Paying Writers

Coauthor and collaborator Ben Eltham has recently argued for a new organisation to pay writers:


It is possible to imagine an organisation that pays Australian writers in an analogous way to a symphony orchestra.

With appropriate resourcing, an organisation could advertise for a series of full-time fellowships for writers at a reasonable wage. Writers could be selected by a panel of respected peers and then employed on 3-year contracts, with superannuation, sick leave and all the rest. In return, we would expect them to write. At the end of their contracts, a progress report would be submitted.


I’ve considered this issue at two times in my life:


In 1997-98, I was involved in initial discussions about a book imprint for 21C Magazine. Publisher Ashley Crawford, myself, and others worked on a book imprint proposal, book proposals, and marketing plans. But when 21C‘s European publisher withdrew funding the project did not proceed.


In 1999-2008, I was at The Disinformation Company Ltd (TDC) when it set-up what was for several years a successful book imprint. I was involved in discussions with publisher Gary Baddeley and creative director Richard Metzger when they hired Ultraculture‘s Jason Louv. In my view, the book imprint’s portfolio expanded too quickly, and Baddeley later divested it.


In academic publishing there are examples like Zero Books who promoted the late Mark Fisher’s writings. In music, Robert Fripp and King Crimson’s label Discipline Global Mobile remains a favourite. In both cases there is an intellectual property portfolio (to be defended), an online distribution platform, and effective marketing to a subcultural audience.


This is an area where Trebor Scholz‘s idea of a platform cooperative — a publishing company owned by its authors — might be another option. South Africa’s Skolion Writers collective (which includes authors Masha Du Toit and Nerine Dorman) illustrates how Scholz’s platform cooperative might be run.


Eltham’s proposal is an interesting one for arts policymakers to consider. In particular, Eltham highlights the Australia Council’s low investment in literature. I would personally go with a TDC, Zero Books, or Skolion Writers-like approach as suggested above. The Australian market is really too small for many local publishers to get a good return on their investment — or for authors to get a good royalty income stream.

Aleppo’s Fall and the Ross-Morozov Twitter Debate

Turkey and Russia’s ceasfire deal in Aleppo, Syria is falling apart.


7-year-old Bana Alabed captured the Western media’s attention with this harrowing tweet on 12th December 2016:


Final message – people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now & still alive. – Fatemah


Bana’s family was caught in the cross-fire and shelling between Syrian government and militia forces. Quartz provided some context to Bana’s tweet:


As the battle for the city enters its final phase, many residents have turned to Twitter to post their goodbyes.

Seven-year-old Bana Alabed, along with her mother Fatemah, have been tweeting the horrors from East Aleppo since September. After sending several distress calls to the rest of the world, Bana and her mother have resorted to tweeting their last messages.

In 2009, Dr Ben Eltham and I wrote a conference paper on Twitter’s role in Iran’s election. We were inspired by a request from Eric Ross, who at the time worked for Hillary Clinton’s US State Department, for Twitter to support protesters by staying online and rescheduling a planned maintenance period. Ross reflected liberal optimism that social networks like Facebook and Twitter would empower democratic revolutions like the Arab Spring.

It was only a few weeks after Iran’s election but Eltham and I reached unsettling conclusions. We discovered that Iran’s Basij paramilitary used Twitter to hunt down and kill Iranian protesters. Ross’s liberal optimism was perhaps misplaced. Internet critic and journalist Evgeny Morozov was closer to our view. For a TED Talk in July 2009, Morozov memorably warned that the Net aids dictatorships.

Aleppo is now replaying Iran’s dark outcome as trapped Syrian civilians fight for their lives. We saw the CNN Effect in the 1990-91 Gulf War as smart-guided missiles destroyed Iraqi buildings on international television screens. But now Twitter is showing what the lived experience is like of trapped civilians during a fierce battle. The rules of engagement seem to hardly matter to the combatants.

Bana Alabed’s plight brings the Ross-Morozov debate about Twitter into a stark focus. Alabed’s tweet — and the global media coverage that followed over the next 24 hours — highlight how Twitter can be used for humanitarian concerns. There is hope for Ross’s liberal vision: social media can give a powerful voice to the otherwise voiceless. What it now needs is a more robust critical infrastructure to also deal with Morozov’s concerns.

Its co-founders originally conceived Twitter as a messaging platform to provide status updates. How can Twitter function effectively in a chaotic war-zone? What infrastructure can be built around it — in a pre-crime way — to leverage the Responsibility to Protect norm? These are potential questions which the Ross-Morozov debate about Twitter’s effectiveness hint at, but we do not have the answers yet.

Perhaps Twitter’s designers or the next generation of social media infrastructure can develop and roll-out answers. This solutionism may be too late for Bana Alabed and other Aleppo civilians. But such social media infrastructure might help to monitor and protect civilians in future wars and conflicts.

Australia’s Strategic Culture

In 2014, I co-wrote an article with Deakin University’s Dr Ben Eltham for Contemporary Security Policy Journal: ‘Australia’s Strategic Culture: Constraints and Opportunities in Security Policymaking.’


