Academic taboos #4: what cannot be published

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

what can't be publishedWe are all familiar with the structural faultlines of inequality that exist around attributes such as age, ethnicity, and gender. These faultlines act, and sometimes interact, to create barriers to academic publication. For example, Michael Eisen, a US biologist, found in 2016 that, in US-funded health research, less than 30% of senior academic authors are women. He also found that male authors write with fewer female co-writers (35%) than female authors do (45%). Leaving aside the whole ethical problem with treating gender as binary, this demonstrates an interaction between gender and publishing that disadvantages women.

So far, so straightforward. While of course institutionalised sexism needs to be addressed, it is hardly news these days, and there are legislative and policy structures designed to assist. A more unusual take is to look at the structural faultlines of inequality that exist around institutions and managerial practices, which are not currently addressed by equalities legislation or policy. These faultlines, too, act and interact to prevent people from publishing academic work. And by ‘people’ I mean academics, independent scholars, and Indigenous researchers.

Many academics of my acquaintance want their research to change minds and hearts and lives. They long for wide exposure, which often means publishing in open access (OA) journals. However, in many fields, the impact factors of OA journals are not high enough to satisfy audit requirements. So academics have to settle for publication in paywalled journals, read primarily by other academics.

With the growth of OA publishing, some OA journals are now reaching the dizzy heights of audit-worthy impact factors. But then there is another barrier. Access to these journals is open to all readers, but only to those writers with enough money – or an institutional budget – to pay the article processing charges (APCs). This can exclude many junior academics, whose senior colleagues get first dibs on the budget, and most independent scholars (though, to be fair, some OA journals do waive part or all of their APCs for indies).

Being outside an institution can cause barriers to publication in unexpected places. Take the reputable online publication The Conversation, whose strapline is ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’. The Conversation covers virtually all disciplines and has a lofty ‘charter‘ which claims to ‘support and foster academic freedom to conduct research, teach, write and publish.’ The charter speaks of freedom from bias, and operation for the public good. Yet the author information states that ‘you must be a member of an academic or research institution to write for The Conversation’. So academics who are between jobs, or independent scholars who prefer to work free from institutional biases and constraints, or retired scholars who have plenty more to say, have no voice within this so-called ‘academic freedom’.

Perhaps the biggest exclusion affects Indigenous researchers and those from the global South. In her 2012 book Indigenous Research Methods, Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana noted that Indigenous researchers find it almost impossible to publish their work through Euro-Western publishing systems (p. 55). Some organisations are working to counteract this, such as the international research development charity INASP, whose Journals Online Project currently covers work from Africa, Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. (More info here.)

However, it is notable that most of the action to increase authors’ access to scholarly publishing comes from outside academia. The much-vaunted ‘public engagement agenda’ doesn’t seem to consider that some of the public might like to engage, not only as passive consumers of lectures, but also as active authors of scholarly work. Until all of these inequalities are systematically and effectively tackled, academic publishing will continue to represent privileged voices alone.

Academic taboos #3: what cannot be written

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

what can't be writtenAcademic writing has powerful conventions that lecturers, doctoral supervisors, and published academics work to uphold. Proper academic writing should be correct in every detail of grammar, punctuation, spelling and structure. It should use the third person, for neutrality, and to remove any sign of personal bias. The author should be as specific and precise as possible, and careful not to over-claim.

All this leads to some interesting linguistic contortions. ‘Two categories were studied to assess… the results highlight… the article will show…’ These kinds of constructions are commonplace in academic writing like nowhere else. Nothing is studied in a vacuum, and it is not ‘results’ that highlight or an ‘article’ that will show. Research is carried out by human beings, who decide what will be highlighted or shown in the reports of their research. Whose interests does it serve to conceal these truths?

