Why I Published Academic Work on VICE.com

August 7, 2016



I recently published an article on VICE.com titled "The Problematic Gender Politics Between Masc and Fem Gays."  The article features research from my master's thesis in which I studied violence and sexual aggression in both predominantly straight and gay bars and clubs. After publishing the article, I noticed a few people on and offline questioning the research ethics of publishing on VICE.com.


First, no IRB procedures were violated. Observational data were collected in public spaces. When I conversed with individuals, I always disclosed I was conducting research. Second, in-depth interviews began with explaining to subjects the nature of the research, their right to withdraw from the study, the potential harms of the study, and how their identity would be protected. They also read and signed a consent form. Third, research ethics do not prohibit sharing findings and the experience of actually collecting and analyzing data with a broader audience.


It is that last point I would like to focus on. The academic publishing industry is Leviathan. See here and here for two of the top hits on Google for "academic publishing industry." The problems with the industry are not unknown or unstudied. 


Every step of research and analysis is seemingly concerned less with science and more with publishable results in top academic journals based on impact factor. Sociologist Jacob Foster found in a recent study "that researchers who confine their work to answering established questions are more likely to have the results published, which is a key to career advancement in academia," and that can stifle innovative research. The study is linked here. But guess what? It's behind a paywall because it was published in a top sociological journal, according to Thomson Reuters "impact factor" metrics, a metric that has been gamed, for example, by some seemingly legitimate journals to boost their scores. How do shady journal editors achieve this? They highly encourage authors to cite work previously published in the journal they are submitting to. 


This model has many problems, one of which is the overuse/misunderstanding of p-values and lack of replication studies, but the most glaring fault of the academic publishing industry is the way it puts publicly funded research behind paywalls accessible only to individuals with access to incredibly expensive journal subscriptions. These subscriptions include databases such as JSTOR, Web of Science, or EBSCO. Searches on Google Scholar will return results, but PDFs of articles themselves are often unavailable. To me this is a moral and ethical question in itself far beyond whether or not to publish with a non-academic venue. To whom does publicly funded research owe its debt? In my mind, to the public.


Often housing some of the top ranked journals of many disciplines, academic publishing powerhouses like Elsevier, SAGE, and Wiley create and maintain standards that make it difficult for researchers to distribute their own work to public audiences. They further limit access to the point some researchers request articles on Twitter with #IcanHazPDF or use websites like Sci-Hub that find themselves embroiled in legal battles over copyright claims of scientific research. In the case of Sci-Hub, that's around 47 million pirated articles. I do not condone copyright piracy. However, something has to change.


The tragic saga of Aaron Swartz details the lengths to which academic publishing houses will go, with the power of the federal government behind them, to protect the existing structure. 


On the other hand, open access journals like PLOS ONE have made traction in disrupting old models. Of course, a new breed of predatory open access journals has proliferated. It is basically a "pay for play" system that allows shoddy science to find a home in print and, for a researcher, another line on their CV. 


In an effort to combat these journals, researchers, on their own time, track predatory journals so unsuspecting academics, typically early in their career and looking to publish as much as possible to make tenure, do not submit to them.


As an extreme, someone invented a fake psychologist named "Dr. Eugene Noolah" from the fictional Faber College in the movie Animal House. The esteemed fictional psychologist now serves on the editorial board of a predatory journal and has even published machine-generated text as research. The latest is called "Desultory Considerations on Aphasia." Written by software. Authored by a fake psychologist. From a fake university. From a movie. Unreal. 


Did I mention that researchers have to pay most of these journals, both legitimate and predatory, to publish their own work in them? And after the work is published, putting the article on a personal website might land someone in hot water? How does this make sense? It doesn't. 




So was publishing in VICE a move out of protest against paywalls? Partially. It was also a protest against academics not discussing their research with broader audiences in plain terms. It is sometimes the case researchers become annoyed when the media reports on scientific research based on university press releases sometimes noted as "sources of hype." Understandable. One way to combat that is to speak to the media directly.


Also, a sad reality is that this research from my thesis would have been read by approximately five people other than my master's committee members who supervised the work. Given the research dealt with sexism and misogyny in day-to-day activities that is understandable to a large swath of the population, it makes sense to publish those findings through a venue with a wider reach. 


Would I publish something about a cellular automaton in VICE? Probably not. However, limiting research findings to exclusive spaces behind paywalls seems antithetical to doing science, or at least how I think it should be done, especially among researchers whose object of study hinges on inequality. 


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