The 21st Century Academics, Academic Dream, And The Exploitation
The recent resignation of over 40 editors of two leading neuroscience journals in May 2023 sparked discussion in the academic world. The resignation was in protest against excessively high article-processing charges (APCs) set by the publishers. The editors said it is unethical and unsustainable to charge such high APCs.
As journals are increasingly becoming freely accessible and the a reduction in pay-to-read subscriptions, the authors have to pay to get their articles published. So, publishers have introduced APCs — part of a pay-to-publish model — as an alternative to pay-to-read subscriptions. The fees, according to the publishers, are used to cover publishing services. The fees vary in such a way that journals with high-impact factors charge more.
The APC for NeuroImage is US$3,450 (3,622,500 NGN). The Lancet Neurology, published by Elsevier, has an APC of $6,300 (6,615,000 NGN). The fee at Nature Neuroscience, published by Springer Nature, is $11,690 (12,274,500 NGN). It is, of course, a multibillion-dollar corporation with a huge turnover. They are said to make more money than Google and Amazon.
It’s a tough job to come out with innovative ideas. But when we labour to come up with innovative ideas, compete and win grants to get the job done, the grant’s condition sometimes is to publish and share the knowledge with the science community. In Africa where there are limited grants but still have to publish or perish, we have to use part of our salaries to get the work done. Then, we pay a publisher to typeset it, convert it to PDF and place it on their website for people to read. This is not without review.
Our colleagues will help to review the manuscripts. Guess what? The review is a free community service and not a dollar is paid to the reviewer. Whenever I see colleagues celebrating a certificate of review, it makes me laugh. The reviewer does not get paid $1 from the APC paid by the authors.
While the publishers are making money off our intellectual work, we are excited for the acceptance of our manuscripts for publication and celebrating certificate of review. We recommend the article for our friends, colleagues, and students to read and cite. We recommend the journal to our cycle.
Of course, the paper is a good work that will be cited by our colleagues and students. Our work will make the journal a place to publish and thereby gain a high impact factor. We make the journals what they are. But unfortunately, as we help the journal and the impact factor to grow, the publication fee increases. We are indirectly responsible for the high APC.
The publishers need to make us work harder to publish more. So, they introduced indexes for us to rate ourselves and compare notes. We begin to compete with each other in publication.
They have citation scores, the h-index, i10-index, etc. We began to brag about our citations and h-index. The journals and their associates created platforms and began to rate scientists. They began to do annual publication of the list of top scientists in the world based on citations. Top scientists without money in their pockets.
A poorly paid Indian professor in a Nigerian public university was recently said to have been listed among the world’s top scientists. Being among the top scientists becomes the topic of discussion in the world of academia and not the low pay and the exploitations. We started to work very hard to be listed among the top scientists. Meanwhile, the more you are cited, the more the impact factor of the journal, and the more the journal patronage and turnover. We are practically working for the journal owners for a peanut.
The journals make money from our research output and we still review articles for them free of charge. The exploitation we called a “community service”.
There are 3 components to lecturers’ responsibilities: teaching (40%), research (40%), and community service (20%). Meanwhile, our promotion is mostly based on research output. It is called “publish-or-perish”. We labour for journal publishers just to get promotions to become professors and earn peanuts. It is worse in Nigeria. Nigerians are said to be among the smartest people in the world but Nigerian academics are the most exploited. We labour with a dream to become professors and the highest net monthly salary that a professor of several years in a public university can earn is 416,000 NGN (396 USD). What a fantastic academic dream.
The exploitation does not just end in publications. Our employers also exploit us, especially in Nigeria. While 40% of our job is supposed to be teaching, we use all our time to teach. You teach, mark, and examine hundreds of students. I just finished marking about 280 scripts of the examination of a course I taught.
A colleague once complained about the high number of engineering students while I was doing my PhD in the UK. Then, I asked about the number of students they were talking about and he said about 100 students. I told him I have taught about 800 Engineering students a physics course in a single lecture theatre in my university and he was like that is crazy. And I told him he was right but that is academic in Nigeria.
Nigerian lecturers are meant to get what they call “Earned Academic Allowance (EAA)” due to this high number of students. The allowance is hardly released except when ASUU is on strike. There are backlogs of arrears of EAA and not sure if we are ever going to get paid. Some of us have lost hope of getting paid of the EAA. There are accumulated promotion arrears for several years and we are not sure when it will come. Hope it won’t come when inflation is done with it.
Being assigned administrative responsibility is a part of the community services. Academics combined teaching and research with administrative assignments. You are appointed as coordinator of this and that, and member of this and that committees. Guess what? There is no responsibility allowance or honorarium. Even the Deans, Directors, and HoDs have stopped receiving responsibility allowances since the coming of IPPIS. A time is coming when no one will want to be HoD or even a Dean.
The exploitation does not end there. Even the University Management also exploits academics. In August 2022 during the ASUU strike, I received an email from UNN that I had been sent the CV of one of their staff for external assessment for the rank of a Reader. I had no prior notice before the email. I had to go to the EMS office to chase the package. The honorarium for the assessment was supposed to be N50,000. A return EMS envelope was meant to be included in the package but it was not included. I was requested to pay the courier service charge to send the assessed CV back to the VC of UNN and get a refund.
13 months after returning the package, I am yet to get a refund of the postage I paid neither was the honorarium for the service paid. I guess the other assessors are yet to be paid as well. Further enquiry revealed that some universities are very notorious in paying academics for such services. That is how we treat ourselves aside from how FG is treating us. We do not value ourselves. Will I be willing to provide such service again to UNN and other such notorious universities?
When I joined academics in 2005, I was a bit disappointed when I realized that the so much hyped knowledge generation and publication was all about promotion. But later, my experience in Europe and the strong link between the universities and industries boosted my morale and efforts to create a niche for myself in academia. I did not see the insane world of academia.
Academics and Researchers pay money to publish in high-impact journals to keep their jobs and get promoted. It took me a long time to realise that Academics live at the mercy of the billion-dollar publishing corporation they pay and hand over their research outcome to. This is profitable to the journal owners because they were smarter to realise that researchers’ livelihoods depend on a predatory system that values publishing in high-impact journals.
The academic dream has been defined for us. “It is spending your entire youth creating knowledge, then paying a billion dollar corporation to take it from you in exchange for a career capital that you can then use to buy meaningless promotions from other exploited individuals”. Is that a good dream?
With the 21st-century ease of publication and access to information, do we need to keep handing out our intellectual work to these billion-dollar journal corporation? Must we carry on patronising these profit-oriented open-access journals that charge huge APCs? Most of the editorial team members of these profit-oriented journals are academics. Why can’t they all resign like those of Neuroimage and roll out their open-access journals in their respective universities and hosted by the university press like Stephen Smith?
Nigerian academics are publishing good research papers as we can see from the research database but our journals are eyesore. Why can’t Nigerian universities strengthen their journals and the review structure to make the content acceptable to the research world? A senior colleague once said there are two categories of professors and we should choose the class we want to belong to. Our university-based journals need to end this culture of accepting journal papers from family and friends to help them get promotions.
I saw the outlook of UMYU Scientifica, an academic journal published by Umar Musa Yar’adua University Katsina, Nigeria, and I thought it was a publication from the likes of Elsevier. The editorial team did a great job but still needs improvement, especially on the review process. We can own our works and publish them in our open-access journals at a very minimal cost.
The exploitation of academics is a global problem but it seems worse in Nigeria. Over the last few months, there has been a drop in the zeal to write academic papers. I wish I hadn’t gotten to know that academics are just labouring for the journal houses while they are consumed in citation scores and h-index ego.