research


I’m getting a bit better at updating my website…probably because I have more to update. Specifically, I’ve put up some new work on the publications page. There, you will find:

On the preprints page, I have two new pieces up:

Also be sure to check out the HURDL website. We’ve got new pubs up, and the last member of the lab (Bob Greeley) finally has a bio up!

Andy Sumner was kind enough to invite me to provide a blog entry/chapter for his forthcoming e-book The Donors’ Dilemma: Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Aid. I decided to use the platform as an opportunity to expand on some of my thoughts on the future of food aid and food security in the context of a changing climate.

My central point:

By failing to understand existing agricultural practices as time-tested parts of complex structures of risk management that include concerns for climate variability, we overestimate the current vulnerability of many agricultural systems to the impacts of climate change, and underestimate the risks we create when we wipe these systems away in favor of “more efficient”, more productive systems meant to address this looming global food crisis.

Why does this matter?

In ignoring existing systems and their logic in the name of addressing a crisis that has not yet arrived, development aid runs a significant risk of undermining the nascent turn toward addressing vulnerability, and building resilience, in the policy and implementation world by unnecessarily increasing the vulnerability of the poorest populations.

The whole post is here, along with a number of other really interesting posts on the future of aid here. Head over and offer your thoughts…

Nick Kristof’s piece decrying the distance between academia and the rest of society has, predictably, triggered a screaming firestorm in academia. That’s what you get when you poke the (over)educated, seriously literate beast. A lot of the criticism is very well written and thought out (outstanding examples here and here). But I fear that Kristof’s central message, that society needs a more engaged academia, is getting lost here. My main problem was not that Kristof was arguing for a more engaged academy, but that his prescriptions for how to bring about that engagement did not address the real incentives and barriers that academics negotiate when they try to engage with public debate.

So, in the interest of constructive criticism, I have some suggestions for things that Mr. Kristof might consider looking into – throwing a light on these challenges would actually serve to highlight the real, and often absurdly unnecessary, barriers between the academy and society. This is obviously just a tiny sample of potential topics, drawn from my own experiences in a top-tier department in a large, Research-1 state institution.

  1. Examine the system by which departments are “ranked” in the United States: The National Research Council (NRC) ranks departments at (not so) regular intervals, creating a sort of BCS ranking of departments, with about the same amount of accuracy and certainty. By and large, academics know these rankings are garbage, but administrations love to trot them out to demonstrate the excellence of their institution, and therefore justify the institutional budget/tuition/etc. But here’s a fun fact: if you dig into what counts in the rankings, you can quickly see why university administrations don’t necessarily care for academic outreach. For example, did you know that authoring an NRC report (which is seriously prestigious) DOES NOT COUNT AS A MEASURABLE PUBLICATION IN THE NRC RANKINGS? I know this because my department ran into this problem the last time around, with at least three members of our faculty losing multiple publications because the NRC did not count ITS OWN PUBLICATIONS. If those pubs were excluded, you can imagine that basically all reports in all contexts were excluded. So if administrations love rankings, and rankings hate outreach, you’re not going to get much outreach.
  2. Consider how academic evaluation’s over-focus on the number of articles produced creates less interesting, more arcane academic outputs: The production of knowledge in academia has, for some time, been driven by expectations of ever-greater output (as measured in research dollars and publications) with less input (fewer faculty members). These expectations govern everything from the evaluation of departments to individual tenure decisions. As a result, the publication requirements for tenure have become ever-more challenging, with expectations for the number of publications produced rising so steeply that many who recently got tenure might have published more articles than their very senior colleagues published to become full professors even two decades ago. This is driven by everything from departmental-level politics to the NRC rankings themselves, though I suspect a strong trickle-down effect here. In any case, this has created a crisis of knowledge production in which professors are incentivized to produce what my colleague Carl Dahlman once called the minimum publishable unit (MPU). Because expectations of performance are more and more heavily based on quantitative output (thanks, NRC!), as opposed to the quality of that output, it makes sense for faculty to shy away from “big question” articles that might chew up a lot of their data and interesting ideas, and instead package that same set of ideas as two or three smaller, much more arcane publications. This is a very real pressure: when I put out my retheorization of livelihoods approaches a year ago, more than one colleague suggested that I would have been better cutting its 15000 words into two 8500 word pieces, as it would have counted for more in my annual evaluation. Nothing has driven us toward a proliferation of small, specialized journals carrying tiny, arcane articles quite like this drive for quantification and greater production. Undoing this really awful trend would help a lot, as academics would be freed up to think big thoughts again, both in journals and in other fora. One way to help: publicize the alt-metrics movement (start at the LSE Impact Blog and work from there) that attempts to move beyond a system of academic assessment that reflects a long-dead era of publication and communication.
  3. Focus on how for-profit academic publishers wall off knowledge from the public: Academics must publish to survive professionally, and the best journals in nearly every field are the last profitable properties for a number of publishing houses. These publishers benefit from free labor on the part of authors, reviewers, and the nearly-free labor of editors, and often the subsidy of taxpayer-funded research, yet charge exorbitant amounts for subscriptions to their journals – in the case of public universities, bleeding the taxpayer once again. Academics are absolutely responsible for this situation – after all, we collectively define what the good journals are, and as I’ve argued before we could change our minds if we wanted to. But academia takes time to change, and could use a push. Where is the push from the federal government to demand that the results of taxpayer-funded research be made available to the taxpayers immediately? What happened to the initial push from the Obama White House on this issue? It seems to be a topic ripe for a good investigative journalist.

