Academic Click-baiting and the Neo-liberal University

Academic Click-baiting and the Neo-liberal University

John Holmwood

In an article on the recent scandal associated with the radical journal, Third World Quarterly, which published a piece advocating a return to colonialism, Portia Roelofs and Mats Gallien draw attention to how this operated as click bait to drive visits to the site. In the process, they argue, academic rigour was compromised by ‘false dissent’. In this article, I want to widen the debate to show how this ‘hack’ exposes deeper problems in academic publishing with parallels with other areas of higher education.

Just as students are leveraged for fees, academics are leveraged for academic outputs and services that serve commercial aims. As with universities more generally, there are academic players who are the beneficiaries of the leverage of their colleagues. What happened at Third World Quarterly is not unique, but symptomatic. It is bound up with commercial practices, ownership structures and changing requirements of publicity.

There have been significant developments in academic publishing over the last decade, including ratcheted journal subscription costs associated with ‘price gouging’. This is notwithstanding claims that ‘disruptive’ online technologies can reduce costs through ‘open access’. The ‘headline’ issues are straightforward. Access to academic work is restricted by paywalls and high prices driven by commercial publishers. It is common knowledge, for example, that the for-profit publishers of academic journals – Springer and Elsevier, for example – have amongst the highest returns of any commercial companies. They do this through increasing the subscription price for access to journals whose content is produced for free by academics, with peer-review also provided free by fellow academics, for a readership that is primarily other academics. Subscription prices have gone up well above inflation at the same time as publishing costs have fallen (through online technologies of manuscript handling, distribution of content, etc). How have for-profit publishers managed this?

In the initial phase, when university libraries were faced with rising subscription costs, they sought to manage these costs through the cancellation of individual journals. Academics would be asked on a regular basis for their opinions on which journals should be cancelled and which continued. Those who remember this annual ritual and the dismay it caused may also be aware that it takes place no more.

Publishers have moved on to the ‘Big Deal’. Journal titles are aggregated into ‘packages’ and sold in different packages. If the subscription charges for the package increases, so, too, does the number of titles in the package. Instead of cancellation of titles, there is a proliferation of access to titles that nobody asked for. However, the new form of subscription does not provide access to the archive of the newly-added journal which remains behind a paywall of charges for individual articles (providing revenue for publishers separate from subscription and puzzlement for academics that a journal to which they now subscribe is only available from the date the deal was signed).

In this context, a journal title that is outside a package is vulnerable to cancellation, since titles within a package cannot be cancelled independently of the package itself. In consequence, titles migrate to packages offered by large multinational conglomerate publishers and there are fewer journals outside this arrangement except for Open Access journals (many of those operating on a different predatory model, seeking to make income from author payment charges). Outside the humanities, there are now few journals published by university presses.

The revenues accruing to for-profit publishers are shared with the ‘owners’ of the journals. The owners vary: a journal may be owned by the commercial publisher, but, in most cases, a separate owner of the journal enters into a contract for a share of revenue with the publisher. In many cases, the owner of a journal is a professional association, or a charitable trust, while in other cases – including some well-known ‘critical’ social science journals – it is a private individual or for-profit company owned by a private individual. The ratcheting up of subscription costs through packages has also involved increased revenues for the owners of the journals. An owner, of whatever stripe, has an interest in maximising revenue and so is not a constraint on commercial practices. In this context, most professional associations are complicit in the inflation of subscriptions and the burden on libraries precisely because that inflation increases their revenue. Anything that challenges that model also threatens the income of the owner, an income that has also been inflated by the ‘gouging’ intrinsic to the model.

However, with individual titles aggregated in packages and the subscription cost discounted within the package, how are revenues parcelled out? It is difficult to get information even from the journals of your own professional association. This is because the matter is deemed ‘commercially sensitive’ – for-profit publishers do not wish to have professional associations pooling knowledge and bargaining on that basis. However, anyone who has sat on an editorial board and had a publisher’s report on the journal will have sat through a presentation on subscriptions (albeit not usually providing the information that this is part of a package and how that package functions) and, most importantly, ‘downloads’.

