Academics are prostitutes?

December 11th, 2007 by jose

This is quite a finding; I’m still wondering how a paper that basically says: “academics are sluts” got accepted in a peer reviewed journal. Kudos to the editor.

Frey, B. S. (2002) Publishing as prostitution? – Choosing between one’s own ideas and academic success. Public choice, 116: 205-223

Here’s an excerpt:

The author knows that, normally, he would be lucky if, after something like a year or so, he gets an invitation to resubmit the paper according to the demands exactly spelled out by the two to three referees and the editor(s). For most scholars, this is a proposal that cannot be refused, because their survival in academia crucially depends on publications in refereed professional journals. They are well aware of the fact that they only have a chance to get the paper accepted if they slavishly follow the demands formulated. The system of journal editing existing in our field at the present time virtually forces academics to become prostitutes: they sell themselves for money (and a good living). Unlike prostitutes who sell their bodies for money (Edlund and Korn, 2002), academics sell their soul to conform to the will of others, the referees and editors, in order to gain one advantage, namely publication. Most persons
refusing to prostitute themselves and to follow the demands of the system are not academics: they cannot enter, or have to leave, academia because they fail to publish. Their integrity survives, but the persons disappear as academics.

Surprising as the title might be, the paper actually proposes yet another solution to the peer-review conundrum. It’s a system that pretty much everybody agrees is broken but nobody has been able to fix.

The solution: remove the veto powers from the reviewers. Use the editor’s feeling as the only criterion. Why? Because the editor is the only one who knows how the paper fares relative to other submissions to the journal, whereas the reviewers have to use “according to some mystical absolute standards rather than be able to select the relatively best paper from those submitted.”

PS: This paper has the longest acknowledgments list I’ve ever seen. It must have been hell to get it published :)

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12 Responses to “Academics are prostitutes?”

  1. Alan A. LewNo Gravatar Says:

    Assuming the snippet summarizes the main crux of the paper, I have these comments:
    (1) The paper is a commentary and not a research article. Acceptance standards are different for commentaries and research articles.
    (2) Not all editors demand such strict requirements. I ask all my authors to include a cover letter when they revise their paper that summarizes the changes they made to address reviewer concerns, and if they choose to not address an issue raised by a reviewer, to explain that, as well. Most (not all) authors appreciate the help and insights that they get from reviewers.
    (3) Editors are not infallible. I have edited a journal for 10 years. There have been papers that I would have rejected, but which reviewers loved, and vice versa. That is why multiple reviewers are so important. In the end, it is always the editor who has final say.

  2. Bill GoffeNo Gravatar Says:

    Just a quick thought — maybe provide a link to the non-gated version of the paper: and/or give the author’s name as used in the paper to make it a bit easier to find on his home page if it is there?

    On this getting published, public choice economists sometimes like to be provocative.

  3. Link Friday - December 14, 2005 | Says:

    [...] Academics are Prostitutes The Academic Productivity blog links to an interesting journal article that discusses the peer-review conundrum in academic publishing. [...]

  4. complexitystudies » Blog Archive » Academics are prostitutes? Says:

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  5. mr. gunnNo Gravatar Says:

    The solution: remove the veto powers from the reviewers. Use the editor’s feeling as the only criterion. Why? Because the editor is the only one who knows how the paper fares relative to other submissions

    I can only speak for life science publishing, but comparing the submission to other submissions is the job of the editor, and comparing the submission to the current work in the field is the job of the reviewers. The editor might have a feeling for what’s timely, but they won’t always be able to judge whether or not the techniques used are valid and properly performed.

  6. HNo Gravatar Says:


    First; if one follows the link that mr Goffe kindly has supplied, after the initial posting, to the text it sure seems that is a fully fledged article and not a commentary. Not least because it has quite a few references, but also because it is after all fairly long. Like an article in length. Now this is not an effort to neglects its merits.

    Second; the issue it addresses is of course not a secret, and the publication was back on 03, rather it appears to be common, albeit very very tacit “knowledge”. So it is a bit odd that it hasn’t been more widely spread. After all what it addresses is part of the tricks of the trade so to say. It merely stipulates some of the working conditions for researchers, academics, in short people who’d like to earn a living by unveiling, creating, finding etc. more knowledge about the social, scientific and other worlds we are prone to make and explore.

    Third; who’d really put in the effort to argue against that some, not all, reviewers like it when they are being referred to and quoted? Who’d not really appreciate that some, not all, reviewers know full well who is writing a paper when they read it because the recognize the language, the models, the epistemological peculiarities and other what nots of the guild?

    And finally; isn’t it better to acknowledge how some, not all, academics actually do, say, think, write and so on, rather than attempt to stiff upper lip it or just virtually try to pretpend it’s not there. After all the “proverb” to publish or perish does mean something to a whole lot of people who do not enjoy e.g. the priviliges of having a tenure, a chair, an appointment as a reviewer, an eternal cornucopia of grants…



  7. AGMycroftNo Gravatar Says:

    The journal “Economic Inquiry” has adopted a new option (with its new editor, Preston McAfee): authors can choose the “No Revisions” track, wherein the paper is either accepted as-is or rejected outright. It will be an interesting experiment!

  8. Martin Baldwin-EdwardsNo Gravatar Says:

    I had not seen this paper before, and I am really pleased to have had the opportunity of reading it. I had intended a few years ago to write a very similar paper, based on my experience of founding two social science journals and editing one 1995-1999, and also numerous interactions with the process as author or reviewer.

    First of all, this article is a concept paper and not a “commentary”; I doubt that it is possible to do empirical research on this topic, even with a hefty research budget [which is unlikely to be provided]. Secondly, the paper challenges the hegemony of “legitimate knowledge”, even if that is not the author’s intention. I say this because the purpose of refereeing is to guarantee a minimum standard of published work, and to assist authors to reach that standard with some guidance. However, as we all know, the personal or political agenda of many referees is clearly visible, and is really very damaging to the quality of published papers. I would go so far as to assert that about half of what appears in “top-quality” journals is low quality. Furthermore, many leading scholars choose to exercise a mafia mentality and restrict publication of rival work.
    Thirdly, some journal editors do show good judgement in dealing with referees: I used to throw quite a few referees’ reports in the waste bin, owing to their clear self-interested bias. However, bias is not always visible, and many referees these days are quite junior — with unpredictable and opaque personal agendas.

    The end result of all of this is the following:
    (1) You cannot rely on the quality of articles in top journals
    (2) Many high-quality papers are published on the internet, in semi-refereed journals or as working papers
    (3) The reliance of universities and others on publication in named peer-reviewed journals has created an oligopolistic effect, which is damaging to the production of knowledge.
    (4) And yes, contemporary academics can be analogised to whores: isn’t it about time they rebelled against it?

  9. adminNo Gravatar Says:

    Martin, that was a great comment. I agree. Somehow, I was thinking people would be a lot less sympathetic, that I would be ‘voted off the island’ for posting such a thing :) .

    Maybe someone should post thoughts on how quality and amount of papers in prestigious journals is not that correlated. Would you like to do that? Remember that now posting in is open to everyone here.

  10. Martin Baldwin-EdwardsNo Gravatar Says:

    I’ll get back to you on that — needs a bit of research to make reliable statements.

  11. Jaime CuestaNo Gravatar Says:

    Nunca había leído nada de esto pero había llegado a una conclusión muy parecida.

  12. happy ending massageNo Gravatar Says:

    Hasn’t that always been the case for journalists in general though? Other than independent writers, anyone who has editors / reviewers above them must suck on the corporate tit or starve…

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