And, for good measure, an interesting trend that will likely lead to a more engaged academia:

  1. The shift in acceptable academic funding: Until very recently, academic grants from traditional agencies like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health were given exalted status, with all other forms of funding occupying lesser rungs on the great chain of funding. Thus, to get tenure, many (biophysical science/social science) academics really had to land one of these grants. The programs associated with these grants very often rewarded pure research and actively discouraged “applied” work, and even today the NSF’s requirements for “impact” are fairly surficial. Contracts were very second-tier, and often not taken seriously in one’s academic review. Now, thanks to funding crunches in both universities and the funding agencies, any research-looking dollars have started looking good to university administrations, and contracts are more and more being evaluated alongside more traditional academic grants. There is a tremendous opportunity here to engage academia through this mechanism. [Full disclosure: I’ve been funded in the past by NSF and by the National Geographic Society, but today roughly 90% of my funding comes directly or indirectly from development donors like USAID in the form of contracts or grants]

This is hardly a comprehensive list of things into which a serious journalist could shed light on, and perhaps help leverage change. I’m just typing quickly here. If you have other ideas for things that journalists should be examining, please leave them in the comments or email them to me: ed at edwardrcarr.com   I will append them to this post as they come in, attributing them (or not, depending on the wishes of contributors) in the post.

I’m a big fan of accountability when it comes to aid and development. We should be asking if our interventions have impact, and identifying interventions that are effective means of addressing particular development challenges. Of course, this is a bit like arguing for clean air and clean water. Seriously, who’s going to argue for dirtier water or air. Who really argues for ineffective aid and development spending?

Nobody.

More often than not, discussions of accountability and impact serve only to inflate narrow differences in approach, emphasis, or opinion into full on “good guys”/ “bad guys” arguments, where the “bad guys” are somehow against evaluation, hostile to the effective use of aid dollars, and indeed actively out to hurt the global poor. This serves nothing but particular cults of personality and, in my opinion, serves to squash out really important problems with the accountability/impact agenda in development. And there are major problems with this agenda as it is currently framed – around the belief that we have proven means of measuring what works and how, if only we would just apply those tools.

When we start from this as a foundation, the accountability discussion is narrowed to a rather tepid debate about the application of the right tools to select the right programs. If all we are really talking about are tools, any skepticism toward efforts to account for the impact of aid projects and dollars is easily labeled an exercise in obfuscation, a refusal to “learn what works,” or an example of organizations and individuals captured by their own intellectual inertia. In narrowing the debate to an argument about the willingness of individuals and organizations to apply these tools to their projects, we are closing off discussion of a critical problem in development: we don’t actually know exactly what we are trying to measure.

Look, you can (fairly easily) measure the intended impact of a given project or program if you set things up for monitoring and evaluation at the outset.  Hell, with enough time and money, we can often piece enough data together to do a decent post-hoc evaluation. But both cases assume two things:

1)   The project correctly identified the challenge at hand, and the intervention was actually foundational/central to the needs of the people at hand.

