Thomas Salmon: Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), Rhodes University


At this difficult time, I’m going to argue against a ‘business as usual’ approach for the future that will come. As we move learning online to endure the crisis, we must now also recognise the crisis that was already under our feet.

Last year I spoke to four of the editors of DHET listed journals in education. The waiting list for some was over a year, the oversupply driven by DHET subsidy for publishing in listed journals. Tomaselli et al. (2018) have broken down the political economy of academic journal publishing in South Africa in stark terms – the takeaway: 

‘South African scientific publishing economy is built on a foundation of clay: this economy distorts research impact and encourages universities and academics to commoditise output.’

Graduate students are forced to publish papers to graduate or to comply with demands from supervisors at some institutions. It’s a double injury delaying graduation. Later finding these papers published for them, listing them as third author when the paper was their original work. A colleague additionally discovered her second name had also been mis-spelt. All presented as a ‘fait accompli’. 

Journals that engage in predatory publishing are no secret – what is less overt are the predatory networks providing the under-labourers to make it all possible. These practices damage the integrity of research, hollowing out collaboration, developing projects as pyramid schemes for data extraction. 

It’s a system pushing actors to engage in the production of ‘surplus’ in the ‘publish or perish’ world, whereby journals and authors (including graduate students) can be leveraged as ‘cash cows’ as Tomaselli puts it.  As early career researchers, we should talk about it, write about it, and do something about it. 

All of us have to redesign what we do over the next year somehow – we hope in fairer and better ways. Serious and rigorous peer-reviewed journals are crucial to enhance our scholarship. The peer review process contributes to learning and de-coding the academic language. Journals are pillars for our academic communities, but these practices in our institutions devalue them.

In response to the crisis, the publishing world is now making resources and knowledge available to millions for free. After campaigning for open access publishing for a long time now, I remain sceptical.

We’ve allowed the system to turn the pillars of our academic communities into networks for profit – what we have in South Africa is uniquely distorted – but academic publishing globally is also broken. According to Larivière et al (2015) over half of all research is currently published by the big five of academic publishing: Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and, depending on the metric, either the American Chemical Society or Sage Publishing. 

As activists point out, that’s a monopoly. The social sciences have it bad. In 1973, only one in 10 articles debuted in the big five’s pages; now it’s more than half. For some fields, such as psychology, 71 percent of all papers now go through these players. Profits and market caps for the publishers have also swelled. Elsevier’s parent company boasts a nearly $35 billion market cap, reporting a nearly 39 percent profit margin for its scientific publishing arm, dwarfing by comparison the margins of titans like Apple, Google, and Amazon.

Let me put it succinctly in the form of two questions.


What do we do now and in the future to transform the market (that we have created) that is a monopoly for the academic publishing industry? 

Organisations like Authoraid are an example of the kind of collectives that can support early career academics to publish in good journals without falling prey to perverse incentives. Movements for Open Access and Open Education Resources (OER) do push for change. Authors can use new tools to more easily publish open access versions of their work. Associations like HELTASA provide spaces for us to debate these issues.

The opening up of online resources during this crisis is good advertising, it’s about market share. These movements will continue to struggle to drive real change through advocacy alone if they also fail to find a language for social/knowledge justice with a scientific critique of the existing market model.

The open movements have been too narrow and too corporate, they need to re-link with other struggles for change at a global level for the public good, including environmental sustainability, and shared goals for sustainable development. Yes, the floodgates of access to knowledge have opened up a little now. We should not hope to return afterwards to business as usual but pry them to open further. 

In South Africa:

What do we do now and in the future about the political economy of how the DHET subsidy works here and its negative effects across the system?

As researchers we need to put it to our academic associations, and to those attending student conferences, to the publishing industry bodies, to organisations like ANFASA that seek to empower authors, to DHET and most importantly to each other and to our academic communities and to our students. 

With this crisis our institutions, our studies and our intellectual journeys are trapped in a perilous gully, we don’t see the way out.  As early career researchers – we first need to become more informed. We need to learn to critique how our academic institutions function. We need to learn to become, as de Sousa Santos (2015) puts it – ‘the translators’ of the road ahead. 

What can we do right now?

Now, more than ever we must teach students to become public intellectuals. Santos advises us to learn to distinguish between alternatives to capitalism and alternatives within capitalism. To engage in interpolitical translation that promotes the intermovement politics at the source of counterhegemonic globalization. This is a rear-guard action, not an avant-guard strategy. To build ecologies of knowledges his work tells us that we need wisdom as well as intelligence if we are to become good subaltern cosmopolitan intellectuals. His advice is to engage with social actors, to retrain ourselves to translate academic knowledge into non-academic knowledge, and vice versa. 

Henry Giroux this week notes that this pandemic is simply exposing the plague of Neoliberalism that we are already deeply rooted in. Similarly, Santos points out that the pandemic is a tragic allegory, a reality on the loose that we will struggle to theorise against. Alan Cliff and Siyabulela Sabata have both reminded us here to locate our collective and individual agency if we are to break with the dominant neo-liberal logic. Now is the time to work together to try to develop our own affiliations around changing our institutions and our practices rather than to waiting for it to be done for us.

Blogging is a good way to put ideas together and to develop them slowly and to potentially work with others in the open. It also helps with the stress, it’s open. Early career academics are increasingly asked to blog or use other tools like Twitter. This post from the LSE (“Shorter, better, faster, free”) advocates for academic blogging as a practice. 

The use of these tools can be a potential starting point for students stuck in the crisis – but to support this here, we now need ways to encourage students to share writing online within a ‘safe’ space that can support development. 

We need to push back against the focus on writing for journals as the only conduit. As academics we write notes, fragments, declarations, annotated bibliographies, community focused reflections, forum posts, blog posts, tweets.. the list is endless. The point is to write them and to engage. 

At the same time, we must be equally critical of the online platforms we use for this when we work together. We have to keep on asking ourselves what we can do to bring about change, to help ourselves and in whose interests we are serving.

In short, we need to organise and learn to deal with interlinked problems going forward; including the profiteering of the academic publishing industry globally, the rent seeking behaviour at work here as a particular distortion, and the new forms of academic expression that are being pushed into the public sphere under different market models that also require scrutiny.

Business may not return to operating as usual when this crisis is over. We should get ready and start working together to change it for the better now. 

I would like to acknowledge Roxana Chiappa Baros from CHERTL at Rhodes for her thoughtful input and feedback on this post.


de Sousa Santos, B., 2015. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Routledge.

Larivière, V., Haustein, S. and Mongeon, P., 2015. The oligopoly of academic publishers in the digital era. PloS one10(6), p.e0127502

Tomaselli, K.G., 2018. Perverse incentives and the political economy of South African academic journal publishing. South African Journal of Science114(11-12), pp.1-6.