Academic Prostitution: Publishing what the referees want

October 15, 2006 at 5:23 pm 12 comments

The system of journal editing existing in our field at the present time virtually forces academics to become prostitutes: they sell themselves for money (and a good living). Unlike prostitutes who sell their bodies for money (Edlund and Korn, 2002), academics sell their soul to conform to the will of others, the referees and editors, in order to gain one advantage, namely publication.

The process of going from lowly undergrad to omniscient professor goes something like this:

  1. Undergrad: Write a senior thesis (for good grad school recommendations)
  2. Grad student: Publish at least 1 paper each year in the top journals (conferences, if in engineering) in your field. Pass Quals
  3. Assistant Professor: Publish several papers (including those you “co-author” with your students); get grant money. Repeat for 6 years
  4. Tenured Professor: You win, game over. Credits roll…

Obviously, getting published is the most important factor of an academic’s career. However, to get into the top journals of your field, your work has to be approved by the editors and referees. If the editor accepts your paper in the first round, several anonymous referees review it and offer suggestions for improvements. They also hold veto power, and your paper can be rejected by any referee. Only once you have made all the “suggested” changes (and this may go for several revisions), will you have a chance of being accepted for publication.

Making the revisions forces you to publish something different from your original work under the demands of an anonymous person. It also costs precious time, and time is always ticking on your academic career.

This presents a dissonance in the system because referees have the power to dictate changes to a paper, but no property rights in the journals. They may appear to act in the journal’s interest, but there is no economic benefit to them for doing so.

To counter this, Frey proposes a modified publication system where journal editors make an accept/reject decision upon receiving the paper, and referees propose suggestions which are up to the author to implement or ignore. This system treats scholars like artists, reducing intellectual prostitution and bolstering creativity in published articles.

The academic publication process is unlikely to change anytime soon, but writing books or putting articles on the web in a working paper series (such as SSRN or arXiv are potential alternatives for some academics out there.

Frey, B. S. (2003). Publishing as prostitution? – Choosing between one’s own ideas and academic success. Public Choice, 116, 205-223.


Entry filed under: Academia, Papers, Publish, Research.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. pg  |  October 15, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    “Research” is just one endless train of quasi-sexual favors in modern academia. It’s part of why wild horses couldn’t force me to go to grad school in biology. Here’s to hoping the system changes, but it doesn’t look like it’ll come anytime soon.

  • 2. kelvin  |  October 16, 2006 at 12:44 am

    I agree with pg. This system is really unattractive. I guess they lose many good people because of this..

  • 3. blackthumb  |  October 16, 2006 at 6:17 am

    This is a somewhat one-sided presentation of the refereeing process. The main reason for refereeing journal articles, is of course to offer some sort of quality control mechanism which is not just subject to the will of an editor and a couple of assistants. Any editor worth their salt wants to publish decent articles that truly are of interest. Choice of referee is crucial, particularly if, as an expert in their field, they may have a bias one way or another. It is therefore important to choose referees whose views can be contrasted with one another in order to give the editor some kind of overall picture of how the work fits in to the existing state of research. Of course, it is highly frustrating for the author should they be asked to rewrite repeatedly – in my view this should not happen, and is indicative of a sloppy editorial process. Good quality journals are likely to either reject, or ask for one rewrite at most. But let us not lose sight of the reason why this process exists, and the fact that it is there to safeguard the quality of published research as much as possible.

  • 4. shem kerr  |  October 16, 2006 at 11:14 am

    @blackthumb, I thought the point of the post was that: ” academics sell their soul to conform to the will of others, …., in order to gain …” not about the reason for the process.

    Sadly, what frequently happens is merely a referees’ power trip; a perversion into non-science; or, In some cases leads to intellectual theft by the referees. The suggested solution(s) could be an improvement if constructive comment and dialogue is present.

