On the “Myth” of Academic Freedom

In a recent post of the F1000 Blog, Rebecca Lawrence suggests that academic freedom is more myth than reality:

Academic freedom?

Other criticisms [of Plan S] focus on possible effects from the point of view of researchers as authors (rather than as readers and users of research) and the so called ‘academic freedom’ restrictions. But current ‘academic freedoms’ are somewhat of a myth, because the existing entrenched system of deciding on funding, promotions and tenure depends more on where you publish, than on what you publish and how your work has value to others. Hence, authors have to try to publish their work in the small subset of journals that are most likely to help their careers.

This scramble to publish the ‘best’ results in the ‘best’ journals causes many problems, including the high cost of such a selective process in these ‘high-impact’ journals, the repeated cost (both actual and time cost) of multiple resubmissions trying to find the ‘right place’ for the publication in the journal hierarchy, and the high opportunity cost.  This, combined with the high proportion of TA journals and the highly problematic growth of hybrid journals not only significantly increases cost, but compromises the goal of universal OA to research results – one of the greatest treasures the society can have and should expect.

We believe that if Plan S is implemented with the strong mandate it currently suggests, it will be a major step towards the goal of universal OA to research results and can greatly reduce overall costs in the scholarly communication system – which will itself bring benefits to researchers as authors and as users of research and indeed increase academic freedom.

I agree that the focus on where we publish rather than what we publish is detrimental to academia in all sorts of ways. When it comes to judging fellow academics’ publication records, too many use the journal title (the linguistic proxy for its impact factor) as a sufficient indicator of the quality of the article. What we should do, instead, is actually read the article. We should also reward academics for publishing in venues that are most likely to reach and impact their intended audiences and for writing in ways that are clearly understandable to non-specialists, when those non-specialists are the intended audience. Instead, we are often too quick to dismiss such publications as non-rigorous.

However, that academics evaluate each other in very messed up ways doesn’t show that academic freedom is a myth. What it shows is that academics aren’t always as thoughtful as we should be about how we exercise our academic freedom.

You're doing it wrong

I’ve never suggested that academic freedom means anything goes (or that you get to publish wherever you want, regardless of what the peer reviewers and editors say). What it does mean, though, is that, to a very large extent, we academics give ourselves the rules under which we operate, at least in terms of research and teaching. Again, I am not suggesting that anything goes. We still have to answer to laws about nepotism, corruption, sexual harassment, or murder. We’re not supposed to speed when we drive, ride our bicycles on the sidewalk, or lie on our taxes. I’m not even suggesting we are very wise about the rules we impose on ourselves.

In fact, I agree with Rebecca that the ways we evaluate each other are riddled with errors. But academic freedom means we have autonomy — give ourselves the law — when it comes to teaching and research. This freedom also comes with responsibilities: we need to teach on the topic of the course, for instance, not spend class time campaigning for our favorite politicians; we shouldn’t plagiarize or fabricate data; I even think we have a duty to try to ensure that our research has an impact on society.

Public funding bodies can obviously place restrictions on us about how we spend those funds. Maybe we’re not allowed to use grant funds to buy alcohol or take our significant others with us on research trips. Public funding bodies can decline to fund our research proposals. Academic freedom doesn’t say I’m entitled to a grant or that I get to spend the money on whatever I want when I get one.

But for public funding bodies to say that I have to publish my research under a CC-BY or equivalent license would cross the line and impinge on academic freedom. Telling me where and how to publish is something I let other academics do, because that’s consistent with academic freedom. I don’t always agree with their decisions. But the decisions of other academics are decisions we academics have to live with — or find a way to change. I want academics to change the rules about how we evaluate each other. Although it seems perfectly reasonable for funding bodies to lay out the rules for determining who gets grants and how money can be spent, I don’t want funding bodies dictating the rules about how we evaluate each other as part of the academic reward system, decisions about promotion, and such. Mandating a CC-BY license crosses that line into heteronomy.


3 thoughts on “On the “Myth” of Academic Freedom

  1. Thank you for responding to our blog and clarifying further your concerns about academic freedom. Maybe the key to this debate is defining what we actually mean by academic freedom. Our view is that academic freedom means that if a researcher has been funded to do some research (especially using public money, but even if it is not), and has now discovered something that they think is worth sharing with others, they should be able to share the finding openly and without delay (assuming they meet some basic standards). To us, this is true academic freedom. The ‘myth’ is that researchers right now do not have academic freedom, or at least not if they wish to have a (successful) career. They are subject to significant delays and editorial judgements that are completely out of their control, and it can prove almost impossible to publish many types of findings (such as null results, incremental studies etc) that in fact are very important to building scientific knowledge and understanding.

    The argument being put forward is that because Plan S restricts the journals one can submit to, it reduces academic freedom. But if one of the anticipated consequences of Plan S (as being suggested by many) is that it will help to disrupt the journal hierarchy and its grip on career decisions, then it should have at worst, little or no impact on academic freedom and, at best, improve freedom.

    One of the many major benefits we believe that the publishing model we developed on the open research publishing platforms provides is to enable researchers to have much greater academic freedom – i.e. that a researcher can publish whatever they have discovered when they want, as long as it passes a set of basic ‘hygiene’ checks (for plagiarism, ethics checks, etc). Their work will of course be scrutinised publicly by peer reviewers and the community at large but the authors take full responsibility for what they put up and how they respond to criticisms from the research community. Furthermore, because there is no journal brand associated with their publication, new systems for assessing the potential value of the contribution will be used and developed at the level of the article itself, moving us beyond journal brands and impact factors. To us, these two issues are inseparably linked, and Plan S provides a powerful shift in this direction to ultimately give researchers the academic freedom that effective and efficient scientific knowledge generation really requires.

    • I’m actually quite sympathetic to much of what you suggest here. In fact, I argued here (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-017-0041-0) that we need to reconceive of academic freedom as freedom to have impact. I think that sharing our research freely and without delay is part of — though not all that — we academics can do to have impact. As I suggested in my initial reply to your post on the F1000 blog, I also agree with you that the current reward system hinders our ability to publish as we might like (and it also hinders our ability to have impact). I spent many years publishing off the tenure track; but I’m now trying very hard to get tenure. I can tell you that I felt much more free to publish how/where I wanted before I went on the tenure track.

      I support that Plan S requires author-retention of copyrights. I support immediate (gratis) access to read the final versions of the papers. I still think, though, that funding agencies mandating CC-BY is not necessary and does less to promote academic freedom than it does to impinge on it. Alternatively, if they really want to mandate CC-BY, at least offer a waiver on request.

      We should learn some lessons from the introduction of Green OA policies at universities around the world. The faculty decided to adopt them. Waivers were offered to allay academic freedom concerns. In contrast to that approach, the fact that it is not academics deciding on Plan S is problematic. Academic freedom includes academics deciding these things — about research and teaching — for ourselves. It’s really counter-intuitive, if you think about it, for funding agencies to come in and say, look, what we’re doing is going to make you more free, so just obey the mandate! If it’s such a good deal, let academics have a say in adopting it!

  2. Pingback: On Open Access, Academic Freedom, and Science Policy — A Reply to Suber | jbrittholbrook

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