immediately reached an international audience – journalists and the public could access it.

My role

My role in all of this? I have made a few interventions online.

  • Phil Steinberg and I have disagreed about whether to donate free or cheap labour to the big journals – I am prepared to give it a miss until the issues are resolved, but he will stick with it. (see the bottom of the page) None of us like overcharging by publishers. What constitutes overcharging is another debate. Read on.
  • Here is a discussion in the Times Higher and on crit-geog-forum
  • And at the LH Martin Institute
  • and in the Sydney Morning Herald  (paywall imminent)

But also I am a managing editor of the Journal of Political Ecology, one of the oldest online journal in the social sciences, started by former colleagues at the University of Arizona. I got the job when at the University of Arizona in 2003, and have continued it in Australia. Since we charge authors nothing and the readers nothing either, and the website is kindly hosted by the University of Arizona, we are a “Gold” Open Access journal that places no restrictions on readership.  I have been asked what it costs to post up an article on the Journal website – the answer is about $200 if I do it in the working week, and sometimes more if I edit the grammar and English (you could factor in the writing time of the author as well I suppose). All the work is done on a 13 inch laptop, often at the weekend.  Casey Walsh, the other editor handling manuscripts, is I am sure little different. Referees kindly work for free. My costing is on Ed Carr’s website.

In Feb 2013 I was at a seminar on open access publishing organised by John Wiley publishers in Melbourne. Many journal editors were there and I met some nice people. It is clear (to me) that the writing is on the wall for major publishers sticking to the “reader pays and we retain copyright” model. The public, especially the internet savvy public, will not bear it much longer and dissent in the ranks of researchers and academics is also growing, concerned with copyright allocation and high costs. The wide dissemination of copyrighted material from journals is also growing, because you can’t police the internet to stop that. Try Google Scholar and search for something you are after, and see the PDF copies that often crop up. Governments realise this too as they demand open  publishing of funded papers, government reports and some datasets.

Some at the Melbourne meeting thought that publishing companies are  going to have to shift over to “author pays” (commercial open access) rather than “readers pay” (the current model). But currently publishers are charging ridiculous amounts for the former –  if you want your article in a conventional journal to be made open access on the journal’s website.  For making an article open access in an otherwise closed-access journal – something up to $3,000 (up to 1700 pounds) per paper. This is insane, as Ed Carr points out. Fortunately some new journals are waiving such costs, which are subsidised from elsewhere – see Asia & Pacific Policy Studies published by Wiley which is a good deal. And in March 2013, Elsevier launched two new OA Gold climate journals with no costs for one year here.

Currently the Journal of Political Ecology undercuts almost everybody, because it is produced not to make money but just to put stuff out that the journal team thinks is important and well presented.  Goodness knows where we are in any rankings, but we do quality control just like everybody else. Other journals have a similar ethos, ACME included. We are not chasing a quick buck. The content of the journals is the stuff that we do and believe in.

For the moment all my work goes on to my website (another way to insure open access), as it has since 1995. I still work with conventional journals and sit on editorial boards, and the best in most disciplines are unfortunately still published that way, but I can’t see the current system holding out for much longer than 5-10 years.

The OA caution

The possibility of making money by running online journals is not confined to major publishers. Now we have the internet, anybody can do it – set up a website, choose a journal name, and off you go. For the list of journals that are bringing a bad name to Open Access publishing,  by seeing it just as a commercial opportunity, see  Jeffrey Beall’s list – and . These are companies or individuals who have realised they can offer rapid publication for academics, by charging them for publishing a paper in some newly established journal.  These are not serious efforts in most cases and some will not last long. Others may survive, but check carefully.

Those on Beall’s list (Beall now has an article about his work in Nature!) are sometimes flagrant moneymakers and poor quality, and he says may be 5–10% of the total OA offering, but the standard publishing model that locks your stuff up behind a pay wall and holds the copyright isn’t all that sustainable either, even if the quality control is better. As governments are cottoning on to this lark and telling academics they have to make their work open access if it is a  study funded by taxpayers, we are set for a major upset in the publishing world.

What to do?

If you are reading this and are desperate to get hold of an article that is locked behind a paywall, please just write directly to the author. They are allowed to mail you back the PDF copy if there is one. Academics used to operate this system by sending authors  little postcards asking for reprints, up until a few years ago…now we have email. It works. If you are an author, “Green OA” is where you just post up a preprint copy online  (the version of a paper that is sent off to the publisher) often on a university eprints site. That version is always your intellectual property. And many publishers will let you post some version or other on a personal webpage. An article posted on the internet for free gets more hits and usually more citations (according to a big Southampton University study), especially if picked up by Google Scholar.