  • 5. astronoman  |  October 16, 2006 at 8:42 pm

    There’s also a certain amount of “prostitution” in the publishing process due to your advisor, whose name appears on your paper as well. Just to give a silly example, I’ve been reminded that the “standard” way of writing decimals is “0.60”, not “.60”.

  • 6. Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu  |  October 17, 2006 at 2:47 pm

    Peer review is the foundation of science. If you can’t convince your fellow scientists that your research is interesting, chances are that it’s not.

    Let’s see some examples of this so-called prostitution, at the very least!

  • 7. Alexander Selkirk  |  October 21, 2006 at 6:37 am

    I don’t know that there’s necessarily any other way for the system to work, but clearly publishing is compulsory for successful academic careers, regardless of the actual merits and benefit of publishing as an activity.

    This seems to me a simple extension of an exercise begun in the U.S. in primary and secondary schools – compelling students to form, expouse, and articulate opinions on matters in which they have no actual interest. Remember being forced to write a book report on a novel every page of which was excruciating agony? Or the nausea that rose and threatened to project stomach contents of sloppy joe and tater tots all over the teacher who announced you’d be writing another paper on the French Revolution? There’s definitely value in this exercise, since a facility for forming articulate opinions is important, but it really should have been spelled out more clearly the point of it all.

  • 8. Tenured Radical  |  October 29, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    I think journal publishing is like so many things in academic life: it just hasn’t kept up with the way hte rest of the world has changed, and so mostly it conforms to the most conservative tendencies. The thing I would gripe about most is how f***ing long it take s to get any feedback at all. Thus, accept or reject, it takes 2-3 years from having drafted the article to actually seeing it in print. Why give referees 3-6 months to read something, when we all know everyone waits until the editor gives the reader a shove, and then the person does it in 24 hours or so? I don’t really care if I have to shop around an article. What I do care is if it takes a journal the better part of a year to turn it down, and then I have to start the process all over again. Worst experience? GLQ, which asked me to do a huge revision promised me a quick read after the first one took seven months, then took another four months to evaluate the huge revision — and then decided that the piece was not “theoretical” enough. If they had said they wanted a more theoretical piece after the first read I would have happily gone elsewhere. Instead, they held me up for over a year.

  • 9. blackthumb  |  November 4, 2006 at 5:26 am

    As I intimated before, I think it’s important to distinguish between a potential problem with procedure and instances of bad practice – such as intellectual theft, inefficient editors/referee, etc. Most of the problems people seem to be having result from people not doing their part of the process well.

    I think a more pertinent problem with the emphasis on publications in academia is that they are some sort of (perhaps flawed) measure of someone’s ability to carry out research. They are not, however, any indication of someone’s ability to teach. Nonetheless, the number of publications one has is a primary consideration when appoiinting faculty. You only have to think of sitting in an absolutely tedious seminar with a professor who has a list of books as long as your arm to see why publications give little indication of someone’s ability to engage and educate a class.

  • 10. gsgiles  |  December 28, 2006 at 8:22 am

    Prositution as an adherence to dogma. IN order to get a PhD in physics to do you get so immersed in the dogma of E&M, QM and Quantum Field Theory and all the math frameowrk necessary to make it intelligible that you habve programmed out the capability for innovation. Thus the stagnation of things like Field Theory. That is a severe form of prostitution.

    The lure of mathematics, for many, has been its’ esthetics, the innate beauty. It has been called the Queen of the Sciences. Mathematics is the lingua franca with which Physics has been used to create an increasingly accurate model of the physical world in which we find ourselves. Math, Physics and Chemistry are the diamond hard pillars that Human Action has created to understand reality. A continuum exists of less rigorous disciplines like Medicine, Biology, Economics, and Law until we approach the vapid gruel of Political Science, Literary Criticism, Religious Studies and Sociology. The value of a science is the accuracy of the theoretical model with respect to making correct predictions as are verified by independent experiment. A science that cannot make predictions is not a science at all, but a faith.

