Publish or Perish?

Or Publish with Purpose?

Emma Vossen is a PhD Candidate at The University of Waterloo currently writing a dissertation examining the accessibility of games and games culture to girls and women. She is the Editor-in-Chief of First Person Scholar and has published articles on games and games culture, The Walking Dead, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the fetish art of Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster.

A few months ago, I made a video about First Person Scholar (FPS) for the SSHRC Storytellers contest. The challenge was to outline your SSHRC-funded research via a video that could only be 3 minutes long. I had given a talk in November about FPS, its vision, and academic publishing to a crowd of other academics, and it was pretty well received, so I tried to take what I expressed in 15 minutes and cut it to 3, which was… painful to say the least. BUT then, about a month ago, I found out that my video had been selected as one of the top 25 entries which means that I get the cash prize and the opportunity to present my talk to a panel of judges (and a cool crowd!) at Congress 2016 to see if I make it into the top 5 presentations. There is also an engagement prize for the person who do the best job of promoting the videos, so you know I’m on that, right? You can watch all the top 25 videos here. There are some REALLY great videos about inclusive education, supporting trans youth in education environments, and trans life writing through video projects — just to name a few! Watching all of the incredible winners makes me so shocked and surprised I got into the top 25!

This post is not just about sharing my video though; I also wanted to have a place to expand on some of the issues I cover in the video for our FPS audience, for any new audience the video may attract (fingers crossed), and also for those interested in having open discussions about the state of academic publishing. Before you continue on, please watch the 3 minute video below!

Thanks for watching! Now read my extended thoughts below!

Is FPS a Journal?

FPS is an online publication of critical writing about games and games culture. It is not a blog, it is not a journal, it is a publication. I use the word publication quite strategically. We could go through the process of becoming a journal, or becoming a games journalism website like Giant Bomb or Rock Paper Shotgun, but we don’t because our strength lies in not being either of these things in any official capacity. I get asked frequently why we don’t find a way to become a “real” journal so that we as editors and as young scholars can “get something” out of this experience for our careers. This sentiment implies an ignorance about what careers in academia are like, and about where academia is moving. I feel very strongly that game studies doesn’t need another journal — it needs a way to open itself up to non-academics who are interested in what we have to offer.

It is not that we are NEITHER academics nor journalists, it is that we are both of those things at the same time and you can’t really untangle them. You may be thinking, “well you can’t call yourself a publication, you must be a type of publication” — and we are! We are a middle state publication, a website that publishes middle state writing. This is writing (see the diagram below from the video) that is somewhere between the poles of quick digitally published writing like blogging and academic writing. A lot of the best, most influential culture-changing game studies work (Brendan Keogh mentions a lot of it here) is being done in the middle state realm and academic researchers can benefit from using that writing in their teaching and research. But — academics also need to care about publishing our research as middle state writing so that we can be part of the larger critical conversation about games and so that we can influence change beyond the walls of the academy.

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Middle State Publishing

Middle state publishing is what you may imagine it is. It’s an act of writing that is between the poles of blogging and academic writing. As Steve Wilcox has explained, middle state articles  “are digital publications that have the timeliness of blogs but the critical attention to detail of a journal.” You can read a bit more about middle state publishing on FPS here and here. In the past, FPS has attempted to get our writers to hit this middle point, but frequently the writing tends to skew more academic and end up right of center. My main goal for FPS is to bring us further left and therefore, make academic writing, research, and ideas as accessible as possible. As my time as Commentaries Editor and EIC, I like to think I’ve already moved us quite a bit, but I also know that we are not there quite yet.

Games critic and academic Zoya Street (who runs their own incredible middle state publication Memory Insufficient) calls those of us who write somewhere between the spheres of academia and journalism “cyborg critics”. Street explains that this position involves “citing blogs in academic papers. It means tweeting at DiGRA. It means self-publishing books for a non-academic audience.[…] [it’s] academia without the purity complex. It’s middle-state writing.”