So, there is an adverse political economy of open access operating, and it is slowly working itself out. The present system is all about money, and to a certain extent about power and control as well (a debate in Political Geography, now unfree). The big changes to modes of publishing have already happened with music. Think about that story. Now stuff circulates freely via MP3,  and the cat is out of the bag. You hardly need a music  label  if you have the money to record on your own. It’s bad that copyright is frequently ignored, but music gets heard, and there are some benefits to artists  that way. I don’t download music (or videos) myself, but I have witnessed the complete downfall of the major record labels and CD shops (bad) over 10 years, and the establishment of file servers and online outlets for ITunes etc. allowing more music to circulate easily (good). The quality of music has not suffered but the labels have, because so many artists can now just do their own thing.

Transpose this to academic journal publishing? Hopefully a more controlled and regulated change will emerge for articles and journals. In the same way as for music, the quality of a written article will not suffer if it becomes more accessible.  Of course, Beer (2012) notes the parallels to music and reminds us that algorithms may help determine what pops up for us to ‘like’  when searching for material, and this is not really ‘democratic’ so we should be careful with open access. Viral-marketing academics could rise to the top of a greasy pole run by automated search engines. What we need:

  • Gatekeepers in universities (tenure committees, promotions committees, research committee chairs, Heads) need to realise that open access journal publishing is as good, if not better, than the present mainstream alternatives. Please read the work on its merit, rather than looking at the journal title. Also a  book reviewed for an open access publisher by several top academics can be just as good as one that went through the same process with a major University Press.
  • Gatekeepers in universities need to recognise that working on journals is part of our jobs. It takes time, brings prestige, and is part of service and research activity. Not all employers acknowledge this work or count it towards increments or promotion. If greater recognition were to happen, publishing and refereeing would be so much easier. The loop between production, distribution, and consumption would be closed.
  • Publish where you think it is best (or quickest, or most ethical) to publish. Not where peer pressure asserts it is in your interest. We are not there yet – few are able or willing to do this.
  • Get commercial publishers to have OA publication options for authors in existing journals (if you need to publish in them) in the $100-500 range, per paper. Enough to provide for page layups and checking, and server space and management, and low enough that an average academic could actually afford to pay.
  • Support the OA sector in working out its pricing. Variation is currently wide, for reasons that are unclear. Solomon and Björk calculate an average fee of US$906 (with an upper of almost $4,000!)  fee to author, which is too much in my view. van Noorden in Nature (2013) has some good price data. The prices at Sage Open were good ($99, social science startup journal, up to $395 in 2015); at PLOS Currents: Disasters and ACME they are free; at Ecology & Society  and ERLhope somebody else is paying (US$975 and $1600, but they are at least  linked to professional societies).  Journals in the $1500-$3000 range, forget it for most people unless you have grants (costs are a live issue with research funders). See Roger Clarke’s paper on costings and another on 6 month embargo costs*.
  • Realise that university libraries are solid places to host electronic journals in perpetuity, as part of their expanded mission in the internet age.  They can bypass the commercial publishers. Failing that, good editors can keep an archive going of their journals, and backed up. It is not that hard.

Brian Martin’s 2012 note on OA has another suitable list of recommendations.


Still we are sucked in, and I was for a decade, to the idea that there is little ethics for authors to consider when they are publishing, and getting a spot in a good journal is a legitimate aim without engaging your conscience at all. A radical position (perhaps denied early career scholars) is to leave behind some of the big publishers entirely, at least until they reduce their Gold open access fees, and don’t charge libraries as much. Or some will ignore publisher’s copyright to the material (which is of course how the world works these days, with Google Scholar, personal web pages, Twitter and the like) and get it out there via other means.”  SB, source highlighted

*The issue of journals supported by professional societies requires a whole other discussion.

Update June 2013

See here for publisher’s responses in the US to the Obama legislation authorising open access after 1 year for federally funded research. Their CHORUS proposal will direct searches to their own articles.

Oct 28 2013 At the LSE – high powered discussion about humanities and social science OA

January 2015. A new initiative at the University of California Press is interesting. Reviewers and editors of OA journals are paid a small amount of the APC for a new journal to ramp up their participation. Money is also vired between disciplines, some of which have little money to meet such charges. .

Beer D. 2012. Open access and academic publishing: Some lessons from music culture. Political Geography 31(8)479-480.