    Like so many things in the contemporary world, hard science, in some sectors has become a “political science”. Political Science is a discipline where resources are allocated not based upon a meritocracy, but rather upon relationships, connections, and friendships: what Ayn Rand called the “Aristocracy of Pull”.

    A brief synopsis of millions of man years of human effort in physics and math with respect to modeling the physical world is in order. Sir Isaac Newton’s famous three laws are the basis of Classical Mechanics. Classical mechanics was found to be inaccurate under certain conditions: large mass, high velocity or small size. This limitation gave rise to Quantum Mechanics as a method to make better predictions under some of these conditions. Quantum Mechanics was extended to Quantum Field Theory by incorporating Special Relativity. The General Theory of Relativity was created to take into account gravitation with the precepts demanded by Special relativity. The Standard Model of Quantum Chromodynamics was developed to extend quantum mechanics to nuclear level. All of these theories provide increasingly accurate models of physical reality within their domains that have been verified to high levels of accuracy by many independent investigators.

    These theories provide predictions (laws) that are as true in Iran, and North Korea, as they are in the United States, even though our political models and systems of government based resource allocation (politics) are not. The beauty of these sciences is that their predictive power is independent of the political structure. For many, this is one, if not the fundamental allures of the disciplines: the pursuit of truth and beauty without the attendant degradation inherent in the political process.

    Einstein was one of the first to search for a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) where a single law or set of mathematical relationships can be ascertained that predict all observable natural phenomena. He failed, as have all who followed in his footsteps, but not for any lack of genius or trying. Hermann Weyl, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, was one of the first to recognize that symmetry was a powerful tool to use in physics specifically in quantum mechanical investigations. One of the great successes of this was the Eightfold Way of Murray Gell-Mann in elucidating particle physics data in QCD. The depth and beauty of these successes has led many others to seek to use these tools in the search for a GUT. In the intervening years we have had many flavors of GUT’s: supersymmetry, string theory, m-theory and d-branes just to name a few. These theories are posited to be elegant because of the fact that their beauty that derives from group representation theory, Riemannian geometry and topology. Symmetry properties, it is exposited, being natures’ most fundamental aspect and thus a milestone on the march toward a theory of everything (TOE)

    History is replete with romantic imagery of the great genius working alone to plumb the depth of nature’s secrets in the physical world. Nonetheless mathematics and physics have become team activities, where many of the great breakthroughs of the second half of the twentieth century have come from large groups with massive amounts of funding working in concert. The nucleus in the small, and cosmology in the large have required copious resources (hundreds of billions of dollars to date) to collect the experimental data required by the theorists to get us to our current state of knowledge. Virtually all of this has come from the public fisc via taxation with the majority of it coming from the taxpayers of the United States, European Union and Japan.

    The problem is that in the past 20 years faith has crept in dressed up as science. Faith is belief in the absence of proof. The theories of supersymmetry, string theory, m-theory and d-branes have no experimental data to back up their assertions, and there is none on the foreseeable horizon either according to Peter Woit. Dr. Woit has written an excellent and readable book for the layman called Not Even Wrong where he discusses this issue at length from the perspective of an expert in the field.

    In addition to the lack of experimental verification of the theory it has developed into a cult of personality where devotees follow thought leaders irrationally. The most highly regarded of these is Dr. Edward Witten, a Fields Medal winner and Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study (Einstein’s old gig). Dr. Woit’s critique of Witten’s influence:

    “The fact that Witten took up superstring theory with such enthusiasm in 1984 had a lot to with it becoming so popular, and his continuing belief that it remains the most promising idea to work on has huge influence. A major reason for this is that many people rely on his judgment because they find the state of string theory so difficult to comprehend that they are not able to reasonably form their judgments of the situation.

