Today is Independence Day. I spent all morning thinking how academe, albeit claiming intellectual freedom, is dependent on for-profit corporations. How we willingly let publishers and tech companies profit during the course of our work. Work that we claim is not for profit, but for the greater good of the human kind.

Recently, I have coauthored a book chapter. For those unfamiliar with academic book publishing scheme, this is the process:

  • Academics pitched a book to a publisher. Academics waited for the publisher to accept or to decline overall proposal of the book.
  • It was accepted. Chapter authors pitched their chapter abstracts to the initiators (academics) of the book.
  • We had our chapter proposal accepted.
  • We wrote our chapter.
  • We corresponded back and forth with the initiators of the book to review and to fix the chapter (e.g. citation styles, table styles and so on).
  • We waived our “exclusive, sole, permanent, world-wide, transferable, sub-licensable and unlimited” copyrights and sent the manuscript to the publisher.
  • The book is now in production; the publisher informed us they might change citation styles (although the majority of authors already did it).
  • Once the book is out, we will each get a complimentary copy of the book and a 40% discount if we want to buy more. All the profit will go to the publisher.

We created the content for free, waive our rights to it, and allow the publisher to get all the profit. And conventionally we should think of it as an achievement, that a world-wide publishing corporation agreed to profit from our research.

The same goes for traditional academic journals. We pay to get our work published. We review others’ work for free. We waive our rights. We pay to get published. Then our articles appear behind a paywall, and readers get charged a lot. Researchers must be content with intangible awards, such as inflated ego and status boost for having published in a prestigious (read: hard to get published in) journal. We get our status, but the publisher gets all the cash for our work.

Institutional culture and structure of academe support this exploitation. We ought to do our research for the greater good, to build the knowledge base of humanity. We should not work for profit. But we need to disseminate our research by publishing it. And publications is the main metric for our success in the academia. To reconciliate the idea of working for the greater good and the need for career advancement, we tend to turn a blind eye to the blood sucking corporations that profit from our research. We write it off as necessary expenses, emphasize status of getting published in certain journals, and downplay the fact that the publishers of these journals are cashing out on our labor.

But even before publishers get their share of our labor, we benefit a whole industry of proprietary research software. From Amazon servers and Microsoft management systems, universities run in the pocket of the big tech. We are also trained to use proprietary research software, while university spends thousands of dollars for licenses. Again, we don’t think it is problematic: we use the tools provided by a university, at no cost for us. If we stay in academia and jump from university to university, we will continue to get these programs for free. But if we were to leave, we will have to pay the sticker price. Thus on this great day of independence, I promise:

  • to prioritize open access academic journals for my own publications. I recognize that I have less levy as a second or a third author, and I accept my loses there. I will always provide the final draft of my publications to anyone who contacts me.
  • to choose self-publishing and/or open access and/or small publisher publishing over traditional big-publisher publishing. I will not willingly let unchecked corporations benefit from my research.
  • to accept that my choices of open access publishing will affect my academic job prospects and be at peace with it.
  • to advocate for open access textbooks and to use them in teaching as much as possible.
  • to limit my use of proprietary software as much as possible.
  • to use open source software for my research needs.
  • to share my code and data as long as it does not breach any IRB regulations.
  • to assist anyone who wants to switch from proprietary to open source software.
  • to become an active member of online open source community.
  • to be an open source and open access advocate without being a pretentious prick about it.