More Cultural Studies = Less Uptake

Ted Striphas, author of The Late Age of Print  (2009) recently published an interesting article in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies on the inconsistencies in the current journal publishing system, focusing specifically on the situation within the field of Cultural Studies. In his article, entitled Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing, Striphas gives a very clear and concise summary of the problems this system of ‘academic capitalism’ has created. The article is a must-read for anyone who sees her/himself as a critical scholar (and anyone else for that matter). It is freely available via the wiki accompanying Striphas’ blog Differences & Repetitions, where it was already published as a working draft or paper-in-progress in 2008.

Striphas main argument is that the current political programme dominating journal publishing, has led to a restriction of access to much of the material produced within the field of cultural studies, therewith diminishing the potential (political) impact of cultural studies. I strongly feel the situation Striphas describes matches the situation in most of the fields within the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). Striphas would probably agree to this thesis, as he, in his article, often takes the situation of the HSS as a starting point, after which he zooms in on Cultural Studies as a specific case study. However, Striphas feels the situation is more grave in the latter field, as this is (one of the) field(s) that is known for its critical stance and disposition towards the (economical and political) structures behind the production of culture. Striphas criticizes the field for its passive position concerning its own political economy of production, which is increasingly in the hands of neo-liberal market and profit oriented firms. In this economy the main reason of communicating one’s research results—making the work accessible to one’s peers—has been exchanged for the gathering of large profits. Saying that the current system is broken is only a half-truth. As Striphas writes, “the system is functioning only too well these days—just not for the scholars it is intended to serve.”

He claims that the situation for scholars has grown worse with the rise of multinational monopolistic publishing houses, making academic practices increasingly dependent on them. Publishers have been producing more and more journals to gain a larger profit. This overproduction has led to a qualification-inflation. The crisis of overproduction has led to the paradoxical situation were one now has less of a change to be noticed and read.

Striphas’criticism of the political economy surrounding academic publishing ends up to be a larger criticism of the academic system as a whole. As he states:

“Broadly, the goal of present-day academic capitalism is not merely to apply business precepts piecemeal to the running of academic institutions (…) Instead, the goal is to make the latter over in the image of the former, fundamentally, by imposing new norms of efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness on university employees.”(9)

Not only the current publishing system, but the whole system of academic capitalism is affecting the dissemination, accessibility and thus the potential impact of scholarly research results.

A few remarks. First of all Striphas’ approach to the so-called monograph crisis seems to be a bit fuzzy in this paper. Although he does state that he focuses mainly on journals, somewhere halfway his paper he writes down the following mysterious sentence: “The humanities’ enduring commitment to books thus has shielded its constituent disciplines and fields, cultural studies included, at least somewhat from the harshest effects of academic publishing’s recent transformations.”(16) In the subsequent paragraph he goes on to explain exactly how monographs were harshly influenced by the whole crisis, severely downgrading his earlier sentence. Why then the need to write down this earlier statement? In any case, Striphas only mentions one side of the monograph crisis, the decline of library acquisitions’ budgets and the subsequent dwindling sales of monographs. He does not go on to mention the fact that this situation consequentially led to big decreases in monograph print runs. Not only does this mean publishers are increasingly taking the less-risk-option—preferring more commercially viable  titles over the publication of for instance highly specialized research and research written in non-English languages—the titles they eventually do publish are not nearly disseminated as widely as they were in previous era’s.

Secondly, I feel Striphas could have given some more attention to the protest that is and has already risen against these political and economical superstructures. Although at the end of his paper he gives an elaborate list of possibilities for scholars to pursue in order to make a stand against the current system, to me it seems these could have gotten a bigger position in the body of his article and I feel they should have been a more vital part of his argumentation. Only mentioned briefly in the end, the Open Access movement—also a presence in the field of cultural studies—is not getting the credit it deserves. Particularly in the last couple of years this movement has grown significantly, in the HSS too, and also in Cultural Studies—why is Culture Machine not mentioned for instance?—and has become a true alternative to the current subscription-based publishing system. Furthermore, Striphas does not discuss activities that have been happening at the fringes of scholarly communication, where perhaps, one could argue, the true activism is taking place. The rise of informal communication through blogs (such as Striphas’ own), discussion lists, Twitter, wiki’s etc. has grown over the last years, creating an ‘alternative space’ to the one dominated by the larger publishing monopolies. Even more on the edges, on P2P file-sharing sites such as Scribd and, people are actively challenging the publishers’ distribution channels by taking the dissemination of scholarly texts into their own hands, and freely spreading them over the internet via distributed networks. Perhaps a real institutional field-wide change has not yet come about in Cultural Studies and perhaps this is what Striphas is aiming at. Nevertheless, things have been happening that I feel could have gotten some more attention in this paper.

This does not alter the fact that I love the recommendations Striphas gives at the end of his article, urging people to no longer play the passive card but to actively try, collectively, to change the current system. One of the things he stresses is to change our research practices, to experiment with new, more open forms of communication: we need to experiment with form, content and process and we should try to leave aside our paper-centric notions. And this change starts at the individual level. It is all a matter of choice. Concerning the capital intensive value-added services Striphas mentions and which publishers are currently marketing as a necessity,  I would like to add that many of these services are available in a freely and open source varieties on the web. Open Source software and platforms like OJS, OMP and Zotero—just to name a view—are meaningful choices in a highly politicized publishing industry.

Finally I agree with Striphas take on how we, as well as the publishing industry as a whole, need to become more transparent. Especially in this digital age we need a wider discussion on what it is a publisher exactly does, what kind of value he adds, and what the price-tag for such a service should (maximally) be. How much should the publishing function cost within a structure based mainly on publicly funded research (especially in the HSS). We need more transparency with regards to how these underlying structures are set-up and function. And even more importantly, we need more transparency where it concerns the structures of governance that determine and control the political economy of the publishing industry and of academia as a whole. In this respect, Striphas paper is an important exhortation.

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One comment on “More Cultural Studies = Less Uptake

  1. Pingback: Open Access Academia | thoughts on the social

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