    Besides raising a huge barrier to entry to the subject, the difficulty of superstring theory also makes it hard for researchers to leave. By the time the achieve some real expertise they typically have invested a huge part of their careers in studying superstings, an investment that is psychologically and professionally difficult to give up.”[1]

    Legions of theoretical physicist’s and their graduate student subjects are devoting their professional livelihoods to following these thought leaders on a program that has been both a failure to date, and has no prospect of change based upon experimental results (care to guess who is paying for it). Failure is not a bad thing. It tells us when something is wrong and a course correction is required.

    “Recognizing failure is a useful part of the scientific strategy. Only when failure is recognized can dead ends be abandoned and useable pieces of failed programs recycled. Aside from possible utility, there is a responsibility to recognize failure. Recognizing failure is an essential part of the scientific ethos. Complete failure must be recognized eventually.”[2]

    Another critic has said that:

    “A few diehards dedicated to truth rather than practicality will practice physics in a non-empirical, ironic mode, plumbing the magical realm of superstrings and other esoteric and fretting bout the meaning of quantum mechanics. The conferences of these ironic physicists whose disputes cannot be experimentally resolved will become more and more like those of that bastion of literary criticism, the Modern Language Association”[3]

    From the perspective of experts in the field Dr. Woit is not alone. Nobel Laureate (Physics 1979) Sheldon Glashow wrote a paper more than 20 years ago predicting the current fiasco entitled “Desperately Seeking Superstrings” where he discussed the current dilemma with prescience.

    Literary criticism is about as watery a gruel as academia can promulgate and still be called academic. Experimental results anyone (Al Gore’s “research” comes to mind)? Literary criticism is a Higher Superstition where words are strung together sequentially and thus stripped of all meaning. It is deeply disheartening to recognize that some of the mathematics and physics community have gotten themselves into a position where this can be reasonably said of their work, irrespective of how zealously they prosecute it.

    The brutal history of the 20th century is testimony to the disasters that can occur when dogma masquerades as science with the power of the state behind it.

    Communism was purported to be scientific, but was in fact a religion. The experimental results of it’s theories killed a hundred million.
    Keynesian economics has all the trappings of science but yet it is a faith practiced by the privileged elite, politicians and their doyens mainstream academic economists. I do not consider stagflation, inflation, fiat currency or deficit spending to be experimental verification of a theory, but rather the lack thereof.
    The current Iraq mess is an example of a political process where a defective theory was coupled with experimental results that contradict said theory.
    Citizens and taxpayers should be alarmed at the huge effort of a privileged minority in masquerading their religion as a science. The current state of string theory is that it is on equal footing with creationism, intelligent design, and scientology in being unable to provide any experimental verification of the “truths” posited. This worry is two fold, first that alternative lines of thought are not being pursed (at least not by those seeking tenure) because of the power of this privileged elite and secondly, that this all is being pursued as publicly funded scientific research.

    Belief in the absence of proof is the basis for religious thought, and all individuals should be free to pursue their beliefs privately. In the United States we have a history of separating the church and the state. Yet it is clear to this taxpayer that String Theory has become a political science where connections (pull) matter far more than results. Given the tremendous filtering capability of the tenured elite to squelch dissenting views science enters the territory of diminished (vanished) returns because of the taint of the political process. Science and possibly our future are degraded as a result of this confluence.

    Once physical reality becomes the province of the political we all suffer. When physical problems get solved politically the down side becomes unbounded and that is a danger that concerned citizens need be aware of.

    Dr. Woit’s Blog is an excellent read for all concerned.

    Copyright 2006


    [1]P. Woit Not Even Wrong p. 201 Basic Books 2006

    [2] D. Friedan “A Tentative Theory of Large Distance Physics ”

    [3] J. Horgan The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age Addison Wesley 1996 p. 91

  • 11. Bhattacharyya B  |  December 30, 2006 at 4:25 am

    Post-review interactive sessions (either through double blind or double open) between referees and authors might improve quality of work and might be constructive in less processing time.

  • 12. tamer  |  August 8, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for the post.


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