The System is Broken

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” said Benjamin Franklin, who ought to have known as a highly successful businessman and politician. But the world no longer rewards us directly for our knowledge and intellect, or to put it another way, merit is no longer the metric, or even among the metrics now valued.

The academic system, which rightly in the past faced accusations of being a redoubt of privilege for certain demographics, is broken and all the attempts to fix it appear only to be breaking it further in some regards. The marketisation of higher education in places like Britain and America has led to reliance on precarious underpaid staff, the primacy of student as customer or client, and the incessant rise of a class of highly remunerated apparatchiks who dictate market values to academia.

Today I saw yet another inspiring and astonishing colleague out of work. Someone with multiple well-regarded books to their name, the recipient of international scholarships, with experience teaching in multiple countries. There’s no merit in this. If people like that are dispensable, one becomes baffled to see those who remain in position, despite losing fortunes in speculative ventures like foreign campuses, rash restructuring of institutions, and declining standards and institutional reputations.

Academia has really sickened me in the past few years. I’ve seen some truly horrendous things. Professors without doctoral theses. People who have literally never published a paper criticising the work of colleagues with multiple monographs. Demands that extend into the weekend, the evening, days off and even when staff are literally hospitalised from overwork.

I’ve seen some astonishing people laid off and let go from academic posts. Truly inspiring teachers, highly qualified, whose research is globally renowned. I’ve also seen cabals of admins backslap each other with ridiculous pay increases for shuffling reports back and forth at each other.

I don’t know how it can be fixed, or if it can, and I don’t know if everywhere is as bad as things appear to be in Britain. Maybe they’re actually worse elsewhere. The system is broken though, and if we don’t fix it we will literally enter a dark age – a time of ignoring experts, not checking facts, considering preening on social media to be preferable to learning about the world. At times I feel we are already deep into that process.

Today, I offer solidarity to my many colleagues worldwide, the ones who got hounded out, the ones who wouldn’t put up with it anymore, the ones who are still being ground down and bullied by the apparatchiks, the ones who literally died too young as a result of overwork. It’s all I have to offer, alas. But I can’t change the system. Only all of us can.

Dumbing Down Peer Review

What if academic articles weren’t so long? What if they were like 10% or 15% as long? That’d be easier to read, sure, but equally wouldn’t convey much information. And what if they were published almost instantly? That’d be great, right? No hanging around for months or years after submission?

But what if they eschewed peer review as it is understood, though, and simply published after a couple of people recommended to do so, even if dozens of others had recommended refusal? What if their only criteria was whether it was readable? Would that still sound like a rigorous approach to academic research and publishing? Or blogging under a thin veil of borrowed academic legitimacy?


Recently I have begun receiving spam from Academia.Edu, asking me to peer review papers on a wide range of at best tangentially-related research.

Initially this confused me somewhat, because when Academia began, it presented itself as a kind of social media outlet for academics. However, this soon morphed into a variant of the ResearchGate/Scopus/Orcid model, wherein academics post their research online in the hope of disseminating it more widely.

Academia then introduced a pay-to-play option, which required subscribers to pay a fee to access most of the information which was useful to them, ie statistical information about who was reading their work. At that point, it began losing my interest, and I became less motivated to post my work for free to their site to make them money.

It’s still a useful site, especially for independent researchers, who generally lack affiliation to a university with library subscriptions to the big journal publishers. Like ResearchGate and the others, there’s a chance to find a pre-pub version of an article on Academia quickly when you need to check a citation. But they’re not satisfied with that.

Anyhow, obviously they’ve now decided that the peer-review academic publishing market is hackable, and have gone after it with zeal. What’s interesting is where they’ve positioned themselves.

I’ve written previously about the scam publishers who demand payment in return for publication. (I even scammed the scammers.) Though there are also reputable publishers who seek funding from researchers, there are many more who are not so reputable. The challenge for ECRs is in discerning between them. Academia, to their credit, have not gone into that murky market. By contrast, they’ve decided to dumb down peer review.

According to their pitch – for that’s what it is – they’ve launched something called “Academia Letters”, which they bill as “a new experiment in rapid academic publishing.” In practice, this means that micro-articles of 800-1600 words, on ANY topic, are submitted and then immediately sent, IN BATCHES, to potential reviewers. Hence my spam.

An article will be published as soon as two reviewers agree to its publication. There are two issues with this. Literally hundreds could recommend rejection and an article would still be published under this system, entirely defeating the main purpose of peer review. Additionally, the model overtly states that it does not accommodate revisions. It is not possible for a reviewer to recommend that an author revise or improve their work. It must be published as is.

