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Open access publication in the Spotlight (June) - 'The View from Below: How the Neoliberal Academy Is Shaping Contemporary Political Theory'

Date:20 June 2022
Open access publication in the spotlight: June 2022
Open access publication in the spotlight: June 2022

Each month, the open access team of the University of Groningen Library (UB) puts a recent open access article by UG authors in the spotlight. This publication is highlighted via social media and the library’s newsletter and website.

The article in the spotlight for the month of June 2022 is titled The View from Below: How the Neoliberal Academy Is Shaping Contemporary Political Theory, written by Maeve McKeown (Campus Fryslân). 

Abstract

Contemporary political theory is a game. Individuals compete to publish in ‘top’ journals, to amass greater numbers of publications than their peers; then journal-ranking is combined with number of publications generating scores. The aim is to get the most points. Whoever gets the most points wins: they get the best jobs and the most prestige. This Hunger Games–like contest has serious consequences for people’s lives, determining who can make a living from academia, who will be relegated to the academic precariat or forced out of the profession. In this article, I argue that, aside from the chilling effect that job insecurity and the gamification of academia has on the precariat, these conditions are stifling intellectual creativity, diversity, and dissent in political theory/philosophy. I discuss how privatization and deregulation of universities has created unbearable working conditions, why academics are forced to publish in so-called top journals and why this is detrimental to our field, marginalizing people, topics, and methodologies these journals do not support (which usually align with already structurally marginalized peoples and modes of knowledge). I explain why we are engaging in this game and how it perpetuates itself. I conclude with some suggestions for breaking this vicious cycle, as well as a discussion of who is really benefitting from it, namely, the corporate elites who run many universities and most academic publishers.

We asked author Maeve McKeown a few questions about the article:

How has the neoliberal university impacted you as a researcher?

Working in the neoliberal university is extremely difficult. I was precariously employed for six years after finishing my PhD before getting a tenure-track position at the UG, and I am awaiting tenure. Being precariously employed creates a great deal of uncertainty, which is an ongoing form of stress. From one year to the next, I did not know if I would have a job, and as soon as one job started, I had to start applying for jobs for the next academic year. It’s difficult to make plans and even to maintain relationships when constantly on the move or thinking about moving. I did not plan to move to the Netherlands, but I couldn’t get a decent job in the UK, so I moved away from my friends and family to take up a position at the UG. 

I have contemplated quitting academia many times because of the uncertainty, but like many academics, I love my research and decided to keep going. Luckily, I got a tenure-track job in the end, but many of my peers are not so lucky. This has nothing to do with talent, hard work, or capability, it’s a structural problem. It suits universities to keep people on short-term contracts because they can keep competition up and wages low, and withhold benefits like pensions and sick pay. Of course, the deterioration of working conditions is not exclusive to academic staff. As a general trend it started with cleaning and catering staff, then academic support staff, and now academic staff. Universities as businesses are finding ever more innovative ways of keeping the costs of staffing and maintaining universities as low as possible. This is to the detriment of the mental and physical health of all staff, which also has a knock-on effect on students, who are paying ever increasing fees and receiving an education and support from an increasingly-burdened, overworked workforce.

Dutch universities have implemented the Recognition & Rewards programme ‘Room for everyone’s talent’ to counter some of the issues associated with the neoliberal university and the gamification of academia. What are your thoughts on this programme? 

I think there are positives and negatives to the proposals here. On the one hand, it’s great that there is a move in Dutch academia to reject quantitative metrics as a way of assessing an academic’s value; instead, hiring and evaluation committees are encouraged to look at the quality of an academic’s work, as well as their contributions in realms beyond research in so-called top journals, including teaching, public engagement, and patient care (in clinical settings). 

But I can see at least two negatives. The first is that there is an emphasis in the “Room for everyone’s talent” report on cultural change. A culture of focusing on publications in top journals is certainly one factor contributing to the stress and workload of academics today, but it’s not the only factor. The workloads themselves are not addressed, nor the precarious working conditions (although getting tenure in the Netherlands is a faster and easier process than in many countries, especially with the recently-negotiated collective labour agreement). Second, I get nervous whenever there is discussion of “diversification” of academics’ careers. It sounds good in theory, but the result in practice in many places is a two-tiered academic workforce, in which those with research positions are deemed superior to those with teaching positions. The research time of professors is funded by the exploitation of people on teaching-only contracts, which are often temporary. This should be avoided.

Can open science make a difference? Do you see a role here for open science?

One of the aspects of the neoliberal academy that I highlighted in my article is that research that is dissident, either due to the methodologies used or to the ideas being advanced, is rejected by top journals. There are lots of reasons for this: researchers have to please many referees and editors to get their work accepted in these journals, and the more radical or different the work the less likely it is to please a range of people; the top journals want to maintain their brand; top journals are run by people who are well-established as the elite of the profession and police what is acceptable or not in a field. In my field, political theory, the hegemonic methodology and ideology is liberal analytic political philosophy, and it’s very hard to get published in top journals using any other methodology, e.g., Continental philosophy, Asian or Africana philosophy, critical theory, decolonial perspectives, etc. So there is a big role here for open science. Publishing in open access journals allows people in these fields to get their work out there. There is the possibility to establish oneself as an academic by bypassing the top journals and publishing open access. But the problem is that it’s difficult for precariously employed academics to explore this option, because if they don’t publish in top journals, it is difficult for them to get jobs. This ties in with the previous question: if Dutch academia is serious about prioritising quality over impact factors, then this option becomes more viable for precariously-employed academics.

Are you taking any actions yourself to “break the cycle” (e.g. trying to publish in publication venues that are not ‘top’ journals)?

This article was published open access in a journal that is not highly-ranked. Since it has had a lot of attention, it is a good demonstration in itself of the impact that can be achieved by not publishing in top journals. In my career, I have also published in several edited volumes, textbooks, and encyclopedias, I blog, and I’m writing a monograph. My hope is that once I have tenure, I can publish more and more in open access outlets and be less focused on top journals. When research is behind huge paywalls, it is not contributing to society in the way that it could. It is inaccessible to the vast majority of the world’s population, including academics in under-funded institutions. Academics as a class need to push back on this mode of knowledge production and exchange. It is elitist, hierarchical, and perpetuates the unjust distribution of access to knowledge and education.

Could you reflect on your experiences with open access and open science in general?

The UG has an agreement with Springer that some articles can be published open access. So, with this article, the actual process of publishing open access was very easy – I just had to tick a box! I am very grateful that my paper was published open access. It means it had a very broad reach. It went viral on Twitter and many people read the article and commented on it, including people outside of academia who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to read the paper had it been behind a paywall. At the time of writing, the article has had over eleven thousand views – I can’t imagine it would have been viewed by this many people without open access publishing. I’ve had emails from people all over the world who resonated with the article and told me their experiences of job insecurity and the gamification of academia.

Useful links:

At the University of Groningen, a committee under the leadership of Rector Magnificus Cisca Wijmenga will give shape to the Recognition and Rewards programme

Open access journal browser: search engine that can be used to check if a discount on the article processing charge (APC) is available for a specific journal. UG corresponding authors can publish with an APC discount (mostly 100%, so for free) in more than 12.000 journals!

Citation:

McKeown, M. The View from Below: How the Neoliberal Academy Is Shaping Contemporary Political Theory. Soc 59, 99–109 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-022-00705-z

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