I’m going to cut right to it — middle state publishing exists because traditional academic writing is an oppressive force that keeps our knowledge locked up in the light of academic libraries and keeps those not privileged enough to be part of the academy in the dark. Academic writing is so rarely about clarity and so often involves unnecessarily complicated or pretentious language, which can also keep the reader in the dark. As a university employee, I am complicit in this system of oppression and the hierarchies of knowledge it creates. As more and more people speak out it is hard to support the idealized vision of the university as an institution for learning. Many, many, many authors including Noam Chomsky have pointed out the ways in which the corporatization of the University system is negatively affecting students and faculty alike by devaluing education. The university is a corporation and the instructors and professors are its machines. We produce undergraduate degrees through our teaching, and we produce publications out of our research and this output fuels the university engine. The runoff from our machines are the students who leave saddled with unpayable debt and few job prospects. Now before you say, “oh Emma not all academics”, or “I’m only a grad student”, or “I’m only a contract instructor”, let me say “Yes, all academics.” We are all implicated in this oppressive structure — some of us just benefit more from it than others.

Luckily, there are some things that academics like myself can do about this. We can change how we teach and we mentor, but in this post I’m talking specifically about how we can change how we publish and who we are publishing for. SSHRC actually mandated that we do something about the traditional publishing structure in 2004 and has since been working to help academic journals become open access and encouraging their grant holders to publish their research in open access journals. In fact now the Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications actually “requires that peer-reviewed journal publications resulting from Tri-Agency (NSERC, SSHRC or CIHR) grants be freely accessible online within 12 months of publication”. You can read their current open access policy here. I’m a big fan of their initiatives (and I was before I got the prize when I initially wrote this, I swear!) but creating physical access is just one-half of the academic writing problem. An open access journal article may be physically available to the public, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge in the article is effectively disseminated or effectively translated to the public. If we want our research to make changes to culture, industry, and policy, we need our writing to not just be physically accessible but also readable, i.e. understandable by people who haven’t spent a decade learning how to read academese. Unfortunately, publishing outside a well-respected journal is not seen as an option by most academics because they don’t see anything to gain from the amount of effort put in. If your institution or department doesn’t value knowledge mobilization or public outreach, then you might feel like you are stuck in between a rock and a hard place–especially if your university values this type of publication culturally, or in theory, but does not reward the behavior or consider it as equal to other forms of academic work. No one wants to feel like their work isn’t being read or has no impact, but if you are trying to get a tenure-track job or a promotion, you might feel like you don’t have the luxury of making any “mistakes”.

Publish or Perish

If you are an academic you are probably achingly familiar with the phrase “publish or perish”,  which has become the motto of our broken system. Publishing has become a numbers game and as someone in game studies, it’s hard not to see it as a game. If as a grad student you ask someone with a job how to get a tenure track job, they will often tell you the exact same things: “It’s very difficult to get a job but if you publish X many journal articles in journals of X quality and go to conferences X Y and Z and then cast your net wide enough you will get a job.” That is the formula I’ve heard 100 times: publishing along the party line = job. After you get a job, you might have to write a book to get tenure, but that book must be for an academic audience and must be published with a “good” academic publisher.

As many before me have pointed out, but as people outside of the academy rarely know, academic book publishing is criminal in concept but totally accepted by most academics. Academic books cost between 40 and 300 dollars (in the arts — they can cost MUCH more in other disciplines) and are sold entirely to libraries with few exceptions. Academic publishers who sell both to libraries and enthusiast audiences (such as McFarland) are considered “lesser”, to put it in the nicest way possible.

*aside* I once exclaimed at a conference that I was excited that the editors of an anthology I had written for had picked McFarland because my friends and family could actually afford to buy the book (I had found out that second via email). A fellow conference goer looked at me horrified that I could ever think that was a GOOD thing if my chapter wasn’t worth anything due to the publishing house *story time over*.