CSP and their publisher Taylor & Francis have now made the article available for free here.


My thanks to CSP, Taylor & Francis, and special issue editor Professor Jeffrey S. Lantis for their help in making the article available to a wider readership.

Australia’s Strategic Culture

Deakin University’s Ben Eltham and I have a new paper out in Contemporary Security Policy journal that draws on my PhD research. Taylor & Francis has the electronic copy available online now to journal and institutional subscribers; the print version is due out 23rd July.


Here’s the article’s abstract:


This article draws on fourth generation strategic culture debates to show the gap between the rhetoric of Australian defence and the more modest reality. Our analysis shows that these limits derive from tensions between national strategic culture and organizational strategic subcultures. There are serious debates in the nation regarding the preferred course of the Australian military and security policy. This article frames these debates by examining the ‘keepers’ of Australia’s national strategic culture, the existence of several competing strategic subcultures, and the importance of norm entrepreneurs in changing defence and national security thinking. Strategic subcultures foster compartmentalization, constraints, and bureaucratic silos that narrow national conceptions of security threats and opportunities, and impinge on the formation of coherent foreign and defence policy in relation to the Asia-Pacific region. This analysis shows that a distinct national strategic culture and organizational strategic subcultures endure beyond individual governments, placing potential limits on Australia’s interface with other Asia-Pacific strategic cultures in the future.


My thanks to Wooster College’s Jeffrey Lantis for organising the CSP special issue on strategic culture; the three anonymous and extremely helpful reviewers; and CSP‘s editorial and production staff.

Price Signals and Publishing

Today, I received notification that Contemporary Security Policy has accepted an academic article on Australian defence and national security policy I coauthored with Deakin University’s Ben Eltham.


Eltham also wrote for Australia’s New Matilda on the late economist Gary Becker and price signals:


Becker’s idea of “human capital” has been among his most influential. This is the notion that getting an education is, in a very real sense, investing in yourself. “If you’re in an environment where knowledge counts for so much, then if you don’t have much knowledge, you’re gonna be a loser,” he once said.

Attitudes like this make Becker the patron saint of neoliberalism. As no less a thinker than Michel Foucault observed, Becker saw the rational individual as an “entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of his earnings.


Juxtaposing what we wrote with Eltham’s analysis offers insights about academic publishing.


Research managers have adopted Becker’s advocacy of human capital. This means that academic publishing is often judged on three output measures: (1) journal rankings; (2) academic citations; and (3) the government income a university receives for each academic’s publication.


This has some subtle effects on academic publishing. Fields like anthropology or political science — which require fieldwork or extensive modelling — have different publication rates than some laboratory-based science. The latter enables researchers to publish more papers. This creates a Matthew Effect or Winner-Takes-All dynamic: more income is generated and hopefully more academic citations will occur. These outcomes are examples of Becker’s pricing signals: each publication becomes an output of workload activities (for cost and business process management) and a monetisable income stream (for J-curve patterns in entrepreneurial venture capital: an academic will generate more value as their career unfolds).


These price signals have anchoring, disposition, and representativeness biases that can lead some research managers to potentially misjudge the effort involved in getting a paper published. This is where Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s heuristic of having ‘skin in the game’ as a published academic author can be important to facilitate judgments. In our case, Eltham and I spent 18 months writing at least three drafts. We had to rewrite sections for two changes in Australia’s federal government. We had to address new literature. Our special issue editor also edited the paper. I edited the endnotes twice. We got extensive, critical, and helpful comments from three knowledgeable reviewers. I also got feedback during an international conference panel — where I met the journal editor — and from seeing other panels on parallel research programs.


This also involved a lot of effort and coordination that formal workload models often do not capture.


Narrow interpretations of these price signals can also ignore cumulative learning effects. Eltham and I learned several things in writing our just accepted paper. We self-funded the research as academic entrepreneurs. An earlier article draft had a comparison of United States, United Kingdom, and Australian defence and national security exercises that might become a separate article. We started to co-develop a microfoundations model of strategic culture that first arose when Eltham recommended I read Dan Little’s Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Transaction Publishers, 1998). I learned a lot about national security and recent Australian policymaking innovations: a socialisation process.  These are just some examples of what occurred over an 18 month period.


Often, research managers bring up price signals in terms of value creation. However, can be in the narrow sense above of a journal ranking; citation metric; or a dollar value for income generated. Whilst these are important they are only part of the full spectrum of potential value creation that can occur when academic coauthors collaborate on a research article or a project. Yet the conversation is often as if tools like Real Options valuation or Balanced Scorecard reporting (which acknowledges learning) were never created. The problem isn’t the use of managerial frameworks: it’s that they can be used in a shallow and superficial way for less-optimal outcomes.


Collectively, these challenges mean that academics and institutions alike never realise the full spectrum of potential value creation from an academic publication. Becker saw investment. Foucault saw entrepreneurship. I see the potential for knowledge commons arbitrage. Perhaps that’s why academics enjoy the international conference circuit so much. Sometimes the potential value creation can be more like work-life balance: Taleb wrote Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (New York: Penguin Press, 2012) in solitude, to distill his life experience as an options trader and his love of classical philosophy. Read it on your next study leave period.