This is a pretty weak assumption. I filled up a book arguing that a lot of the things that we assume about life for the global poor are incorrect, and therefore that many of our fundamental assumptions about how to address the needs of the global poor are incorrect. And when much of what we do in development is based on assumptions about people we’ve never met and places we’ve never visited, it is likely that many projects which achieve their intended outcomes are actually doing relatively little for their target populations.

Bad news: this is pretty consistent with the findings of a really large academic literature on development. This is why HURDL focuses so heavily on the implementation of a research approach that defines the challenges of the population as part of its initial fieldwork, and continually revisits and revises those challenges as it sorts out the distinct and differentiated vulnerabilities (for explanation of those terms, see page one of here or here) experienced by various segments of the population.

Simply evaluating a portfolio of projects in terms of their stated goals serves to close off the project cycle into an ever more hermetically-sealed, self-referential world in which the needs of the target population recede ever further from design, monitoring, and evaluation. Sure, by introducing that drought-tolerant strain of millet to the region, you helped create a stable source of household food that guards against the impact of climate variability. This project could record high levels of variety uptake, large numbers of farmers trained on the growth of that variety, and even improved annual yields during slight downturns in rain. By all normal project metrics, it would be a success. But if the biggest problem in the area was finding adequate water for household livestock, that millet crop isn’t much good, and may well fail in the first truly dry season because men cannot tend their fields when they have to migrate with their animals in search of water.  Thus, the project achieved its goal of making agriculture more “climate smart,” but failed to actually address the main problem in the area. Project indicators will likely capture the first half of the previous scenario, and totally miss the second half (especially if that really dry year comes after the project cycle is over).

2)   The intended impact was the only impact of the intervention.

If all that we are evaluating is the achievement of the expected goals of a project, we fail to capture the wider set of impacts that any intervention into a complex system will produce. So, for example, an organization might install a borehole in a village in an effort to introduce safe drinking water and therefore lower rates of morbidity associated with water-borne illness. Because this is the goal of the project, monitoring and evaluation will center on identifying who uses the borehole, and their water-borne illness outcomes. And if this intervention fails to lower rates of water-borne illness among borehole users, perhaps because post-pump sanitation issues remain unresolved by this intervention, monitoring and evaluation efforts will likely grade the intervention a failure.

Sure, that new borehole might not have resulted in lowered morbidity from water-borne illness. But what if it radically reduced the amount of time women spent gathering water, time they now spend on their own economic activities and education…efforts that, in the long term, produced improved household sanitation practices that ended up achieving the original goal of the borehole in an indirect manner? In this case, is the borehole a failure? Well, in one sense, yes – it did not produce the intended outcome in the intended timeframe. But in another sense, it had a constructive impact on the community that, in the much longer term, produced the desired outcome in a manner that is no longer dependent on infrastructure. Calling that a failure is nonsensical.

Nearly every conversation I see about aid accountability and impact suffers from one or both of these problems. These are easy mistakes to make if we assume that we have 1) correctly identified the challenges that we should address and 2) we know how best to address those challenges. When these assumptions don’t hold up under scrutiny (which is often), we need to rethink what it means to be accountable with aid dollars, and how we identify the impact we do (or do not) have.

What am I getting at? I think we are at a point where we must reframe development interventions away from known technical or social “fixes” for known problems to catalysts for change that populations can build upon in locally appropriate, but often unpredictable, ways. The former framing of development is the technocrats’ dream, beautifully embodied in the (failing) Millennium Village Project, just the latest incarnation of Mitchell’s Rule of Experts or Easterly’s White Man’s Burden. The latter requires a radical embrace of complexity and uncertainty that I suspect Ben Ramalingan might support (I’m not sure how Owen Barder would feel about this). I think the real conversation in aid/development accountability and impact is about how to think about these concepts in the context of chaotic, complex systems.

Since returning to academia in August of 2012, I’ve been pretty swamped. Those who follow this blog, or my twitter feed, know that my rate of posting has been way, way down. It’s not that I got bored with social media, or tired of talking about development, humanitarian assistance, and environmental change. I’ve just been swamped. The transition back to academia took much more out of me than I expected, and I took on far, far too much work. The result – a lot of lost sleep, and a lapsed social media profile in the virtual world, and a lapsed social life in the real world.