In some disciplines, it is becoming more acceptable to acknowledge the researcher’s and authors’ roles in writing; to use the first person, and to accept the inevitability of bias while looking for ways to reduce it as far as possible. Yet moving away from attempted precision and correct use of English is still taboo. This causes problems, for example when the author needs to represent spoken English, such as in quotes from participants. Academics, research participants, and readers disagree about whether quotes should be rendered exactly, with their ‘incorrect’ grammar, or tidied up. If quotes are collected online, entering them into a search engine can identify participants. Quotes including swear words may alienate some readers. Exact quotes rendered in writing, with all their ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ and half-formed sentences, can make participants seem uneducated or unintelligent. Generally, academia prefers sanitised quotes. However, this can be viewed as an abuse of authorial power, as it removes authenticity from participants’ words.

In fact academic writing conventions are all about power. The apparently laudable aims of precise, unbiased writing conceal the power dynamics at play. Academic writing conventions – themselves allegedly neutral – in fact operate to exclude those who cannot or will not abide by them.

The good news is that there is now a tiny but growing movement to break down these conventions, led by some brave doctoral students, supervisors, and universities. For example:

  • Nick Sousanis, now Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University in the US, presented his doctoral dissertation as a graphic novel at Columbia University in 2014. The following year it was published by Harvard University Press, entitled Unflattening.
  • Patrick Stewart, a First Nation architect in Canada, successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia in 2015. Entitled Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge, it has almost no capital letters or punctuation, as a form of resistance to the unthinking acceptance of English academic writing conventions.
  • Piper Harron is an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa. She was awarded her PhD from Princeton University in the US in 2016. Her dissertation included in each chapter a section for ‘the layperson’, another for ‘the initiated’, and a third for ‘the mathematician’, as well as a whole lot of jokes.
  • Ashleigh Watson, a doctoral candidate at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, founded So Fi, a sociological zine publishing creative sociological writing including fiction and poetry, in 2017.

Academia needs to take these kinds of alternative formats seriously. They enable more voices to be heard, more fully, than the conventional style of writing. Some universities have developed helpful alternative format policies to support this movement, such as this one from the University of Exeter in the UK. Implementing these kinds of policies will enrich academia.

Academic taboos #2: what cannot be paid for

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

what can't be paid forThe external examiner for my viva was not the person I wanted, who was seminal in my field, but someone more peripheral to my topic but who owed my supervisor a favour. For that reason alone, she thought he would agree to examine my thesis – and he did. Alongside core work for their own institutions, academics give guest lectures, seminars, and keynote speeches at other universities, act as external examiners for vivas and courses, review journal articles and write testimonials for books. No money changes hands (apart from perhaps travel expenses, or sometimes a small honorarium) and nor does it need to, because everyone involved is drawing an academic salary.

Favours are the currency of academia. However, an increasing number of people who do scholarly work are not drawing salaries. Some, like me, are independent researchers or scholars. Others are early or mid-career academics who find themselves without a contract. Others still are ‘stakeholders’ or ‘the public’.

A combination of the increasing casualisation of academia, the increasing accessibility of academic work through open access publishing, and the public engagement agenda, is creating an environment where institutional boundaries are more and more permeable. This is creating a problem. Salaried academics are expecting non-salaried people contributing to scholarly work to be content with the academic currency of favours. However, non-salaried people tend to prefer the real-world currency of money, as it’s much more use when you need to eat and pay bills.

This isn’t so much the elephant in the room as the blue whale in the bath. An article was published last year on the LSE Impact Blog, by three academics from the University of Exeter, encouraging the involvement of ‘non-academic partners at all relevant stages of the research process’. They argue for ‘a more collaborative approach to research’ in which ‘partners and publics’ will ‘contribute to the value of academic research’. They assert that ‘genuine partnership relies on respect and will produce mutual benefit’ without saying anything about what that mutual benefit might look like or how they propose to ensure the benefit is truly mutual. And nowhere, in the entire article, do they mention money. The journal article on which the blog post is based, which is entitled ‘The value of experts, the importance of partners, and the worth of the people in between’ also makes no mention of any of their financial value or worth.

