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Damn the publishers

By Melissa Gregg - posted Thursday, 28 May 2009


How much longer can Australian universities accept the lack of outlets to publish research in this country? The Excellence in Research for Australia initiative will make publishing outcomes more important than ever. But present indicators of academic merit appear poised to punish Australian research for its very Australian-ness.

Three years ago, I won an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship to study an issue that affects a large cross-section of Australians: online technology's impact on work and home life. It's an issue with clear policy application at government and workplace level. But how will the research contribute to public debate without a local publisher for my book, From Boardroom to Bedroom: Online culture, intimacy and the new world of work?

The stack of rejection letters I've received lately shows the ludicrousness of the situation.

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One well-known Australian scholarly publisher responded to my book proposal saying: "Our priority is to publish textbooks that will be prescribed for specific courses. Unless we can identify a strong market and specific courses for which the book can be prescribed as a core text, it falls outside my publishing program."

A local trade press was slightly more considerate: "From the proposal you sent, this looks like a thorough and thoughtful study of a phenomenon that is quietly changing the lives of many of us. That said, our experience is that we generally aren't able to find a significant readership for academic studies of this kind among general readers, even where the topic is an issue related to their lives."

If local presses aren't interested, what about further afield? A British editor wrote: "it's an interesting project but for us to be even able to consider it, I'd have to ask you to really play down the Australian-based empirical material. The focus on the Australian material would significantly reduce the market."

But taking the cake is the US publisher who would consider a revised proposal if I placed the US "at the heart of the book".

A major contradiction exists between funding models that reward research targeted to "national priorities" and the structures in place to disseminate that research. With the market for quality scholarship so small in Australia, it's a no-brainer that the ARC urgently heeds the call for subsidies coming from a range of publishers and advocacy bodies.

Scholarly publishing for unknown authors is in a state of almost complete lock-down. Leading professors will tell you it's been that way for years.

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The only way "in" is to have contacts in the right networks. Well, my rejection tally is a running joke on Facebook. It's become a bonding device for other young academics with their own knock-back letters.

In the latest ERA blueprint, scholarly presses ranked highest in my field would prefer me to summarise the work of overseas scholars for American undergraduate students rather than produce original research about my own country.

To have my work published in A-ranked journals, I need to join a waiting list that is up to three years long.

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First published in The Australian on May 27, 2009.



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About the Author

Melissa Gregg is an ARC Discovery fellow in the department of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney. In November 2009 Melissa is organising a major national conference on academic labour, "The State of the Industry", supported by the ARC Cultural Research Network.

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