Academic publishing is increasingly inaccessible to students

Katie Jocelyn/Staff

I was and still am reluctant to submit academic papers to journals, especially those that pride themselves in having “high rejection rates” or claim to be competitive.

I was a graduate student in Korea more than 10 years ago, trying to solve some of the most complex math, economics or even physics problems. I didn’t quite come up with solutions back then, but knew where I was heading. A European friend of mine invited me for a drink and warned that the graduate school office had installed malware in the computers of active researchers. Solve a complex problem and they’ll give away your solution to the professors, he warned me.

That’s how I decided to try to solve most problems mentally, without taking handwritten notes or notes in computer files. I was warned that students who did research had their rooms checked as well. Whether that was true or not, I was skeptical and suspicious.

Rather than applying to high-profile math or economics conferences, I decided to test the waters with less important student conferences. My hunch got confirmed. I presented papers on topics that were of lesser importance and was deliberately sloppy while writing papers. I did notice that the same people who were viciously criticizing my papers and other researchers’ papers were the same who were selling those very same ideas the researchers were defending in their future papers.

I once tested the waters by sending papers to several journals. Most of them were rejected, but few gave reasons as to why the papers were rejected. I deliberately wrote the papers on what I thought were problems of lesser importance. One journal editor did betray most journals’ secret: I had a long email exchange with him in which he engaged in the usual groundless and vicious attacks on my paper while concluding that he did find some parts of the paper very interesting and asked me if he could borrow those for his paper.

In the old days, most journals were run by academic associations or think tanks that met on a regular basis and operated one or several journals. Most journal contributors were part of the circle and had personal connections with the editors as well as with the members of the association. The audience they had in mind when writing their papers was often the members of the association and the practitioners who liked to catch up with the associations’ literature.
Back then, there were no notions of impact factor, citation index, writing X number of papers to impress the tenure committee or get a job, have X number of researchers cite the paper and so on. Resume building was not the norm and active researchers tended to be guaranteed to find an academic position somewhere.

Harsh immigration regulations abroad and harsh credential regulations in my home country prevented me from getting anywhere near an academic position and from earning bread while solving complex problems. While doing my doctorate in South Korea, my professors knew I had the solutions to a lot of problems. But rather than trying to work on the problems together and share credit for the solutions, they failed me five times at the “test of ability to write a dissertation,” known as qualifying or comprehensive examinations elsewhere. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony.

The tendency journals have to reject papers then re-write the content to their credit led me to publish a lot of my research in newspaper op-eds, taking word limits and formatting constraints into account. Few people seemed to care that the problems were being solved.

Without a doctorate and without the traditional 10-page list of “impact factor” publications in “indexed” journals, it’s hard for me to even get to the job interview stage of an academic position. I wake up to an empty email box every morning and go to sleep to the same every night.

Pressure on professors to publish to keep their jobs is what leads some universities to try everything they can to get a paper published, even when it means rejecting papers so they can paraphrase them and publish them. I was smart enough to dumb most of my research down.
But when holding an office job at a Korean university — I was in charge of exchange students — my supervisor threatened to “bury me alive” and seemed determined in his endeavor. I then decided to give some hints to how some problems could be solved. The research community was still uninterested nonetheless.

Akli Hadid works for the British Council.

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