Scarcity, labor, and peer review 1


I’ve been involved in the Fembot Collective—early on as a grant writer, and now as the potential web mistress *gulp*—for the past year. What’s been attractive about the project, to me, is the Marxist feminist bent, and the ways in which the politics of both publishing and the journal mechanism *coughMEANSOFPRODUCTIONcough* coalesce with my political work in the academic/intellectual labor movement. And so, now more often, because this is the POLITICAL ear, you’ll get to see some of the extra-aural stuff I’m working on. Like thinking about articles like this one by Nigel Thrift

First, I have to say that Nigel Thrift is simply one of the most innovative and intellectually acrobatic—and my personal favorite—affect theorist playing the game right now. And, as such, I guess I should have been surprised to see the complete and utter #FAIL that came out of his article on peer-review. Affect theorists have never been good at talking about labor…

He starts out with a great premise- there is a scarcity when it comes to scholars’ time… and from there, it’s down cocoa creek without a graham cracker. Peer review, Thrift claims, is in trouble because of two time-munchers: 1) the proliferation of journals, and 2) the overworking of professors. Not willing to speak out against the latter, he sticks it to the former. Because there are so many other journals, all asking for the limited time of professors, the ‘good’ journals are losing people willing to do [free] peer-review, and if it loses all of them, the ‘good’ journals will all disappear, forever. This is all because, as he frames it, scholars refuse to participate in the give and take economy of ‘publish for peer-review’.

So, what you’re telling me is that if I refuse to do the free work of peer-reviewing an article in a journal, which is taking an article from me for free and making a lot of $$$$$$ by distributing it, I’m not participating in the give-and-take reciprocal economy? I’m not doing enough free labor? Really?

Thrift anticipated this chess move, so he says:

“Others just cite the ‘refereeing is free labor for large publishing corporations‘ argument, as if that makes [refusing to peer review] alright (I’d be interested to know if open access journals are getting any better a response to their requests).”

And in that, he brings projects like Fembot into the fold. I’m hopeful that we will get better responses, because our political project is an important one. hopeful…

But, I want to turn Thrift’s questions on their head, too. Instead of thinking of the proliferation of journals—lumping together our open-source project with the publishing industry’s ‘mo journals mo money’ project (Taylor and Francis has over 1500 journals, adding about 80 new ones each year)—as devouring all the free labor that should go to ‘good’ journals, what happens when we think of the closed-source, for-profit journals as cannibalizing professors time—both in writing and reviewing for the profit machine? Why is it ok for the for-profits to take away from scholars’ time to engage in open-source, peer-reviewed discussions about and for the public—and why are all the ‘good’ journals owned by an industry that could care less what’s inside the journal itself? To go back to Thrift’s initial premise, the peer-review labor for our open-source feminist journal won’t be as high as it could be, because professor’s only have so much time, and the greedy, multibillion dollar publication industry keeps taking all of it while demanding more. And that, Dr. Thrift, is why I won’t be doing as much peer reviewing as you think I ought to (in the future, that is. after all, I’m just a PhD student. What do I know?).

But, here’s where I’m caught: I feel bad for talented  editors like Dr. Thrift. Where some professors are quick to think of professional relationships as simply that and nothing more, in all of the cold logic of the market, I can’t help but scratch my head and think “why did you put yourself in this position?” Why, instead of struggling with this, don’t you resign and lend your talent to the open source movement?

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get lucky though. The collapse in the peer-review economy, resulting in the collapse of the journal industry, would give us the opportunity to take back the means of production, to create a non-for-profit journal system that is driven by a true reciprocal economy: one that simultaneously [really] functions on a trade between writer and reviewer, and moves us from peer-review-as-gatekeeping to peer-review-as-mentoring and peer-review-as-collaboration. This utopia may be unobtainable, but I can, and will, participate in projects that make it more imaginable and concrete.


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