Most importantly, the academics who write and edit these books more often than not aren’t paid a single cent. Some even PAY to have their work published in order to qualify for promotions, or maybe just to live out a lifelong dream of having their own book, or maybe to avoid perishing at all costs. If you aren’t in academia, you may ask “why would anyone write a book for free?” but academics would argue you are already being paid by your university, so it’s quite simple: you are doing it for future money, future advancement. As one academic explains:

“If it’s a first book, don’t worry about the money; go for a prestigious university press, unless you have an obviously commercial product (for example, a book with ‘Hitler’ or ‘Nazism’ in the title). Bear in mind that a successful first book with a good university press generates a lot of secondary income in terms of jobs, tenure, promotion and the like.”

Also later in the article he remarks:

“Forget about an advance for a first book unless it’s with a commercial publisher such as Penguin, Bloomsbury or Little, Brown. Just think of the secondary income it can generate and benefits to your academic career.”

A lot of people support this logic (which is 100% common knowledge in academia but often a surprise to new grad students who hold the assumption that writing a book is a job) because they desperately want the mythic, powerful, immortality of a tenure-track job. But if only 1 in 5 Canadian PhDs will actually get a tenure track job in their field then that means that lots of grad students, junior faculty, and contract professors are publishing for free, to a purely academic audience and then not gaining the positions they seek. The “work for exposure” or “work for inevitable future” model may have worked at one point, but if there aren’t enough jobs for the PhDs we are creating this model doesn’t quite work. I’m not saying we need more jobs, I know that is a whole other can of worms, we just need to treat PhDs as what they are, university employees, teachers and researchers who are being trained in a specific subject and not for a specific job. But instead, we are all being trained and led as if we are all preparing for the same job, like a big game of musical chairs. One way to guarantee that you will the one to sit in that chair is to write an academic book that will be sold to libraries, without being compensated for that writing, as a measure of job security or in some cases future job security.

This has led to a lot of academic books and a lot of people to ask questions along these lines:

“So if academic books aren’t exactly commercial endeavors, and they aren’t exactly providing knowledge for the masses, what are they doing, exactly?” (Noah Berlatsky)

What they do is keep people flowing through the university ecosystem. They keep giving grad students the dream of having a book of their own, they fill library shelves, and sometimes, if they aren’t read, they waste perfectly good research. But if there are fewer jobs and less tenure, will there also be fewer books? Or will there be more books as people desperately try to make themselves look appealing for the very few jobs? Getting paid for your work in academia makes your work less, not more, valuable. To gain cultural capital, you have to work for free, for no financial capital, and this tradition has led us to where we are today.

To the point where, as a young up and coming (arguably moderately successful) grad student, I hope I never publish an academic monograph. Call me an entitled millennial if you need to, but once I get my PhD I’m done working for free in hopes that I’ll be graced with “something more” down the line. I currently work approximately 60 hours a week; as I write this it’s 1:10 am on a Friday night, and I’ve been working almost non-stop since 9:00 am. Sometimes I drive 12 (or more) hours in a week just to attend meetings and teach classes in another city. I’m not saying this to make you feel sorry for me; I’m telling you this to contextualize the fact that I made $7334 this semester, before paying $2863 in tuition for the privilege of making that $7334. That means my take home pay for January-April is $4471, about $279 dollars a week. In case you can’t do that fast math that means I am getting paid about $6.99 an hour if I only worked 40 hours a week. I used to be a cashier at Value Village (post-MA pre-PhD) and I was in a much better financial state working there for minimum wage than when I was teaching a class of 30 3rd year university students while writing a dissertation, doing all the PhD obligations, going to academic conferences, running this publication, and doing various other unpaid freelance writing and editing projects.

