Academic Prostitution: Publishing what the referees want
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:
- Undergrad: Write a senior thesis (for good grad school recommendations)
- Grad student: Publish at least 1 paper each year in the top journals (conferences, if in engineering) in your field. Pass Quals
- Assistant Professor: Publish several papers (including those you “co-author” with your students); get grant money. Repeat for 6 years
- 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.