There Is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch | Peer to Peer ReviewBarbara Fister is beginning to think that's the problem in academic publishing Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN Dec 7, 2011
|Photo by Debora Miller|
On Sunday, the New York Times published an article on how giant food corporations have found ways to get in on a free lunch. Thanks to the recession, more children than ever are eligible for subsidized school lunches, with 21 million children now in the program. The federal government provides food to schools to help kids, but also so that commodity prices (and the giant agribusiness that depend on them) are stabilized and protected. Schools find it a lot easier to spend that money if they run their kitchens like fast-food restaurants, hiring a minimum number of low-skilled, low-wage workers to handle pre-processed food from giant corporations. Potatoes get turned into French fries and chicken into nuggets. When schools outsource their food operations, they don't actually save money, but they do save the hassle of hiring cooks and having kitchens that do more than deep-fry or reheat prepared food.
With over $13 billion of tax dollars going into these programs, it pays corporations to get in on the action and to resist any changes that will cut their profits. Whenever the USDA tries to promote healthier standards for these subsidized meals, ones we pay for, big business goes to Washington and soon Congress prohibits the government from setting rules that might hurt the companies' bottom lines. (Their groups have clever names like The Coalition for Sustainable School Meal Programs—now there's an information literacy assignment waiting to happen. Apparently the sauce on pizza is more nutritious than fresh tomatoes because it's concentrated. Pay no attention to all that salt!) The public ridiculed Reagan's administration for suggesting ketchup might count as a vegetable. Now not only is ketchup a vegetable again; so is pizza. And nobody's laughing. We don't even assume things will make sense anymore.
You can guess where I'm going with this.
There are a lot of reasons that it's difficult to change the way we publish scholarship. A majority of faculty don't think there's anything wrong with the system that giving the library more money won't fix. Since research is a major part of their job, getting published is important to them. And though there's a lot of inflation in the total number of publications faculty are expected to produce, nobody wants to risk being seen as a slacker. Rather than question the increasing demands to show productivity, faculty feel defensive about the value of their work and want to showcase their industriousness. After all, an awful lot of PhDs these days have to be content with adjunct piecework. Those who are eligible for tenure don't want to rock the boat.
Like the school lunch program, their research is largely funded by public dollars, funding that's just too good a free lunch for corporations to pass up. It's startling to join a scholarly society and find yourself paying Taylor & Francis or Wiley for the membership, but a lot of organizations do that now; it beats trying to run things yourself. That takes people, and people want things like desks and computers and salaries. It's so much easier to let the big guys take care of things, especially when online journals and aggregators are making things more complicated when you're small. It doesn't necessarily save you money to hand your content to publishing conglomerates, but it's easier and it makes your journals look like all the other journals. Of course societies that earn a lot from their publishing ventures don't outsource their publications, but many of them act just like the for-profit publishers and sometimes even share a microphone at Congressional hearings when they lobby against open access.
Follow the money
Where there's lots of public money, corporations will follow, and they can get congress to work against taxpayers' interests because, hey, it costs a lot to get elected these days. Who else is going to come up with those millions? As in the case of school lunches, we spend a lot of money for a good thing—feeding children who might not otherwise get enough to eat—and the money gets divided up by agribusiness and food corporations that are gigantic and remote and liable to produce unhealthy things, like salt- and sugar-laden snack food—or, in the case of scholarly research, a proliferation of expensive publications that include fourth and fifth-rate niche journals that proliferate to publish all the stuff productive faculty churn out to prove how productive they are.
We need to think more holistically about what happens between funding and its expenditure, between the fields and the school cafeteria, between the ideas we have and their appearance in Google Scholar with a $35 price tag. Our faculty need to try out some of that critical thinking and social justice and environmentally responsible stewardship that colleges and universities are so fond of talking about in their viewbooks and admissions websites.
Because otherwise, we might as well throw in the towel and admit it: pizza is a vegetable.
Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published last year by Minotaur Books.