I am absolutely not saying this to romanticize grad student poverty or over exhaustion because that is one of my pet peeves. Although in the past I have been very guilty of participating in mass “oh I was closer to death than you in grad school”-athons I try very hard not to do it any more. We need to all stop romanticizing (and therefore normalizing) the poverty and emotion and physical turmoil of grad school, it’s not good, it’s not a rite of passage and I don’t want anyone else to have to endure what I have as part of the process of proving you “want it” enough.  Instead, I’m telling you all of this about myself to explain that even as I’m saying it’s terrible to be constantly expected/asked to work for free I’ve also bought into the idea that working for free (or sometimes for very little) now will lead to, if not an academic job, than at least getting paid to write later in life, but because of this experience I am done working for free after my PhD. I will never ever pay to write a book or write a book for free, even if I have an academic job. Even if that means giving up the lifelong dream of writing my own book entirely.

Maybe this is cocky or presumptuous of me, but I won’t do it. I believe that my writing and the writing of my peers is more than just a means to a job. I want people to read my writing, I want to change people’s minds, I want to communicate. I believe our work is important and interesting and is worth more than just a line on our CVs. It should be read, it should be circulated. Our research, our knowledge has purpose and I hope FPS showcases that.

Let’s Perish

So my philosophical question as the EIC of FPS, as a publisher, as an academic, and as a writer is: what if we perished? What if the public can no longer see the purpose of academic research, and slowly but surely people stop pursuing degrees for knowledge, or maybe like the recent case in Japan has shown, they just shut down humanities departments entirely? Or what if we as young grad students just stop submitting to journals, stop writing articles and chapters that will just sit in libraries for free, if we aren’t getting paid anyway why not put our research online for everyone to read and just … perish out of the academic system entirely?

This might all sound incredibly naive, but the enabling power of being a young grad student is that I have nothing to lose. I also have nothing to gain by pointing out how everything around me seems broken. I have nothing to gain by telling you that I feel a crushing guilt when I teach my students, not because I’m not giving them the best education I possibly can–I pour all I’ve got into it–but because I know that soon they will be confronted with their debt, that they are paying so much for the privilege of being here, and I’m being paid pennies to keep them here. So many of us (at Laurier down the street 52% of students were taught by contract instructors in 2012) teaching these students have PhDs and mountains (in my case about $68,000 of student loans with an estimated $30,000 of interest if I pay it off in only 10 years, that’s $98,000 killmeplease) of student loans  and more general debt but will likely never get a tenure-track job, so therefore, we might as well try to help change the system for the better for the short time we are still a part of it. This is not an anti-academia or an anti-university argument, it is instead a pro-education and anti-poverty argument — but it is very difficult to be pro-academia while being pro-education, or pro-university while being anti-poverty. It’s very complicated to reconcile all these ideas at the same time. That’s why before I enter the world with a PhD and try to pay off 100k of debt I might as well use my privilege to point out that we can’t keep doing this. We might as well perish.

Even still, with all the privilege I have as a white, cis, able-bodied, PhD candidate, it’s incredibly difficult to speak up and talk about the flaws in the system you are a part of. As a young grad student working in academia, you know that you are constantly being judged and that your financial future (in the form of awards, teaching and research positions) is subjectively placed in the hands of your more privileged tenured peers. A student or a professor who challenges the status quo, or who fights for their rights, or who seems ungrateful might not seem like the ideal candidate for an award or promotion. We have seen a growing trend of dismissals based on academics saying the “wrong” things or supporting the “wrong” causes. As someone who has the habit of saying those things, I’m honestly surprised I’ve made it this far.  As I’m sure you can imagine this position is even more difficult if you aren’t cis/white/ or a man. It’s hard enough with those who have the privilege of tenure to speak up; those lacking privilege find themselves muzzled by their desire to have a career. Saeed Jones the Literary Editor for Buzzfeed, (which in my opinion could be the future of academic publishing, but that’s another article) wrote an incredible piece about what it’s like to be a marginalized writer in his article “Self-Portrait Of The Artist As Ungrateful Black Writer”  Jones explains:

“You can make yourself crazy simply by paying attention. The publishing industry on which my work depends is 89% white. And so, when one of those white people puts their hands in my hair, it’s difficult for me to speak up in the moment, or even months later, because I want to have a career, not just one book. I suspect there are limits to the literary elite’s willingness to tolerate an insistently “angry black writer” in their presence. Writers who speak out too loudly, too often will never be told explicitly “you’ve bitten the hand that feeds you” but there are so many ways to starve.”

