Political economy of academic journal publishing
from David Ruccio
The explosion of new scholarly journals, together with the shrinking of the number of academic journal publishers and the “qualification inflation” taking palce within the corporate university, poses important issues for scholars interested in where and how their work is published and disseminated.
Ted Striphas [ht: ke] raises many of those issues with respect to cultural studies in his recent on-line essay, “Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing.” He focuses on five major trends: alienation, proliferation, consolidation, pricing, and digitization. His conclusion is that
cultural studies’ alienation from the conditions of its own production has resulted in the field’s growing involvement with interests that are, at times, rather at odds with its own political proclivities.
As it turns out, similar issues were posed to me (and to Jack Amariglio) in an interview [paywall] conducted by three of our colleagues—Kenan Erçel, Maliha Safri, and S. Charusheela—published in the 20th-anniversary issue of Rethinking Marxism. Here are some excerpts:
Erçel, Safri, and Charusheela: Three years into its publication, the journal negotiated a contract with a publisher (Guilford) and thus many of the tasks previously shouldered by the editorial board (e.g., design, proofreading, advertising, etc.) were outsourced, so to speak. In an essay by the editors published a decade ago on the tenth anniversary of the journal and reproduced in this issue, it is mentioned that prior to reaching this critical decision the editorial collective had had ‘‘a series of searching conversations, during which we considered every possible way to maintain our independence and continue the actual work of production.’’ We would like to delve a bit into the considerations that were voiced in the said conversations—considerations which must have been all the more thorny for a group particularly self-conscious about issues of collectivity, autonomy, class, commodification, and so on. Were there concerns back at the time that working with a publisher, who is in the business ultimately for business, would compromise the goals of the journal? Where does the relationship between the journal and its publisher fit in within the class-analytical framework of AESA-style Marxism? Is a/the journal a commodity, is a/the publisher a merchant capitalist? Or do the peculiar dynamics of scholarly publishing fall outside the scope of such categories?
Ruccio: I recently had a conversation (actually, an exchange of e-mail messages) with a Russian artist who was put off by the prospect of signing a copyright form to publish his work in RM. His argument was that working under ‘‘creative common license’’ (free distribution in any form for noncommercial purposes) is an important political demand that is intrinsically connected to the content of his work. I then explained not only that it was out of my control, since it is a requirement of the publisher that all authors and artists sign a copyright form, but that, however ironically, the commodity form of the journal may actually enhance the dissemination of Marxist ideas in comparison to something freely accessible (such as posting items on a Web site). This is, in fact, what I wrote to him.
I agree with you: what we’re both interested in is the widest dissemination of knowledge. And, as a Marxist, I am often quite critical of capitalist markets, private property, and copyright. However, in this case, the sale of RM (and the associated property rights and copyright) actually helps to disseminate Marxist ideas precisely because Routledge makes it possible for institutions and individuals to subscribe to RM. This is one of the paradoxical or ironic effects of capitalist markets: ‘‘they’’ get to sell their goods, but they also have to allow ‘‘our’’ ideas to circulate. Readers actually discover new Marxist ideas precisely because, through their libraries or personally, they have access to the journal. That’s a wider dissemination of Marxist ideas than if they just existed on the Internet or we published the journal ourselves. In addition, we subsidize subscriptions to the members of our association and to institutions in ‘‘less-developed’’ countries.
That’s precisely why we work with this commercial publisher and are forced to adhere to the restrictions of their copyright permissions or license to publish.
And, yes, we worried and argued about all these issues when we were considering, after three years of publishing and producing the journal ourselves, the possibility of moving to a commercial publisher. . .
This is our second relationship with a commercial publisher and, to answer one of your questions, in my view, RM is produced and marketed as a capitalist commodity. Or partly as a capitalist commodity. A great deal of the work to produce and disseminate the journal continues to be done by members of the editorial board who receive no recompense for their labor. Others work directly for Routledge or are paid as independent contractors. So, to be precise, we might call it a hybrid commodity, or a capitalist/noncapitalist commodity. The fact is, given our small relative size in terms of Routledge’s overall journals list, we probably make demands on them—in terms of the quality and promoting of the journal—that far exceed our contributions to their net income. Sometimes, I’ll admit, we are astonished that we contribute to their bottom line at all. And isn’t that a strong part of a Marxist analysis of capitalist commodity production—the assumption that rational capitalists are driven to maximize the extraction of surplus value and the realization of profits? In the case of the two publishers with whom we’ve had relations, that may or may not be true (we have plenty of evidence both ways—in encountering financial limits and in being treated as producing something other than or more than a commodity).
Amariglio: I don’t think there’s any way around the issue of RM being a commodity being published by a commercial firm that most likely is internally organized in production as a ‘‘capitalist enterprise.’’ Since none of us have done the necessary work to theorize commercial publishing in terms of its class processes, I hesitate to say more than that. It may be that it has a different class structure than capitalist; maybe there’s a more ‘‘communal’’ labor and/or class process in these firms than we would give them credit for. It wouldn’t necessarily be surprising given the possibility that (some) publishing has become more dot-com-ish, and there is some evidence that firms in such industries have utilized communal/communist forms of production and even internal surplus appropriation—but I’m not sure what difference that would make to what you have asked.
We have liked very much the people we have worked with, both at Guilford and now at Routledge. And I feel grateful often for their willingess to have included our journal in their publication programs. But there is no question in my mind that our relationship with them is that of the production of a particular commodity, and that our past, present, and future have been and are bound up with the journal’s ‘‘success’’ in terms of those firms’ overall commercial viability as well as the particular financial viability of RM. Does this compromise the goals of RM? I never thought it made all that much difference in the very short term and for very prescribed purposes other than to raise the question of having to rely on ‘‘the market’’ for our ultimate existence. There is little doubt in my mind that when you collectively ‘‘exploit’’ your own labor, or organize it according to nonmarket and nonprofit criteria, you can go a long way toward existing in hard financial and political times. In contrast, when a journal comes to rely on its commercial viability through its connection to a publisher, it can easily cease to exist if the publisher says that the relationship is no longer possible for whatever reasons. Left journals that start out on the basis of unpaid, heroic labor shared in common, and who then secure a commercial publisher and start to relieve themselves of many of the most labor- intensive activities like the actual physical composition of the journal, run a great risk if they ever have to go back to how they started. This is what I have always feared the most in terms of our current reliance on our publisher. I would like to think that we would summon up the necessary labor and energy and commitment to go forward in case we ever were faced again with this situation, but I admit it is daunting to consider.