On journals and proofing: a rant

115 days after uploading the final version, my paper on recognition, fairness, and excellence in sport has finally been published in a journal that is tied to one of the megalopolies of modern academic publishing. It should never have taken this long.

Granted, no matter how well we do our own proofreading and correcting, there are always a few things that escape notice, or favoured phrasings that few others will understand–we easily forget that how it sounds in our head and how it reads on the page don’t always line up. No doubt, there are some journals that still employ humans with academic backgrounds and trained judgements to do this task. Though this, too, can fail if the proofreader doesn’t understand disciplinary usage: while still a graduate student, I was hired to proofread a faculty member’s manuscript after someone else had had their book on causal relations “corrected” to be entirely about casual relations. In the most recent case, all my references to the Other and an other were converted to others and another.

Some publishers appear to use the editing equivalent of a chat bot, or humans that have no knowledge of the academic vocabulary of philosophy, or who have strange pseudo-grammatical obsessions, such as that every word combination must have a hyphen, or words must never appear as contractions. Or those who introduce so many “corrections” into your paper that your carefully crafted (sorry, carefully-crafted) sentences become logically incoherent. Or, sometimes, paragraphs are inserted randomly. Or references appear in lower case or upper case at whim. Some years ago, I used to receive proofs from another publisher that had inserted more mistakes into my text than it had left home with. This time around, new mistakes got introduced with supposedly corrected versions.

It would be important in any discipline, but in philosophy, precision in meaning is absolutely the point and I’m fed up with trying to scry an author’s meaning, not because they are obscure, but because the press has messed up the text. I have had repeated apoplexy-inducing experiences with one particular publisher, but my most recent experience puts them beyond redemption. Although the majority of my work has been published in journals they now control, I have decided that enough is enough and I will not publish anything in any imprint that they own. Well, cut off my nose to spite my own face, I’m not hurting anyone but myself, etc. Maybe, and not just because there is a no groundswell of demand for my work–except, apparently, from all those garbage “journals” like “Trends in Horticulture”, “Business and Industrial Marketing”, or “Orthopedics and Rheumatology” that send me illiterate emails about how impressed they are about my paper: [add random title], and praise my expertise in bone research (if you are reading this you know I’m not making these up).

But here is my point: I am a full professor with tenure and I can afford to have these sort of privileged principles. Of course, there are more pressing problems confronting many academics and the world at large, so, again, cue the world’s tiniest violin. So what if it pisses me off to have this delay in publishing my relatively meagre body of work. It isn’t only about me, though. For an early researcher for whom publications are essential for a career, this slapdash ultra-monetising approach to academic publishing is potentially more damaging, and those scholars are in a much more constrained position. What pisses me off even more is that publishers can take advantage of our need to publish and effectively bully scholars into putting up with crap proofreading and publication standards, if only by neglect. Scholars are effectively the indentured servants of these brokerage houses of human inquiry, the ones who do all the work in providing the raw material of publishers’ fatted existence, and who must continue to do so to have careers and retain their jobs and the existence of their departments, since the current corporate approach to academic institutions involves counting up the grants that scholars receive, which depend on counting up their publications, which depends upon….(you get the idea).*

Although I might think that we should refuse to simply put up with the conditions of modern academic journal publishing, it’s not clear whether such a stance is more than a flea bite to these corporations who prohibitively control all access to our work, so that so few can see it. How many times a week do you see requests from scholars for copies of articles needed for their own work, but to which they have no access? For which reason, I heartily endorse the sentiments expressed by Rebecca Lea Morris here: . Given all that, surely it is not unreasonable to expect that if the journal has already accepted your paper, we ought to be able to push the press to do it right, and refuse to sign that author’s agreement until they do it exactly right. Will it make a difference? Probably not. But it’s the very least, really the least, they could do.

*As it happens, my university has cancelled all journals carried by this particular publisher because the institution can no longer afford them.