Nov 2014 France pays money to Elsevier in a block transfer for all public universities.


December 7, 2012 · 8:19 am

Farewell to running our interdisciplinary Environmental Masters program, March 2012

Over the last 3.5 years I have been Director of the Office for Environmental Programs at the University of Melbourne, which offers the postgraduate Master of Environment degree. We had a team of five staff and just-on 350 students from all over the world, and decent employment rates (and PhD follow-ons) for these graduates. We also moved into some great refurbished office space on campus in 2011. In March 2012 I decided it was time to return to research and teaching and to hand over to somebody else as Director, but as you can see from this ‘farewell’ post below, it was hard to leave.

Universities are hard places to work and it is not often you get a real conjunction of great staff and students, enough time and revenues to make a change, and underpinned by a sense of purpose and (in this case) an interesting multidisciplinary philosophy of education. The distinguishing feature of the Masters is that it allows you to choose classes from all over the university, in 10 different faculties. Very few universities permit this. As you can imagine, a certain amount of work was involved to set up and maintain this arrangement. It has certainly ruffled feathers since establishment in 2002 – some Faculties  preferred those students to be based in degrees that they run themselves (through our Graduate Schools). This is the arrangement at most universities worldwide, since the arrival of Environmental Masters in the late 1960s/early 1970s in Australia, Canada  and the USA – degrees housed in a single Faculty or Department.   But the M Environment degree has survived numerous University restructurings marvellously well, and retained its interdisciplinary ethos throughout. It is a degree for students wanting the right to get a ‘broad’ education in the environmental field that they select themselves, with some help from the OEP, channelling their efforts to skills and classes that they themselves find relevant to their needs and well taught.  They report back that they like this model. A student may select classes from energy studies and development studies, if they want to work in renewable energy in developing countries. Or, forestry science, sustainability, and project management if heading for a natural resources/forestry career. Or philosophy of science and environmental history, plus a research thesis,  in order to prepare for a PhD in these fields, for example.  Quantitatively inclined students take an Environmental Science stream. There are of course more focused Masters degrees on campus for those wanting them. Have a read, and all power to the OEP students and staff team. I had a blast, and am still involved as a Deputy Director and stream coordinator.

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Welcome – policy-relevance and engaged scholarship among academics

Welcome. Universities are changing. Many are short of cash. They compete with each other for students and, particularly, for prestige. They are often large, they are big employers, and public money is now scarce in many of them. While some argue the role of ‘academics’ (who are mostly people with PhDs who write stuff and teach in higher education) is to do ‘scholarly’ work and to transmit their wisdom to students in classrooms and tutorials, some don’t think this is enough. Many universities have a ‘public’ orientation, and are strongly locked into the needs of the social services, the health sector, local employers, and even NGOs and progressive organisations who need their research and employ their graduates. Academics end up advising governments and other organisations, for good or bad reasons. This work should be valued. By doing it, it does not mean academics are ‘selling out’ or being ‘non-objective’ (although this does happen sometimes). It does mean they behave like real people – juggling activities, talking to different people, expressing a view without just writing a paper with a barrage of footnotes or references to long-dead theorists and writers. Writing reports rather than papers. In sociology, this view of what academics are about is increasingly prevalent, although contested.I work at an established research university, one of the best in Australia, and I have relatively secure employment (although no academic job is really secure, outside a few of the top universities in the USA). The path to public work rather than scholarly recognition, is recognised, but perhaps not enough. It was once commonplace in such establishments, particularly in the radical 1960s years, and remains so in the health sciences and a few other fields.I think it is possible to transcend this issue. Teach. Publish great work in your specialist field. But, also, have a conscience, reach out, devote time to work that serves a difference audience, and which may possibly get you into trouble or will at least be listened to. This is a form of ‘engaged’ scholarship. That ‘engagement’ actually improves teaching and research, too. And it may, ultimately, save your discipline, or you and your colleagues, from redundancy and cutbacks. Because that is the way things are heading in many universities. Irrelevance is becoming a greater sin than relevance.Most of my work concerns access and use of natural resources in developing countries – “environment and development” issues. The issues are hardly neutral, politically. For example they involve much of the discussion at climate conferences, REDD+, and in the politics of land grabs in Africa. ‘Engagement’ – actively or through research and scholarship – seems particularly vital in these fields.

Hence one rationale for this blog. The medium itself is one that conventional universities are really having to recognize, following the 2006 debacle at LSE where a blog attracted the annoyance of the School.

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