So I worry, what if as marginalized writers, we just perished? What if we just perished out of academia? Out of literary circles? Just like the literary circle, in academia there are just so so many ways to starve. In some cases possibly quite literally.

But another, bigger part of me wonders … what if we published?

What if we published with purpose?

Publish or Perish with Purpose

What if we weren’t publishing for a tenure committee, or our supervisors, or job committees? What if we published for the public? What if we published for those who our research affects? What if we published for those who were interested in the topic? Even if they didn’t have a graduate degree? What if we published with purpose? What is the rhetorical act of publishing? Is it to change people’s minds about something? Is it to educate? How many minds do you want to change? Whose minds do you want to change?

Our articles (on FPS) have been cited by The New Yorker, the Huffington Post, and most frequently by GamerGate, the public who is so confused about what the hell game studies academics do that they literally think we are part of a large communist conspiracy to ruin video games.

First Person Scholar is an entirely volunteer-run endeavor (which is also definitely something I struggle with, I want us to be paid, and I am trying very hard to find a solution, but it’s very difficult to find a legitimate way to pay grad students in the (or at least our) university system; if you know of any grants we can apply for or other ways to create revenue to support our editors and contributors please contact me via the buttons in the bio) that takes countless hours of work but we work with the belief that game studies research is too important to only be read by those with access to academic libraries. We try as much as possible to help highlight the voices of those who frequently find themselves without places to speak in games and game studies. We do this not only through our weekly contribution but also through special issues composed of articles that are converted talks from game designers and critics from the Different Games Conference and the Queer Games Con. Most notably, of course, is that we have used First Person Scholar as a platform for those who have been oppressed, targeted, harassed and marginalized by GamerGate to not only speak out about the hate movement but also discuss the implications of such events in a space where we can monitor the comments incredibly closely. In the past year, I feel strongly that FPS has grown into a space for not just game developers, academics, and enthusiasts but for games activists as well. Which is the aspect of my time as EIC that I’m the most proud of.

Now, this probably looks like I’m saying “don’t work for free for a journal! Work for free for me!” and I guess to an extent I am, (although I won’t be EIC much longer) but if you have another venue that will pay you for your work go there — I frequently tell people not to publish with us if they have something they could be paid for elsewhere. Putting that aside tho, while I might not (yet) be able to offer my contributors cash I can offer them free editorial help and a large engaged public audience of designers, academics, gamers, and activists. Publishing with us won’t get you paid, and it probably won’t get you a job in academia, but it will get your work read, and in my experience, cited. I’ve seen my FPS work (and the FPS work of others) cited in print and online but I have yet to see any of my print work cited, very possibly because almost no one has ever read it!

My future goals with my time left as FPS EIC are to continue to disrupt the academic economy by helping scholars share their research with the public. I want FPS to become financially stable and able to pay its contributors and editors, but I also don’t want that stability to make us risk-averse, to make us afraid to publish things like this. I would love to have our articles, and other writing like it, be treated as valid academic work. Furthermore, I would like to have the public be seen as a valid academic audience. Most importantly, I would like FPS to be a place that you can come to and publish about games and games culture with purpose, to be heard, to be understood and to and to feel like a valid member of the larger critical discussion about games because of the quality of what you are contributing not because of the status of the journal you are publishing in.


You can now read a response to this article by Dr. Bart Simon here.

If you have any thoughts on this topic please comment below the article!

