16 January 2012

On journals (and Pozzo and Lucky...)

I wrote recently about the arrogance of the publishers of academic journals. I have to declare that I have now heard from the real human editor of the journal in question, who took the trouble to write personally to apologise for the form letters from the publishers, and who is probably as put upon as the rest of us...

And today I came across this piece, which speaks for itself.

But it reminds me of one of the most bizarre incidents of my academic career.

It was a warm summer afternoon in the mid-'90s. My colleague and I were sitting on folding chairs on the grass outside our building near the campus entrance discussing something or other.

A man in an unseasonable heavy black overcoat came by, followed by his associate/assistant/servant/slave who was pulling a very large trolley case. Initially black overcoat asked for directions to Reception, but he had no clear idea of whom he wanted to see or details of any appointment, and being rather cravenly polite and not having a door to shut in his face, we allowed him to state his proposition/pitch.

(If you are familiar with Waiting for Godot, Pozzo and Lucky are the best parallels.)

Briefly, he wanted us to sign up PhD students from the Arabian Gulf area. He was not particularly interested in our areas of expertise or research, although when I referred to social sciences, he suggested that a Deputy Chief of Police in one of the Emirates would be an ideal candidate for me to "supervise". He was a little disappointed that we had no expertise on campus in chemical engineering--to his ?credit, my father's and brother's background in that field was not sufficient for him to point students my way...

The deal was that his clients would sign up for a part-time overseas doctoral programme with us. We would not have to do anything except process the proposal and the assessment. All the supervision could be arranged locally. For the viva (defense) the supervisor and external examiner (and companions) would be flown out to the Gulf and accommodated at 5* level, and would then be keynote speakers at a major conference to celebrate the award (for which a suitable fee would be arranged payable to the individuals rather than the institutions) extended to a two-week vacation, courtesy of /not clear/you don't need to know/.

The trolley-case was full of theses, and glossy commemorative volumes of the "conferences" including pictures and profiles of UK supervisors and mentors. (I never bothered to check up on them.)

And bound volumes of journals, with respectable titles such as those listed in the link above. All of them, Mr Overcoat was keen to stress, have ISSN numbers (as if that guaranteed academic respectability. I don't know if Viz comic has got one, but it could have). He could guarantee acceptance of papers in such journals, and even recommend us for the editorial boards or even editorships...

We accepted his business card, but explained that the registration process was a little more complex than that, and after an hour or so, he took the hint.

...and asked for directions to Cambridge...

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