In fact, such is their desire for sausage meat for their academic sausage factory, they openly guide reviewers that, even if they detect a need for improvement, they should still accept it for publication, so long as it is “rigorous and worth reading.”

The deciding factor of whether an article is “worth reading” is something that they set great importance upon. In fact, it’s the only question they want their reviewers to answer. Here is their list of criteria they want reviewers to consider in deciding whether an article is worth reading:

  • Is the article interesting or thought-provoking?
  • Is it novel in its methods or conclusions?
  • Does it counter current thinking?
  • Is it especially timely?
  • Does it address a longstanding question or debate in the field?
  • Would it change thinking on that topic, if it were true?
  • Is it rigorous and the argument logically sound?

That all sounds good, or at least, it doesn’t immediately raise too many alarms. But an academic article would not ordinarily be published just because it was “timely” or because it stubbornly and crankily ran counter to a consensus of opinion. Worse, Academia manages to lower the bar even further by noting that their site is read by people who include “curious members of the general public”, and hence articles should be assessed for whether ANYONE would want to read it.

In short, here is the dumbing down of peer review, a tragic tribute act run for the profit of a for-profit corporation, and enabled by the free labour of any academic sufficiently gullible, or desperate, to play along, either as author or reviewer.

Academia.Edu want to reduce the length of academic articles to that of the average blog post, replace genuine and fastidious peer review with a single “would anyone read it” criterion for publication, and eradicate the processes of recommendation, revision and resubmission, all in the name of … well, what, exactly? Efficiency? Timeliness? Or their own bottom line as they seek to drive more traffic, and recruit more subscribers?

I really can’t see an upside for academics in getting involved in any of this. It’s a total erosion of all existing standards. And yet, the spam keeps coming…

Headspace, or, Adam Curtis redux

It’s always nice to see something new from Adam Curtis. He’s a genuine original, not just in terms of his vision but also in terms of his cultural position. There is literally no one else who holds his kind of position, salaried at the BBC to rummage in the entirety of their archives for his own purposes. Therefore, we have to value him, especially as he now is reaching pensionable age.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is a kind of capstone to the work Curtis has been doing for the past two decades or more. It has the thematic obsessions of Hypernormalisation or Bitter Lake, presented in the longer, episodic form he used for earlier work like Century of the Self.

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It’s subtitled as an ’emotional history’, which could mean that Curtis has eschewed his habitual monotone voiceover or attempts to emulate the communicative modes of reportage, but in fact means that he intends this to be understood as a history of human emotions, specifically how people have emotionally responded to key events and societal developments in recent times.

People familiar with his work, so iconic at this point that a number of biting satires exist, will know what to expect: grand macro-theories about global geopolitical developments undercut by psychological speculation deriving from key practitioners, and illustrated by the succinct telling of lifestories belonging to people from the slipstream. Not Malcolm X but Michael X, not Mao but his fourth wife Jiang Qing, not Lee Harvey Oswald but his buddy from the Marines Kerry Thornley, and so on.

This is, of course, all extremely interesting, and provocative, especially when little known or long forgotten facts, such as Michael X selling John Lennon’s hair to raise money, are illustrated with archival footage. And the sheer welter of information, and imagery, alongside Curtis’s calm and lugubrious voiceover script, and the soft lulling of an expertly curated soundtrack of ambient music, all adds to the effect of being almost hypnotised.

Curtis loves to tell us how we have collectively and individually succumbed to dreamscapes, be they the futility of revolution, the seduction of online existence, the pseudo-authority of the banks, the fabricated myths of lost nationhood. Ironically, the narratives which emerge from his own work, acute though they are at times in skewering key engagements of the West with the non-Western world, are no less delusional.

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It would be churlish and indeed ungrateful to pick holes in a work delivered to the world for free by a man who dedicated two years of his life to constructing it, a work of nearly 8 hours in length, that is carefully constructed, and perpetually intriguing and informative. So I’m not going to do that.

His theorising, in the academic sense of the word, which means argumentation that varies in quality from actual philosophising to bar room speculation to fervent ideological signalling, is exempted from the usual somewhat limited standards of academic review, largely because of the format in which he presents his arguments. The archival collage effect is so impressive, the editing so neat, the soundtrack so excellent, that one realises the inappropriateness of desiring an evidence base, or references, or footnotes.

And because he doesn’t have to provide footnotes and references, he can wildly connect this to that, across time and space, operating with the facade of reportage so it seems to be without the constrictions of ideological argument. But of course there is an ideology in there, albeit submerged and tentative, and there is a rashness to the wild connecting which suggests causality where in fact there is at best correlation, or at most ideological desire, or perhaps nothing except the sort of false pattern recognition he simultaneously propagates and excoriates.