[Comments are welcomed and encouraged on First Person Scholar; after all, constructive, thoughtful conversations are what we aim to generate with our articles. However, there are some instances where comments will be deleted as follows: any comment that demeans, attacks, degrades, or harms another individual or group, as well as any comments not made in good-faith (i.e. those that hijack or troll the conversation) will be removed.]


  1. Dear Emma, you raised lots of important points and it is great to see that more and more young academics search for their broader audience and alternative platforms for sharing their ideas. I consider outreach as a crucial component of my writing, not because it has purpose (as opposed to texts written for an academic audience – they have purpose too), but because as you mentioned, it has the chance to make a difference in the everyday culture too. However, exchanging thoughts amongst a specialised and narrow audience is also crucial. This internal dialogue pushes the ideas and science forward. I guess, it would be good to acknowledge the outreach publications more, but they should not be the only sort of writing that we do.

    When it comes to being paid for writing books and academic work, I have a slightly different perspective. I know we are not being paid for a variety of our scholarly activities, but to be honest I am not sure if the capital-oriented measure for scholarly output is the only right take on the subject. Doing science is based on a reciprocal act of giving and receiving. After all, science itself operates on the premises of intellectual gift circulation (Lewis Hyde 1983, The Gift).

    What I would love to see in academia is more open access publications. And even if the dialogue is written in “academese”, a wider audience would still have the chance to receive the gift of the thought exchange.

    • Hi Sonia, I hope you don’t mind if I jump in here with my two cents. You’ve touched on a number of points that interest me, including intra-cultural vs inter-cultural communication, sciences vs humanities, and open-access vs accessible scholarship. For me, Emma’s article sets aside the value of intra-cultural communication (meaning in this case game scholars conversing and sharing ideas with one another as they build up a specialized discourse on games, culture, and technology). Intra-cultural communication is kind of the default state of the academy and its value is built into the journals, conferences, funding structures, and hiring criteria of academia. What is under-valued is inter-cultural communication or the process of translating that discourse across disciplines, campuses, organizations, and communities.

      The lack of value attached to inter-cultural communication is especially pronounced in the humanities. Whereas the sciences have a number of intermediaries (such as government organizations and NGOs) that work to disseminate their findings to the pubic in intelligible, actionable ways, in the humanities no such intermediaries exist. This relates to the perceived irrelevance of the humanities and liberal arts in North American culture (see Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence) where such scholarship is generally taken to have little or no value outside of the academy.

      Publishing with purpose—that is, to engage in knowledge translation through middle-state publishing—is our means of conveying those values to the public, not by providing open-access to the scholarship but by writing scholarship that is accessible, intelligible, and actionable. In a manner of speaking, publishing with purpose means we need to be our own intermediaries between the academy and the public, in part because our livelihoods (i.e. irrelevance of games academia = fewer jobs), and perhaps humanities-based game studies in general (i.e. that same irrelevance leading to less funding, support, & interest) depends on it.

      • Dear Steve,
        Your two cents are very insightful indeed. I cannot but agree with your point on the inter-cultural communication. I wonder whether we the humanists are to blame or whether the digitised society itself has started putting more value upon easily measurable and quantifiable outcomes presented by sciences. Although, the division between sciences and humanities is also misleading and sometimes simply false for numerous reasons (we could open a new thematic thread here; artes liberales used to entail both). That said, you are absolutely right when you mention NGOs, governmental organisation and other “players” that act as intermediaries. I wonder what else we could do to make our research more impactful or visible. First Person Scholar is an important contribution, no doubt.

        • Those are all interesting points! Despite how I see the arts and sciences being treated differently, I too like to think of the distinction between the two as fuzzy (in fact, I think games especially call for trans-disciplinary or even post-disciplinary approaches and methods). I was going to ask if you pitched to First Person Scholar before but I see you already have an article up. I’m off to read that! 🙂

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