One of the things I’ve been working on is getting and organizing enough support around here to do everything I’m supposed to be doing – that means getting grad students and (coming soon) a research associate/postdoc to help out. Well, we’re about 75% of the way there, and if I wait for 100% I’ll probably never get to introduce you all to HURDL…

HURDL is the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab here at the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina. It’s also a less-than-subtle wink at my previous career in track and field. HURDL is the academic home for me and several (very smart) grad students, and the institution managing about five different workflows for different donors and implementers.  Basically, we are the qualitative/social science research team for a series of different projects that range from policy development to project design and implementation. Sometimes we are doing traditional academic research. Mostly, we do hybrid work that combines primary research with policy and/or implementation needs. I’m not going to go into huge detail here, because we finally have a lab website up. The site includes pages for our personnel, our projects, our lab-related publications, and some media (still under development). We’ll need to put up a news feed and likely a listing of the talks we give in different places.

Have a look around. I think you’ll have a sense of why I’ve been in a social media cave for a while. Luckily, I am surrounded by really smart, dedicated people, and am in a position to add at least one more staff position soon, so I might actually be back on the blog (and sleeping more than 6 hours a night) again soon!

Let us know what you think – this is just a first cut at the page. We’d love suggestions, comments, whatever you have – we want this to be an effective page, and a digital ambassador for our work…

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of development programs that claim to work on issues of environmental governance. Most donor-funded environmental governance work stems from concerns about issues like sustainability and climate change at the national to global scale. These are legitimate challenges that require attention. However, such programs often strike me as instances of thinking globally, but implementing locally (and ideally someplace else). You see, there are things that we in the wealthiest countries should be doing to mitigate climate change and make the world a more sustainable place. But they are inconvenient. They might cost us a bit of money. They might make us do a few things differently. So we complain about them, and they get implemented slowly, if ever.

Yet somehow we fail to see how this works in exactly the same manner when we implement programs that are, for example, aimed at the mitigation of climate change in the Global South. These programs tend to take away particular livelihoods activities and resources (such as cutting trees, burning charcoal, or fishing and hunting particular species), which is inconvenient, tends to reduce household access to food and income, and forces changes upon people – all of which they don’t really like. So it is sort of boggling to me that we are surprised when populations resist these programs and projects.

I’m on this topic because, while conducting preliminary fieldwork in Zambia’s Kazungula District last week, I had yet another experience of this problem. In the course of a broad conversation on livelihoods, vulnerabilities, and opportunities in his community, a senior man raised charcoal production as an alternative livelihood in the area (especially in the dry season, when there is little water for gardening/farming and no nearby source of fishing). Noting that charcoal production was strictly limited for purposes of limiting the impacts of climate change*, a rationale whose legitimacy he did not challenge, he complained that addressing the issue of charcoal production is not well understood or accepted by the local population. He argued that much of the governance associated with this effort consisted of agents of the state telling people “it’s an offense” and demanding they stop cutting trees and burning charcoal without explaining why it is an offense. He then pointed to one of his sons and said “how can you tell him ‘don’t cut this tree’? And his fields are flooding [thus destroying his crops, a key source of food and income].” But the quote that pulled it all together…

“Don’t make people be rude or be criminals. Give them a policy that will open them.”

The text is clear here: if you are going to take away a portion of our livelihoods for the sake of the environment, please give us an alternative so we can comply. This is obvious – and yet to this point I think the identification and implementation of alternative livelihoods in the context of environmental governance programs is, at best, uneven.

But the subtext might be more important: If you don’t give us an alternative, you make us into criminals because we will be forced to keep practicing these now-banned activities. And when that happens, we will never view the regulations or those that enforce them as legitimate. In other words, the way we tend to implement environmental governance programming undermines the legitimacy of the governance structures we are trying to put in place.

Oops.

The sad part is that there have been innumerable cases of just the phenomena I encountered last week at other times and in other places. They’ve been documented in reports and refereed publications. Hell, I’ve heard narratives like this in the course of my work in Ghana and Malawi. But environmental governance efforts continue to inadequately explain their rationales to the populations most affected by their implementation. They continue to take away livelihoods activities from those that need them most in the name of a greater good for which others pay no tangible price. And they continue to be surprised when people ignore the tenets of the program, and begin to question the legitimacy of any governance structure that would bring such rules into effect. Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a “think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)” mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.