If there’s a meta-theory beneath all of Adam Curtis’s endless, and often spurious big-picture postulating, it’s Dasein. Curtis’s sense of optimism is rooted in Heidegger’s understanding that we must really be in the world we occupy. Which is perhaps an understandable but ironic desire coming from someone who spends decades at a time in dark rooms watching ancient film footage.

The collage aspect, along with his culminating call for us all to wake up and be in the world, as well as his predeliction for slipstream figures and their tangential relationships to his grand narratives, may be why his huge lacunae often pass unnoticed. It seems perhaps that precisely because we have spoken so much about Trump and Brexit that Curtis need not refer to them except in brief passing.

Or we have worried ourselves so much about Putin’s Russia that the story of fringe element Limonov seems refreshing and interesting. Or we have agonised over both the causes of BLM and the civil unrest unleashed by it so much that it is preferable to look to previous eras and discussions of race relations, like Tupac or his mother. Or our lives have been so upended by Covid that we prefer to consider China’s business relationship with the west rather than the origins of the virus.

In the end, though, these are not slipstream events. They are the key elements of our age, and will define the chaos we have before us, indeed are already experiencing. Curtis’s slipstream narratives do not address these matters, because they don’t fit his narrative, his theorising. Curtis would have us to keep dreaming of new futures, which is desirable, but not at the expense of sleeping through the present.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head is highly recommended, the keywork of a master at the top of his game. But it’s just another dream. One wonders if Curtis has it in him to document what happens if, how, when, we dead awaken. I hope so, because I doubt who else could.

Double Vision Politics

A week on from the US Presidential election of 2020, and with still much controversy and confusion involved, though a consensus among the media and global leaders that Joe Biden of the Democrats is the President-Elect, I think it might be opportune to give my 2c on the matter.

A succinct metaphor which has been suggested from time to time relating in particular to American politics, and its divisive two-party system, is “one screen, two movies.” The metaphor works because it proposes the idea that there is a set of events, what we might call reality, upon which two separate narratives are projected.

We can see this happening in America, and indeed in quite a few other places, if we choose to look. Partly this is a product of binary thinking, our (often false) predeliction arising from having hemispheric brains that there are two things to choose from in any scenario. There is black and white, up and down, left and right. But there is also brown, yellow, blue, green, opaque or transparent. There is sideways. There is in short always perpendicular options to the binary. There is, in short, nuance.

But let us return to ‘one screen, two movies.’ What happens if you try to watch BOTH movies at once, in real time? Or even simply flick back and forth between the two, like a magic eye picture? It’s obviously disorientating. A bigot Nazi righteously thrown out of office becomes an isolated victim of mass electoral fraud. A fifty year career political veteran becomes a senile old coot with a druggie son who’s been compromised by China. And so on. In short, there is such distance between the narratives that they almost cannot be comprehended simultaneously.

Critically, it seems almost impossible to reconcile them. There is no possible Hegelian synthesis here. These perspectives are oil and water, all the more unmixable for being all the more fundamentally rooted in a sense of tribal identities. The wailing despair which greeted Trump’s election four years ago, a gutteral howl from genteel middle-aged women captured on camera, is matched only by the outcry of relief and triumphalism of Biden’s supporters, a cohort who only a few years back were meming about how he was the dumbass idiot foil to a wise and weary Barack Obama.

Once practised a little, it becomes a parlour game of whimsy. Pick any topic and try to guess at the polarised views. Immigration controls are either a racist rejection of non-white humanity, or else a belated attempt to shore up jobs for Americans. Transgender storytime in libraries is an act of education and acceptance or a sign of enforced degeneracy and an attempt to destroy families and identity. And so on. But it goes beyond whimsical games of course. These viewpoints are not reconcilable and no amount of calls for unity will make them so.

The biggest tragedy is that there is no attempt at empathy from either side to the other. Both feel under fundamental attack from friends, neighbours, even family. This is tearing natural human relationships apart, inside and outside America. People don’t want to watch two movies on one screen. They can’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance. Instead, they are forced to demonise those who are watching the other movie.

One wonders therefore how it will end. Half the US electorate will feel inevitably disenfranchised no matter what, as has been the case for Trump’s entire term of office. America is, of course, an empire in slow decline and has been for quite some time. But, not unlike the bankrupcy of Mike in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, empires tend to fail very slowly, then all at once. And the power vacuum a collapsed America would create is highly concerning. No wonder Russia and China look on with interest.

