There is something terribly wrong about peer-reviewed scholarship and about academic publishing in general. It resembles an exclusive club of knowledge production where new knowledge is circulated among an elite group of scholars who confirm each other’s prejudices and biases and then pat each other on the back. In some ways, once new knowledge is produced it tends to be withheld from the general public.

Before I continue, I should state that I believe, firmly, in the production of new knowledge in the social sciences and, as I write this, I, too, am working on essays which I will submit for peer-reviewed publication. So, there should be no wild misrepresentation of what I am writing here. Indeed, there may be some people who know that I have been rejected for positions at universities across the country because I don’t “fit the profile” or I don’t meet the requirements for “diversity” and because I don’t have academic publications. I found this latter point quite bizarre as almost every report on education in South Africa tends to point to the need for good teachers and for improving teaching outcomes in the country. I have am also on the record for saying that in one particular institution whites are complacently padding in the pool of white hegemony where they initially got their jobs for reasons other than their publication record. That they are, now, raising barriers to entry seems a tad disingenuous. Nonetheless, what I am about to write here has nothing to do with that. I accept that, as they pointed out, I don’t meet requirements for “diversity” and I don’t “fit the profile” — terms they used as the basis for rejecting me … That’s cool. However, I want to make two points about peer-reviewed/academic publication.

First, there really is no genius in stating that knowledge production in the social sciences can be useful to people “on the ground”, but for the most part it circulates among academics and students. For instance, as a journalist I previously worked on a newspaper that boasted a daily readership of 1.6-million people. What this means, if we believe all stories about public opinion and the idea that “the readers” are important, is that whatever I wrote about conflict or injustice was reviewed every day, as it were, by hundreds of thousands of people. Now, take the academic essay I am working on at the moment. Once I am done with it, it will probably be “approved” through the peer-review process by about five people. My understanding is that if you don’t approve of something, well, you don’t approve it; tautological, but worth repeating. Anyway, once approved, the article will then be published in an academic journal which may, or may not, be read (over the next five or 10 years) by about 1 000 (at best 10 000) people. Maybe I have that wrong. Nonetheless, whatever I write or whatever “new knowledge” is produced in the essay, remains locked in a very tight, exclusive and quite privileged circle in the sense that it will be useless to people who do not have access to higher learning or institutions of higher learning. This brings me to the second point.

Academics and scholars pride themselves in the fact that they produce “new knowledge” on the social world. And we should take them at their word. If, say, a scholar produces new insight into the mass slaughter of innocents in, say, the former Yugoslavia or the Holocaust, it might be useful of people on the streets and in the bars and at home read the material. It might help us resolve some of the conflicts that lead to carnage around the world. Yet, the knowledge produced and published in academic journals are locked away behind high cost barriers and remain inaccessible to people outside academia. In most cases universities around the world are at least partially funded by governments, yet, university libraries tend to be closed to the public in some way or another. I have no problem with paying some kind of fee to use a university library, as part of my civic duty, but I do have a problem with knowledge being locked away. As explained elsewhere on this blog, I had immense difficulties gaining access to a public university’s library last winter. Compare this to the private institution at which I taught in the US opened its doors, computers, the internet and multi-media resources to the public.

Newspapers charge readers for access to their products; that is how private corporations work. Publicly funded academic institutions, and academics who do research on socially important issues that may affect our lives in quite meaningful ways, have become beholden to private corporate interest. How else can one explain that a newspaper might cost anything from R5 to R25, and the readers/buyer has access to all the information for as long as they wish, but access to one article in an academic journal, which is supposedly significant in terms of new knowledge and insight about our world, can cost between R240 and R500!

There is something quite odious about the peer-review and publication process. Since I have come back to South Africa I have tried, quite hard, not to share some of the deeply offensive and disturbing responses I have had to my job applications at academic institutions — hence I have all, but turned my back on teaching. I am employed on a short-term contract doing great work, and will continue to give my best. In South Africa, I don’t meet diversity requirements and I don’t fit the profile, as senior people at universities have told me directly, and in as many words. However, these personal experiences pale into comparison when compared to the restrictive access to knowledge produced by public and private institutions of higher learning. If publicly funded academic research is to be useful and relevant to the public, it ought to be made public.


  • I am a political economist. In earlier incarnations, I worked as a journalist and photojournalist, as a professor of political economy and an international and national public servant. I rarely get time to write for this space as often as I would like to.... I don't read the comments section


I Lagardien

I am a political economist. In earlier incarnations, I worked as a journalist and photojournalist, as a professor of political economy and an international and national public servant. I rarely get time...

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