 

 

* Yes, he really said that, as did a lot of other people. The uniformity of that answer strikes me as the product of some sort of sensitization campaign that, to be honest, is pretty misplaced. There are good local environmental reasons for controlling deforestation, but the contribution of charcoal production to the global emissions budget is hilariously small.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with Mary Thompson (one of my now-former students – well done, Dr. Thompson) on a report for USAID that explores how the Agency, and indeed development more broadly, approaches the issue of gender and adaptation in agrarian settings. The report was an idea that was hatched back when I was still at USAID. Basically, I noticed that most gender assessments seemed to start with a general “there are men, and there are women, and they are different, so we should assess that” approach. This binary approach is really problematic for several reasons.

  • First, not all women (or men) are the same – a wealthy woman is likely have different experiences and opportunities than a poor woman, for example. Lumping all women together obscures these important differences.
  • Second, different aspects of one’s identity matter more or less, depending on the situation. To understand the decisions I make in my daily life, you would have to account for the fact that sometimes my decisions are shaped by the fact I am professor (such as when I am in the classroom), and other times where what I do is influenced by my role as a father. In both cases, I am still a man – but I occupy two different identity spaces, where my gender might not be as important as my profession or my status as a (somewhat) responsible adult in the house.
  • Third, this approach assumes that there are gendered differences in the context of adaptation to climate change and variability in all situations. While there are often important gendered differences in exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity in relation to the impacts of climate change and variability, this is not always the case.

My colleagues in both the Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GENDEV) and the Office of Global Climate Change agreed that these issues were problematic. They enthusiastically supported an effort to assess the current state of knowledge on gender and adaptation, and to illustrate the importance of doing gender differently through case studies.

Mary and I reviewed the existing literature on gender and adaptation in agrarian settings, exploring how the issue has been addressed in the past. We also focused on a small emerging literature in adaptation that takes a more productive approach to gender that acknowledges and wrestles with the fact that gender roles really take much of their meaning, responsibilities, and expectations from the intersection of gender and other social categories (especially age, ethnicity, and livelihood/class). You can find a first version of this review in the annex of the report. However, Mary and I substantially revised and expanded this literature review for an article now in press at Geography Compass. A preprint version is available on the preprints page of my website.

The bulk of the report – and the part probably of greatest interest to most of my readers – are three case studies that empirically illustrate how taking a binary approach to gender makes it very difficult to identify some of the most vulnerable people in a given place or community, and therefore very different to understand their particular challenges and opportunities. These cases are drawn from my research in Ghana and Mali, and Mary’s dissertation work in Malawi. They make a powerful case for doing gender assessments differently.

This report is not the end of the story – my lab and I are still working with GENDEV and the Office of Global Climate Change at USAID, now identifying missions with adaptation projects that will allow us to implement parallel gender assessments taking a more complex approach to the issue. We hope to demonstrate to these missions the amount of important information generated by this more complex approach, show that greater complexity does not have to result in huge delays in project design or implementation, and ideally influence their project design and implementation such that these projects result in better outcomes.

More to come…

First up on my week up update posts is a re-introduction to my reworked livelihoods approach. As some of you might remember, the formal academic publication laying out the theoretical basis for this approach came out in early 2013. This approach presented in the article is the conceptual foundation for much of the work we are doing in my lab. This pub is now up on my home page, via the link above or through a link on the publications page.

The premise behind this approach, and why I developed it in the first place, is simple. Most livelihoods approaches implicitly assume that the primary motivation for livelihoods decisions is the maximization of some sort of material return on that activity. Unfortunately, in almost all cases this is a massive oversimplification of livelihoods decision-making processes, and in many cases is fundamentally incorrect. Think about the number of livelihoods studies where there are many decisions or behaviors that seem illogical when held up to the logic of material maximization (which would be any good livelihoods study, really). We spend a lot of time trying to explain these decisions away (idiosyncrasy, incomplete information, etc.). But this makes no sense – if you are living on $1.25 a day, and you are illogical or otherwise making decisions against interest, you are likely dead. So there must be a logic behind these decisions, one that we must engage if we are to understand why people do what they do, and if we are to design and implement development interventions that are relevant to the needs of the global poor. My livelihoods approach provides a means of engaging with and explaining these behaviors built on explicit, testable framings of decision-making, locally-appropriate divisions of the population into relevant groupings (i.e. gender, age, class), and the consideration of factors from the local to the global scale.