I of course am no expert on the matter, having only a couple of years as a political correspondent for an Irish newspaper, and a lifetime’s passion for the sport of elections, to fuel my speculations. But if journalism taught me anything, it taught me the importance of being able to speak to people you do not agree with, to be able to genuinely listen to them and what they think and why they might think it, no matter how bizarre or repellant or even threatening it may seem. However, I am tiring too of watching two movies. The double vision is not conducive to clarity. For the next while, I will instead focus my attention on just one thing, and as a literary critic and academic scholar…

Dystopia seems like a good choice.

The Sea Monsters Scam of Academic Publishing, or, how I published an article about mermaids in an oceanography journal

This was originally published on LinkedIn. At some point, I will likely decide that I have no real purpose or need of a presence there, hence reproducing it here.

The oceans of knowledge are not a safe place for an unwary early career researcher, or academic from the developing world, who needs to publish their work to gain tenure or promotion.

Here be monsters, shady companies who prey on desperate and ill-advised academics. The scam is simple. There is a drive to open source publishing in academia to make knowledge as freely available as possible. This is because academics tend to produce their work as employees of universities, who are then charged by publishers to access that same work. This too could be considered a little unethical, but it is not new. The system, for those unfamiliar with it, is well described here.

No, I’m talking about a more recent development. With the drive to online, publishers have emerged offering to publish academic work for a fee. This fee, they insist, is to cover things like editorial, proofreading, and layout, as well as online hosting costs. However, the fees requested often run into hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unwary academics, often from developing nations, do not always distinguish these ‘journals’ from more respectable ones, which is how they make their money.

Most academics have been spammed at some point by these journals (the respectable ones don’t need to spam to recruit submissions.). Most academics wearily delete the emails. Some academics dream of spamming them back. Sometimes, academics with a little spare time troll the spammers, publishing nonsense articles to highlight their lack of professional standards. There have been articles published on the use of geese in obstetrics, the existence of midichlorians (the fictional cause of Star Wars’ ‘force’), and even an article simply entitled ‘Stop emailing me’, which consisted of that phrase multiply repeated.

I’ve been on parental leave recently, and as I had a day between writing projects and the baby was behaving himself, I decided to bite on the latest spam from an alleged Journal of Advances in Oceanography and Marine Biology. This too is an indicator of a scam journal, when their topic is very distant from your own speciality subject. Mine is not oceanography. I’m a literary scholar who teaches literature and journalism. So, rising to the challenge, I wrote an article about mermaids, selkies, sea monsters and oceans of lard.

They asked for $979 to publish it. We negotiated, while the article allegedly was out for ‘peer review’. Peer review is a system where other academics read your work blind and offer guidance on whether it should be published. It’s a voluntary quality control system, which moves slowly, because academics aren’t paid to do it, and it’s often at the bottom of their large ‘to-do’ lists. Articles can languish in peer review for months, and sometimes even longer. So it is another indicator of a scam journal when your article completes peer review in ten days, as mine did.

Meanwhile, I had beaten the cost down to $50. They got sticky there, because obviously the sales people on the email line like to make their money and this seems to be their floor. Equally, I didn’t intend to pay at all, and I knew that for the scam to work on others, they needed some content. I gambled that they would publish my article for free to lure others. I also gambled that they hadn’t actually read it, and nor had any peer reviewer. The gamble was correct, and you can read my ridiculous article here (until they read this and delete it.) It’s called Speculative Oceanography.

The Times Literary Supplement is entirely correct to demand a reform of the practice of charging universities for work that they themselves produce. But there is a risk that we may then lurch to an even worse situation, where predatory journals scam desperate academics and researchers with ever more prevalence. A brave librarian in the United States used to maintain a list of such predatory journals and publishers, as a guide for academics to consult, but he and his university were threatened with lawsuits from the deep-pocketed publishers, and now that list is no longer updated, though new journals and publishers pop up daily.

As we move to fully open source academic publishing, we need an international quality control system to prevent predatory journals from preying on the unwary. We need to kill off the sea monsters of academia.

Mermaid research and the pay-to-publish grind

This has been all done and dusted already. Really what I’m doing is archiving it here in case the other locations for whatever reason go dark.

The short version of events is that I was spammed by a pay-to-publish academic publisher, and I trolled them. The longer version is that this is the tip of a very dangerous iceberg of academic publishing, which threatens to destroy the credibility of peer review itself, not to mention the careers of many developing world and early career researchers. Anyhow, I banged on about that here before. For reference and archiving, it is now reproduced on this blog here.

Anyhow, here’s the article in question, just in case the hosting scam publisher goes dark, which they might well. You might have fun with it. It’s short, and packed full of joke references and some fun satire of academic writing. And lots of science fiction in-jokes for the nerds out there.