In the Western world, a university education costs tens of thousands and senior university staff earn hundreds of thousands. Universities are wealthy organisations; most make annual surpluses in the millions. In my view, as someone external to academia who contributes to the value of academic research, genuine partnership relies on adequate sharing of resources. Refusal to pay a sensible market rate to non-salaried collaborators for their skills and input is, quite simply, exploitation.

Academics need to be clear about the employment status of those they wish to work with, and understand who they can and can’t ask for favours. I have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years, an independent scholar for eight years, and continually vocal about my needs as a self-employed person. Yet I still get requests from salaried academics to teach, examine, or speak, for expenses only, or for a derisory sum that equates to less than minimum wage. It is very boring having to keep banging on about money, especially when people’s enthusiasm for your involvement dwindles rapidly as soon as you mention a fee. When a university’s water pipes leak, everyone understands that a plumber will have to be paid. In exactly the same way, academics need to understand that when they want to engage a self-employed researcher or scholar, or involve a member of the public, that person must be paid a market rate for their work.

Academic taboos #1: what cannot be said

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2017; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

what can't be saidAcademia is a community with conventions, customs, and no-go areas. These vary, to some extent, between disciplines. For example, in most STEM subjects it is taboo for research authors to refer to themselves in writing in the first person. This leads to some astonishing linguistic contortions. Conversely, in arts disciplines, and increasingly in the humanities and social sciences, it is permissible to use more natural language.

It seems, though, that some conventions exist across all disciplines. For example, conference “provocations” are rarely provocative, though they may stretch the discussion’s comfort zone by a millimetre or two. Then conference “questions” are rarely questions that will draw more interesting and useful material from the speaker. Instead, they are taken as opportunities for academic grandstanding. Someone will seize the floor, and spend as long as they can get away with, effectively saying: “Look at me, aren’t I clever?” I have found, through personal experiment, that asking an actual question at a conference can cause consternation. I confess it amuses me to do this.

Perhaps the most interesting conventions are those around what cannot be said. Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City University of London, UK, has noted the taboo around admitting how difficult, even impossible, it can be to cope with the pressures of life as an academic (2010:229). The airy tone when a colleague is heard to say: “I’m so shattered. The jobs on my to-do list seem to be multiplying. Haha, you know how it is.” Such statements can be a smokescreen for serious mental health problems.

A journal article published in 2017 by the theoretical physicist Oliver Rosten made a heartfelt statement about this in its acknowledgements, dedicating the article to the memory of a late colleague, and referring to “the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system”. Several journals accepted the article for its scientific quality but refused to publish the acknowledgements in full; it took Rosten years to find a journal that would publish what he wrote. He has left academia and now works as a Senior Software Developer at Future Facilities Ltd in Brighton, UK.

Another thing that cannot be said, identified by Tseen Khoo, a Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, is that some academic research doesn’t need funding, it just needs time. This is anathema because everyone accepts that external funding makes the academic world go round. But what if it didn’t? What if student fees, other income (e.g. from hiring out university premises in the holidays), and careful stewardship was enough? What if all the time academics spent on funding applications, and making their research fit funders’ priorities, was actually spent on independent scholarship? It seems this is not only unsayable but also unthinkable. One of Khoo’s interlocutors described this as “a failure of the imagination”.

Another unspeakable truth I’m aware of is for someone to say that the system of research ethics governance is itself unethical. Ethics governance is something to comply with, not to question. That has led us to the situation where most research training contains little or no time spent on research ethics itself. Instead, young researchers learn that working ethically equates to filling in an audit form about participant welfare and data storage. They don’t receive the detailed reflective instruction necessary to equip them to manage the manifold ethical difficulties any researcher will encounter in the field.

I wonder what role the lack of research ethics education plays in the increasing number of journal articles that are retracted each year? I would argue that we need to separate ethical audit from ethical research, because they have different aims. The former exists to protect institutions, the latter to promote the quality of research and ensure the well-being of all concerned.

These areas of silence are particularly interesting given that academia exists to enable and develop conversations. However, I think that as well as acknowledging what academia enables, we also need to take a long hard look at what academia silences.