The article is a straight-ahead academic piece – to be frank, the first half of the article is not that accessible to those without backgrounds in social theory and livelihoods studies. However, the second half of the article is a case study that lays out what the approach allows the user to see and explain, which should be of interest to most everyone who works with livelihoods approaches.

For those who would like a short primer on the approach and what it means in relatively plain English, I’ve put up a “top-line messages” document on the preprints page of my website.

Coming soon is an implementation piece that guides the user through the actual use of the approach. I field-tested the approach in Kaffrine, Senegal with one of my graduate students from May-July 2013. I am about to put the approach to work in a project with the Red Cross in the Zambezi Basin in Zambia next month. In short, this is not just a theoretical pipe dream – it is a real approach that works. In fact, the reason we are working with Red Cross is because Pablo Suarez of Boston University and the Red Cross Climate Centre read the academic piece and immediately grasped what it could do, and then reached out to me to bring me into one of their projects. The implementation piece is already fully drafted, but I am circulating it to a few people in the field to get feedback before I submit it for review or post it to the preprints page. I am hoping to have this up by the end of January.  Once that is out the door, I will look into building a toolkit for those who might be interested in using the approach.

I’m really excited by this approach, and the things that are emerging from it in different places (Mali, Zambia, and Senegal, at the moment). I would love feedback on the concept or its use – I’m not a defensive or possessive person when it comes to ideas, as I think debate and critique tend to make things stronger. The reason I am developing a new livelihoods approach is because the ones we have simply don’t explain the things we need to know, and the other tools of development research that dominate the field at the moment (i.e. RCTs) cannot address the complex, integrative questions that drive outcomes at the community level. So consider all of this a first draft, one that you can help bring to final polished form!

So, some of you might have wondered where the guy who ground out a lot of longish (too-longish?), wonky blog posts has gone over the past year and a half or so. Well, the transition back to academia was much bumpier than I had anticipated. Funding for research takes time to arrive, as does the support (i.e. skilled labor) necessary to make that research happen. And then there is the fact I teach two classes a semester – and they are not small classes. I just finished my annual reporting for 2013, and because of this exercise I know that I taught 261 students last year. In four courses – one of which was a 12-person graduate seminar, so you do the math on my average undergraduate class size. It’s…not ideal.

I’m also now dealing with a complete reversal of my situation back in 2009-10, when I decided to leave academia for a while and go work at USAID. Back then, I felt completely disconnected from development policy and implementation. I was frustrated and bored. Now, I have a small lab running five different projects, only one of which is “pure” research. But we are not fully staffed yet – we’re about to search for a research associate to take up some of the load – and the result has been a lot of nights with less than six hours of sleep. This is hard, but as I remind people, it beats being ignored.

So, until about a week ago, I simply could not get my head above water long enough to blog. I think that is going to change over the next few months, as we get things under control in the lab. So, for that small but dedicated fanbase of the longish, wonky development blog posts, soon you will have more to read.

In the meantime, I’ve finally updated my personal homepage. There are new publications up, new preprints up, and a new mission statement on the home page. This week, I will walk you through these new pubs and ideas. I’m also at work on a new lab page. This will introduce you to a new cast of characters, and a new set of projects, that should keep things interesting around here for a while. I’m not yet sure about the relationship between the lab and this blog – I have to work that out. But the lab will have a twitter account, likely an Instagram account (we’re going to be going a lot of places), and the web page will have project-related videos. It should be pretty cool.

Thanks for bearing with me over the past year and a half. Watch this space – it should get interesting.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Elsevier, the Dutch academic publishing giant, has started issuing takedown orders to Academia.edu, a social-networking website for academics where many members post .pdf versions of their work for sharing. In fact, I received a notification from Academia.edu yesterday that one of my posted articles had received a takedown notice from Elsevier – it is a piece I am the fourth author on, but I still like the piece and find myself greatly annoyed this happened. On the other hand, it was sort of inevitable – I’ve published a good bit, and a lot of my stuff is available in various forms in various locations, so sooner or later one of those repositories was going to receive a takedown notice.

The Chronicle article is fine – basically, a rehash of the ongoing debate about academic publishing, profit models, and the rights of researchers to disseminate their research findings. But the comments section of the piece is a microcosm of why this debate persists – basically, the commenters sit on two sides: “information should be free and accessible” versus “if you don’t like it, stop signing contracts/publishing with journals that restrict your rights as an author.” This is not helpful – most academics want their work to be free, and we are not idiots when it comes to the contracts we sign when we publish. We sign them BECAUSE WE HAVE TO.

For those who are not academics, let me walk you through the problem. For academics in research-focused universities (and increasingly in teaching-focused institutions) a record of publication is our legitimacy, our standing in our discipline, our leverage for higher salaries or new jobs. And while the pervasiveness of electronic resources and networks have started to change the publishing landscape, as of now there still exists a hierarchy of journals in each discipline. And for most of us, that hierarchy matters – you simply must publish at least some pieces in the top tier of journals if you are to be tenured and promoted, and if you are to be taken seriously within your discipline. This is institutional reality. And guess who controls nearly all of those journals? For-profit academic publishers like Elsevier.

Let me lay this out in a simple scenario: You are a tenure-track assistant professor, and after a few years of research, data analysis, and writing, you’ve finally gotten a manuscript accepted by one of the very top journals in your field. You NEED this publication to ensure that your tenure file, which will go into review in the coming year, will be reviewed positively. Soon after your notification of the article’s acceptance, you receive the publishing contract from Elsevier/Springer/whoever and it says the usual restrictive things about not posting your own work. You hate this, as it means that those without access to academic libraries and interlibrary loan will likely have to pay $30 or more to access your article – in other words, nobody outside of academia will access or read your work. But if you refuse to sign, the publisher will not publish your manuscript. Here is your dilemma: at this point, do you withdraw the manuscript and send it to a new journal with more liberal author rights? If you do, you are certainly sending it to a lower-ranked journal, and you will have to go through peer review all over again, ensuring that the manuscript will not be accepted or published by the time your tenure file is submitted…which will really hurt your tenure case. Or do you sign the stupid contract because you absolutely must have this publication?

I think everyone reading this knows which way this decision is going to go. So do the publishers. This is why the model persists, people – not because academics are stupid, but because we are trapped in an institutional model that gives us very few degrees of freedom on this issue. It’s also not because academics are greedy. Note that I never talked about money, because academics DO NOT GET PAID FOR THESE ARTICLES. At all.

This is why I argued that a real change in this model will require disciplinary reorientations/reorganizations that recognize a whole new set of publishers/journals as legitimate/important outlets. It is the only way academia can really undermine the for-profit academic publishers and end the practice of restrictive publishing and dissemination contracts, as it would make the boycott/avoidance of such publishers a real possibility within the institutional realities of academia today.

Until disciplines, or at the very least particular institutions that are seen as academic leaders, start to recognize alternative journals or means of publication as legitimate outputs that will facilitate a path to tenure and promotion, we will be having the same conversations about academic publishing. Of course, there is one other possible lever that I have raised before – the White House could issue an executive directive reorganizing federally-funded research such that copyright does not attach. Federal employees currently publish in academic journals without transferring copyright (in these situations, there is no copyright to transfer to a journal), so there is a model in place for this. In the end, this makes a great deal of sense no matter how you feel about academic publishing, as these publications represent findings that were obtained via the expenditure of public money, so allowing private profit from such “public goods” is pretty perverse.

The White House appears to have considered this, but there has been little recent noise on this front – perhaps because of major exertions by the publishers to neuter this effort. My guess is that the decision-makers in the White House don’t really understand academic publishing and the institutional structures that maintain it (as opposed to OSTP, which is staffed with people who do, but serve in a mostly advisory capacity to the decision-makers). If they did, they would realize that most arguments for the persistence of exclusive publishing rights with for-profit academic publishers in the era of the Internet make no sense at all. It’s harder for an industry lobby to win an argument when those they are lobbying actually understand the rules of the game…

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