From a publisher’s perspective, downloads are more important than impact factors (though the two are not unrelated). After all, changes in impact factors just move a journal in a rank order with some moving up and others moving down; downloads are not zero-sum in the same way. Downloads provide information to librarians about the value of a title within a package and, therefore, are part of the sales pitch for the ‘Big Deal’. Relative position in a hierarchy of downloads also indicates the revenue generating capacity of the journal title and, therefore, its claim on the publisher. Significantly, for-profit publishers provide relative information for ‘impact factors’ (this is externally generated data), but not for downloads.

However, all measures recommended to increase a journal’s impact are associated with increasing downloads – for example, use of social media to promote articles, adoption of a journal blog, etc. There is, then, a continuum of practices with ‘clickbait’ as the most extreme, which derive their logic from the commercial nature of academic publishing. It should be clear, too, that they put pressure on peer review since a controversial article generates downloads, but may have a tougher time in peer review.

On this basis, professionally supported open access would seem to be the answer. However, in so far as it would undermine corporate profits, it would also undermine the revenues accruing to academic owners of journals. This is one of the reasons why it has been so contested. Individual academics are frequently favourable, but their professional associations are not – for obvious reasons. Other beneficial owners of journals have largely been silent (to the extent that few academics, not least those providing free services, are aware that many of their favoured journals have private owners). High author publication access charges for ‘Gold’ open access and embargo periods for ‘Green’ open access are one of the outcomes of lobbying and, so far, they have served to preserve the existing ‘Big Deal’ and its beneficiaries.

Enter the Scholarly Communication License. This is something now agreed by the senior managers of most UK universities and is in the process of implementation.  It is happening without much awareness of it from individual academics and most professional associations, although it is widely discussed within scholarly publishing and library circles (see, for example, discussion at the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s superb blog, The Scholarly Kitchen) The licence undermines both Gold and Green Open Access, since it will require individual academics to publish their articles in journals that allow immediate publication without embargo of a pre-publication version of the article and placing it in a searchable repository.

As Rick Anderson writes, many have predicted the demise of the commercial model of journal publishing as a consequence of Open Access. It has not happened so far and the ‘Big Deal’ has been how commercial publishers have forestalled it. However, as Anderson suggests, there must be a ‘tipping point’ and that point is facilitated by other commercial ventures such as the data company, Unpaywall. This offers searches to find what proportion of the content of a journal is separately available in open access repositories – they claim, we find fulltext for 50-85% of articles, depending on their topic and year of publication. We think that’s a game-changer for the publishing industry. Now that most articles are free, why subscribe?” The proposed Scholarly Communications License would make all content findable (or at least all content from British authors – which is one reason why publishers wish to diversify the countries of origin of authors, to reduce the proportion of content in any issue that is findable!).

One problem remains – that of the poor quality of most university repositories. This is where we are likely to see privatisation, with universities outsourcing their repositories. One such venue is Bepress, a provider of services to repositories, and a private for-profit company set up by Berkeley economists. The best indication that the tipping point may have been reached is that Bepress was recently taken over by Elsevier, diversifying from journal publishing to repository management! Significantly, the homepage uses a real time global map of daily downloads from its participating repositories.

If the analysis here is correct, it is not just the income model of for-profit publishers that is under pressure, but also the income model of professional associations linked to them. Free academic labour sustains that income model – it is given willingly for the benefit of associations, but those associations need to understand that they put that good-will in jeopardy to the extent that they fail to maintain the academic values that define academic publishing.

Roeloffs and Gallien have shown how academic rigour can be subverted through the unprincipled pursuit of downloads. However, the scandal that has enveloped Third World Quarterly implicates all journals that participate in the ‘Big Deal’, since the problem is integral to the model.  It is not too late to do something about it, but it requires academics to re-engage with academic values and to demand that universities and professional associations alike place them above their orientation to income. Not all professional associations have entered partnerships with for-profit publishers, and it is significant that the defence of scholarly publishing comes primarily from the humanities where fewer associations committed to the ‘Big Deal’.  Do not expect to be joined by those academics who are themselves beneficiary owners, although they will continue to rely on the free gift of academic labour in the form of peer review and other services.


John Holmwood is professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham.