New possibilities for Old Academics

The long hours between Lunch and Gin are enlivened by a new excitement. When I was young I timidly offered articles and book proposals to supercilious journal editors and publishers who, mostly, rejected them. Now that I am old and unproductive publishers  e-mail blandishments to contribute “invited” articles on Urology, Quantum-Mechanics and  Neurophysiology to “field-breaking” journals that “will provide an appropriate setting for my distinguished and important work”. I have even been offered Associate Editorship of a “mould-breaking (sic) International Journal of Gerontological and Geriatric Studies”.

A vestige of a  striving former self dating from somewhere between 1963 and 1968 gibbers from his decaying grotto in my cortex that seizing such succulent opportunities might have persuaded his employers to take him seriously, to extend his contract beyond the minimum that MRC allowed and ease him into a career far more glittering than the one we actually managed. (His moans “Too late! Too late” echo the  snideness of our cleaning lady, Lavinia, about my rusty exercise bike). The clapped out current-self now in charge of my life mumbles that the journals seem to be new ventures by unknown firms in Madras, Beijing and Singapore, that we do not recognise any of the  Editors or Board members and that, although though I have nearly finished reading each of three paper-backs on Quantum Dynamics for Dummies it may be too soon to submit “Speculations on consequences of collapsing the quantum probability function for slowing of decisions in Old Age”, even for “guaranteed immediate publication”. Clearly these people know  and care as much about me as much as do warm-hearted Nigerians who salute me as a  Brother in God and offer to deposit astounding sums of $US in my bank account.

But today is different (as today always turns out to be). An e-invitation from a respectable publishing firm for whom I have often produced work offers me a chance to do something that I might still, actually manage!

“Given your expertise in this field, we would be absolutely delighted if you would agree to produce a video for our Psychology Video Collection, to be released in March 2016. We notice that you were the lead contributor on the following concept published in the Encyclopedia of the Mind edited by Harold Pashler in 2013:

Aging Memory and Information Processing Speed

Might you be interested in creating a video discussing this concept in your own words?”

Well ! How very, very nice!  Not just slog out yet another grey typescript but  re-cycle MY OWN WORDS and speak them, with accompanying smirking, and possibly even some modest prancing and posturing, sharing my trove of wit and wisdom about Geriatric Reaction Times with the eager young ! Who knows where this may lead? Breakthrough to a personal BBC TV slot on “Slowing of Information Processing in Old Age” seems an implausible fantasy but being recognized in the street by charming young people warmed by a winsome introduction to the wonders of The Brinley Function might, surely, plausibly happen? Even once or twice would be very nice?

So: To the meat of the deal:

“We’re keen to receive videos by October 16th  at the latest, so we’d be very grateful if you would confirm your interest as soon as possible — but please do ask if you have any questions! Please feel free to simply reply to this email if interested.  We will receive your response! “

Undertaking to reply to my response would have been more reassuring but of course I immediately clicked to a new screen where my questions were answered:

  1. The publisher will retain all copyrights.
  2. The publisher will give no help with preparation of the video (though presumably, if they are wise, they will wish to rigorously edit and demand revisions of submissions).
  3. “Unfortunately” there can be no guarantee that institutions or funding bodies will find these productions evidence of merit when comparing candidates for tenure, promotion or support.
  4. The deadline is inflexible.

Like all deadlines it seems at first to be comfortable eons away – at the end of what my generation of academics used to call “the long vacation”. Though I am no longer employed I estimate that, because I am now slow and  have no technical back-up,  writing a transcript of a course, making a video and editing and re-editing these to satisfy a publisher’s  production team would  take me about 200 hours.

  1. I will be paid nothing but I will get to keep and use (with  some stringent restrictions) a copy of my transcript and video.

The publishers are clear and honest about their proposition but why do they think that I might go along with it? Perhaps, as with  incredible Nigerian offers the crafty strategy is to locate uniquely credulous persons who are  the most likely to become malleable contributors?  Have I been fingered as an old fool who now has more spare time and frustrated vanity than common sense? Maybe; but I imagine that similar proposals will go to young people who are still very active in research.

Ever since Grub Street a haughty response used by firms of publishers to put down authors is that they are not mere commercial enterprises. They are far sighted, energetic and warm-hearted professionals who take up the huge task of  knowledge-dissemination without which Science could not progress. They strain their generous hearts and keen commercial brains to benefit underpriveledged students in universities that cannot afford to buy runs of their (grossly overpriced) journals or to pay competent lecturers to design and give courses. They propose to do this by marketing compilations of selected papers and, now, entire courses of canned video-lectures. Crusty superannuates may begrudge  a few hundred hours to share their fading  knowledge with some of the neediest students in the world. Some, like myself, may even grumble at writing journal articles for nothing or resent paying serious sums to get them considered by other experts who are paid nothing for this trouble, or carp at reviewing other peoples’ articles for free or  demur at unpaid editorial jobs processing scores of Ms. and oversee production of the journals in which they appear. Selfish shirkers just do not get the point that without contributions of our surplus time publishers simply could not afford to do the wonderful job that they do (e.g. Elsevier’s annual profits are barely more than 30% of their gross turnover).

We cannot blame academic publishers for making strange suggestions – only ourselves for tolerating an environment in which they seem normal. Unless results and arguments can be made available to as large a community as possible to be checked, developed, and to become part of a global culture there can be no science, or only very small and very slow science. Do we really need publishers for this? As the soubriquet suggests “Academic” publishers were essential when most scientists were “University Academics” but we have since passed two different historical cusps: First, transmitting what we know no longer depends on skilled management of a chain of complex processes beginning with the destruction of trees by heavy machinery. Second, up to 70 of working scientists are no longer “Academics” in Universities that strive to find ways to grade our achievements so that they can reward, tolerate or dismiss us – and use counts of citations of papers in “academic journals” as the least-bad metric to do this.  Most  do their research in Industry or in other kinds of institutions that have developed sophisticated means of internal and external dissemination of knowledge. Mathematicians and statisticians can personally post their results digitally, time stamped to establish priorities. A cheap desktop computer can share all  we know with anybody in the world. Retired academics no longer have to maintain support by University Departments by notching “citation counts” or  other “productivity indices.” We are free to samizdat  our own collections of digital papers, lectures, and even instructional videos,  publicise them on easily usable  public forums for virtually no expense and  give them, free, to any who may find them useful. For sure this takes time, – which we have in abundance – and energy – a much scarcer commodity. Nevertheless I promise you, from my small personal experience, this is far more fun, and results in personal interactions that are much warmer and more rewarding than the tepid transactions  we have had, throughout our working lives with  huge prosperous institutions that we have labored to support.

For a much more detailed analysis of the problems and new possibilities of academic article publishing in the digital age please see

About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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