On Marni Cordell and New Matilda

Veteran independent publisher, editor and journalist Marni Cordell has penned her final editorial for Australia’s New Matilda publication.


Cordell has been NM‘s editor for seven years, publisher for four years, and has done important reportage on West Papua, Timor-Leste, and social justice issues. She has supported coauthor and collaborator Ben Eltham’s national affairs reportage.


In her final editorial Cordell thanked NM‘s team, contributors, and readers. I would also like to thank Cordell: being an editor and publisher is a rewarding yet demanding job that requires significant behind-the-scenes investment of expertise, time, money, mentoring, and risk-taking. Each editor brings their own unique style and vision to the publication they edit – Cordell has strengthened Australian independent journalism.


Cordell announced NM‘s new editor is journalist Chris Graham. Cordell joins Australia’s Crikey as an editor.

5th November 2012: Michael Mann’s Sources of Social Power

Coauthor Ben Eltham bought a copy of Michael Mann‘s Sources of Social Power: Volume 2 (1760-1914) to a meeting on Friday afternoon.


Mann’s book is a dense, scholarly study and comparative analysis of the modern nation-state system that blends economics, history, sociology, and political science.


It’s also the kind of life-long, indepth research that is now impossible to do under Australian research and publications metrics. Research administrators interpret these metrics as Taylorist outputs: they often don’t consider the long-term investment needed to develop such research programs.


Mann has just released Volume 3 (1890-1945); and Volume 4 (1945-2011) is due out at the end of November.

28th October 2012: Australia In The Asian Century White Paper

Australia’s Gillard Government has released its Australia In The Asian Century white paper.


You can read Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s comments here. The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen has some ‘initial’ analysis here.


Ben Eltham has some comments on the white paper for New Matilda here. We’ll mention it in an academic paper planned for the Australian Journal of Political Science.

28th October 2012: Negotiating Conference Travel

Yesterday, I had to cancel two papers/presentations with coauthor Ben Eltham at the International Studies Association‘s annual convention in San Francisco in April 2013. We both were unable to get access to research incentive and travel funding for the ISA conference. Some lessons:


1. Negotiate your initial contract carefully. Your university employer makes a valuation decision on your career if it gives you an Academic Level versus a HEW Administrator contract. Academic Level roles are governed by the Minimum Standards for Academic Levels (MSALs) and can access research incentive and conference travel funding. HEW Administrator roles often cannot and don’t have as clear pathways for funding access: they are not considered researchers even if they have an existing track record. These access and resource allocative differences can shape your career and create a ‘success to the successful’ dynamic that is needed to become an academic superstar (Sherwin Rosen). Get access to research funds in writing and in your contract: an email or verbal promise often won’t survive a staff change or a cost reduction initiative.


2. Negotiate some personal discretionary funds. A secret of successful professoriate is that they negotiate a salary loading component during their initial contract negotiations that are personal discretionary funds. This enables conference travel independent of budget, staff or organisational changes.


3. Situate the conference within a long-term research program. University senior management have a ‘value for money’ philosophy. They are interested in grant and journal publication outputs rather than conference papers. You need to show in your conference travel application how the conference will build your international visibility (an MSALs criterion); how the papers will lead to high-level journal publications; and how you will build networks that could become collaborative teams or mentors for competitive grant applications. Be strategic about this: don’t just go to an international conference because of the exotic locale. You are instead reframing the ‘value for money’ philosophy as a strategic level investment in your research career, and with up-front, observable research outputs. Know what the economic value added of your research program is to your university. Link your research program to university areas of distinctive specialisation or strategic investment priority. Use the pre-panel discussions to find out what other national and international researchers and research teams are doing in your area.


4. Get an institutional champion. Explain to your boss or supervisor why the conference is important to your research program and overall career. Get their advice and help in dealing with the institutional paperwork for conference travel funding. Having an institutional champion means you won’t feel isolated and you have someone who can help to make the ‘research case’ to senior decision-makers if needed. Your professional association might also have a conference travel fund that you should apply for.


5. Develop healthy psychological barriers from your organisation’s problems and self-narrative. The rejection of conference travel funding might relate to other factors such as budget austerity, misaligned incentives (which can involve decision rights and moral hazard), or a change in research funding priorities. You need to differentiate yourself and your research program from the “struggle” narrative (Dr. Jose M. Ramos) that occurs in organisational reform initiatives. You likely did not cause institutional debt or the failure to invest in the necessary infrastructure and strategic portfolios — and you can be part of the change management initiative. Don’t take the funding rejection personally: practice mindfulness techniques and try to be psychologically resilient.


6. Write the papers anyway. If you don’t get conference travel funding then reframe this as a self-limit to work around. Think like a New Wave (1978-84) musician: if you decide to self-fund the conference travel then ensure your financial affairs and taxation records are in order. I liked Ben Eltham’s advice: “Let’s use this energy to write write a couple of shit-hot peer-reviewed papers.”