Sunday, June 29, 2008

Another snippet on journal publishing

Well, at long last, I've finished my essay, "Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing." I'll be posting a full draft of the piece to the "Acknowledged Goods" page on the Differences & Repetitions Wiki. The wiki formatting will take some time, however, and for now, I have to direct my energies toward revising an essay on Harry Potter and the simulacrum. Once the full version of "Acknowledged Goods" is up on D&R-W, you'll be sure to hear about it. For now, comments, ratings, and other feedback on this excerpt are welcome here.

[From the Section on Alienation]

...Most of us probably have done it at one time or another. By “it” I mean signing a publication agreement for a recently accepted journal article without reading the document carefully, or without pausing to consider the meaning and consequences of all the warrants, indemnities, and clauses ending with those ominous sounding words, “in perpetuity and in any form.” Like me, you probably resigned yourself to committing to the agreement, since the publisher told you, perhaps through a low-level editorial contact at the journal, that publication of your piece was contingent on your doing so without delay. Signing on the dotted line is “policy” she or he probably told you, politely but firmly, and if you do not do so promptly, you are liable to hold up production on the issue in which your work is scheduled to appear. Worse, if you hold out for too long, you risk having your essay dropped altogether. And so begrudgingly you sign, because keeping the process moving along would seem to outweigh whatever benefits might come from making an issue of it.

To me, this is among the most profound—and profoundly alienating—moments of academic labor. I mean this in both the Marxian sense of “alienation,” in which participation in the system of objectified wage labor existentially impoverishes of one’s species-being, as well as in the more strictly legal sense of the term, as defined by Margaret Jane Radin: “a separation of something—an entitlement, right, or attribute—from its holder.” Beyond these definitions, the ritual signing of journal publication contracts is alienating in at least three specific ways.

First, the extreme sense of urgency that tends to surround the whole process is incommensurate with the time it takes for most academic articles to appear in print. In my experience, this interval can last anywhere from six to eighteen months from the day I sign a publication agreement; in rare cases it has been shorter, and I know of myriad instances in which it has taken even longer. The atmosphere of last-minute-ism may help keep the publication process running smoothly. On the downside, it can preempt academic authors from reflecting critically on the legal documents we are charged with signing, which can in turn lead to the hasty forfeiture of key rights and entitlements—assuming we are even aware of them.

Second, the process cultivates a habitus in which we are perpetually disposed “to take one for the team.” Practically no one wants to be the curmudgeon responsible for delaying an entire journal issue while trying to negotiate terms of publication. Publishers recognize this. Consciously or not, they leverage this goodwill by persuading authors to sign away our rights in the name of a collective interest (i.e., timely publication). They do so by capitalizing on an incentive structure in which, ironically, a desire to be perceived as “collegial” and “professional” compels academic authors to deprive one another of the chance to question journal publishers, attorneys, or others about the legal ramifications of publishing our work.

Finally, the contractual moment alienates us scholars from the products of our labor. It customarily involves the transfer of key rights (e.g., ownership, duplication, derivation, etc.) from author to publisher, in whole or in part, in exchange for a variety of value-added services (e.g., typesetting, copyediting, marketing, etc.) and indirect rewards (e.g., promotion, tenure, professional recognition, etc.). Those benefits notwithstanding, signing on the dotted line transforms our labor into economically valuable intellectual property and, down the line, capital—assets publishers use to compete with one another in the marketplace. Our signatures allow journal publishers to disavow liability in matters of copyright infringement, obscenity, and so forth, moreover, thereby endowing them with deep ownership rights over material for which they accept only shallow legal responsibilities. An added “bonus” is that academic authors typically must shoulder all of the costs related to reproducing copyrighted images, song lyrics, and related materials, even though it is the journal publisher who reaps any financial rewards. In these cases, we are not merely giving our labor away, essentially for free; we are effectively paying a third party for the “privilege” of doing so.

Journal publication contracts are magical documents indeed. They transfigure good knowledge into saleable knowledge goods, in a series of moves that implicate us in, while keeping us at arm’s length from, the noisy sphere of industrial production....

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