On Strikes and Publishing…

Being a member of the union, I’m on strike for as long as it lasts. One of the grounds for the strike is manageable workloads, so I was rather surprised to be asked yesterday evening (erm… evening…;-) to comment on the final version / revisions in light of reviewers’ comments, of a paper I’m named on that needs to be returned before the strike is over.

My formal academic publishing record is so poor I guess I shouldn’t begrudge any opportunity to get entered into the REF, but there’s a but…

One of the issues I have with academic publishing is the relationship between academia and the publishing industry. The labour and intellectual property rights are gifted by academics and academic institutions to the publishers, then the academic institutions pay the publishers to access the content.

As an employee of a university, my contract has something to say about intellectual property rights; I’m also pretty sure I’m not allowed to enter the institution into legally binding contracts. However, it’s par for the course for academics to sign over intellectual property rights in the form of copyright to academic publishers. (I’ve never really been convinced they/we are legally entitled to do so?)

But that’s not the issue here. Strikes are intended to cause disruption to the activities of the organisation the strikers are employed by. We’re on strike. Partly over workloads. Universities benefit from their academics publishing in academic journals in a variety of ways (and yes, I do know I’ve not played my part in this for years, ever since a researcher on a temporary contract I was publishing with was let go; IIRC, I offered 10% of my salary, 20% if needed be, to help keep them on till we managed to find some funding, even though internal money was around at the time; it would have been in my interest, academically speaking and career progression wise…).

So… the strike is an opportunity to raise concerns through causing disruption.

One of the current strike concerns is workload. Universities either value academic publishing or they don’t. If they do, providing time in work time to publish is part of that contract. On the other hand, an academic makes themselves more employable by having a better publishing record, so using strike time on “personal brand boosting” academic publishing gives the academic power when it comes to personal negotiations with the academy, for example over salary grading, or when threatening to leave. (Many universities, I think, can suddenly find a Chair to offer to someone who has been offered a Chair elsewhere in an attempt to retain them…)

But if workload is a legitimate issue, then engaging in an activity that an institution may sideline on the grounds that they know the academic will use their own personal time, including strike time, to pursue, seems counter to the strike’s concerns?

Academic publishers and conferences may actually benefit from the strike too, in terms of time being freed up by strike action for such activity (Lorna Campbell posted eloquently on a related dilemma yesterday in terms of what to do regarding attendance of events taking place during, but booked prior to, strike action being called: Where to draw the line?).

Whilst the strike is directed at the employers rather than the publishers, when it comes to workload, surely the way the employer-publisher complex is organised is part of the problem? So should the strike not also be directed at the publishers? If journal issues or conference plans are disrupted, isn’t that part of the point? (And yes, I do know: many academic conferences are organised by academics; I used to organise workshop sessions myself; but some also have a commercial element…)

Another of the issues the union keeps returning to is the question of pensions. Academic authors, signing away as they do intellectual property rights that may be theirs, or may be their employers, also sign away pension pin money in the form of royalties they don’t otherwise receive.

Whilst teaching myself R a few years ago, I kept notes and published them as a self-published book on Leanpub. The royalties from it only ever trickled in, but they cover my Dropbox and WRC+ subscription costs and buy me the odd ticket to go and see the touring cars or historics. At the time, I started sketching out how many self-published books I’d need to eke out a living on; I had enough blog posts on Gephi, OpenRefine and various data journalism recipes to be able to pull a couple of manuals together in quite quick time, but figured I’d probably need to crank out a quick manual every couple of months to make a go of it and rely on organic sales without engaging in any marketing activity.

One of the struggles I have with strikes is knowing how to spend my time whilst on strike given that I am supposed to remain available for work, and then deliberately withdraw my labour, rather than take the time as a de facto holiday. Idly wondering about what the point of the strike is, and what it’s supposed to achieve, is part of the strike action I take (as I realise from previous posts on strike days, such as On (“)Strike(“) <- once again, WordPress misbehaves…).

And one thing this post has got me wondering about is: should academics go on strike against the publishers?

PS thinks: one of the purposes of strike disruption is to get folk who may be being disrupted but who sympathise with your cause to help lobby on your behalf. If academic strikes against employers also mean not supplying publishers, the publishers may then also start to lobby the employers on behalf of the striking academics becuase they don't want their businesses disrupted… Hmm.. Strange bedfellows… My enemy's enemy is my friend…

PPS Double thinks: not publishing affects the REF, so by not using strike time to get ahead with a research paper, you put more pressure on the organisation who feels its REF returns may get hit? Rather than using the the stike time to potentially improve the institution's REF return? (And yes, I know: as well as your own… But strikes do involve self-sacrfice; that's also part of the point: that you are willing to do something that may cause you short-term harm on the way to improving conditions for everyone in the longer term.)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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