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La Nouvelle Revue du Travail
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1Nouvelle Revue du Travail number 16 is a special issue translating certain decisions made by the Revues en lutte collective that represents more than 150 social and human science journals. It comes out one month later than expected, because NRT has been participating in a social movement launched by academic journals in France, and because of the challenges of holding physical meetings during the pandemic. The issue is comprised of six articles covering a number of recent struggles and placing them in their historical context. The articles are all sourced from other journals covering other disciplines or scientific fields. They offer critical perspectives on socio-economic change in an attempt to elucidate contemporary social conflicts and/or people’s reactions to them. The purpose of the present editorial is to revisit an approach that is unprecedented in the way that it has been used to create a common stock comprised of dozens of scientific articles – the goal being to highlight the political will underpinning opposition to legislation currently in front of the French Parliament that would have a detrimental effect on the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge.

2To introduce this body of work – and to pay attention to our non-French readers’ needs as well – the present paper briefly summarises the foundations underlying worker struggles in France (particularly in late 2019 and early 2020) along with some more specific battles that the country’s academics have been fighting.

Opening act: Pensions

  • 1 A central argument for transitioning to this “universal regime” involved criticism of existing regi (...)

3The French government has been looking to undertake a major reform of the country’s retirement system, ostensibly motivated by a desire to equalise beneficiairies’ pension income. Up until now, retirement ages and pension calculation methods have varied significantly from one sector to another, resulting in each being organised into a “special regime”1. Public sector workers, with wages averaging 20 to 40% less than their private sector counterparts, have seen their pension income calculated on the basis of their final six months of employment, a more advantageous regime than the private sector, where the same calculation involves averaging the beneficiary’s 25 best remunerated years of employment.

  • 2 To understand how this movement could last so long, note the social and working conditions enumerat (...)
  • 3 The first time this concept would be applied was during the winter 1995 social movement, as noted i (...)

4To implement his election promises, the French President has tried to establish a unique system, one portrayed as fairer and more egalitarian – indeed, as pure common sense. The only problem is that as people realise that they will lose certain advantages in the new system without gaining any others in return, they have started to rebel. Workers for the SNCF national train network and RATP Paris transport system, for instance, ceased all economic and social activity for two long month2, an action largely supported by public sector workers, as well as numerically smaller cohorts from other sectors (lawyers, academics, researchers, etc.) who also hold the proposed reforms in contempt. The social movement that grew out of this widely shared rejection of the new system is viewed sympathetically by the general population (see article entitled “Five women’s remote battle against French pension reforms”), including private sector employees who might find it difficult to engage in long-term industrial action, explaining why the expression “strike by proxy” has been revived to characterise the phenomenon.3

  • 4 Emmanuel Macron’s manifesto had also asserted that the problem wasn’t financial in nature. “After m (...)

5Faced with the unpopularity of the proposed reform, the government tried a different way of justifying it, encouraging experts to develop new predictions about the outlook for funding the French retirement system. Where in early 2019 predictions had been that the accounts could be more or less balanced4, the new calculations foresaw enormous annual deficits of tens of billions of euros. Instead of calming people down, this new action was interpreted as revealing the real reason for the reform, being an attempt to extend people’s working lives, cut their pensions and implement an Anglo-American style funded pension system (see article on BlackRock’s advice to the French government). Public sector worker pensions, for instance, were to be cut by anywhere between 20 to 35% depending on the situation and sector. To offset these cuts, the government was promising (without further details as to when or how) a 20% wage hike for academics and teachers – who far from being fooled by the new offer continued to express discontent. Analysts, union strategists, economists and sociologists produced analysis showing how detrimental the new regime would be to anyone unable to demonstrate uninterrupted pension contributions. This would mainly hit women who had stopped working for a few years to raise children (so much for gender equality!) and amounted to 80% of all part-time employees; plus the rapidly rising number of workers operating under precarious employment conditions, including sub-contractors, temporary staff, digital piecework workers and more generally anyone classified as self-employed or part of the gig economy.

  • 5 This article, part of the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic, allows the Prime Minister to c (...)

6University academics and researchers — the driving forces behind academic journals— would be hit at two levels. Tenured public sector employee pensions were being cut even as people were required to retire later to get their full pension. Many academics working under the aegis of precarious contracts (and accounting for 35 to 45% of all hours worked) would see further cuts in their already meagre pensions. This may not have been clearly formulated but in the wake of the 2018-2020 Yellow Vests movement, a pensions reform that tried to depict itself as benefiting workers at the bottom of the social ladder was widely viewed as rank hypocrisy on the part of the French President and his government, with workers on minimum wages earning 100 (and up to 150) times less pension income than certain executives from the world of finance or business (see article “The drawbridge syndrome: a very special regime”). This was in stark contrast with the 1980s, when experts and enlightened business leaders come back from Japan raving about income scales ranging from one to seven. The phoniness of criticising the French pensions system in the name of social equality was evident wherever this was being proclaimed by parties silent about the astronomically imbalanced income a few taxpayers earn from their asset portfolios. All of which explains why the only way that the government found to overcome opposition was by invoking the authoritarian powers enumerated in article 49.3 of the French constitution —a singularity among Western European democracies5 - to force the National Assembly to adopt the retirement reform bill in March 2020 (see article “Science in danger”).

Second act: Reforming scientific research

7Alongside these pension reforms, the French government has also tried to implement the recommendations of a report (actually three interlinked reports) used to prepare the LPPR Multiannual Research Programme legislation that was supposed to be adopted in spring 2020. To put this in context, readers should note a surprisingly thunderous statement made at the time by the CEO of the CNRS research institute: “What we need is a law that is both ambitious and anti-egalitarian – yes, inegalitarian, virtuous and Darwinian, one supporting the scientists and the research teams, labs and institutions that perform best on an international level” (Les Echos, 26 November 2019). The idea here was that different research labs should respond to the paucity of resources by competing with one another. Some labs (and disciplines) would benefit from this situation whereas others would be allowed to wither away. The one priority would be to advance France’s position in the knowledge acquisition race, measured via the notorious Shanghai rankings.

8This multi-annual research planning approach did not even try to help France catch up with other countries’ R&D funding levels (representing 2.3% of French GDP whereas South Korea, for instance, invests more than twice as much). Instead, the goal was to reorient resources towards disciplines and research labs whose output can directly benefit the private sector. This would include a more centralised control of research efforts, with evaluation and resource allocation agencies being asked to play a greater role. The report on the impending legislation did express concern about low project funding levels in France compared to its international counterparts yet asked no questions about the effectiveness of the country’s funding procedures. Its authors noted how discouraging researchers found project proposals’ rising rejection rates, which hit a low of 11% in 2015. Hence the suggestion of targeting an application success rate of 25% if not 40%, which would have required the ANR’s annual budget to rise from € 0.5 billion to € 2 billion (vs. € 680 million currently). The Finance Ministry rejected the idea, however, offering an alternative that would see research labs’ operational subsidies cut even as they would be forced to cooperate more closely both with one another and with private business.

9This kind of project-based funding was supposed to go along with a radical transformation in the recruitment and career development of researchers and academics whose conditions of employment would be increasingly tied to their ability to go out and get contracts. This meant in turn that young researchers would receive open-ended science contracts linked to projects’ duration (i.e. fixed-term contracts) and/or post-doctorate contracts tantamount, according to pp. 7-8 of the report, “to a fixed term agreement helping young researchers get off to a better start in their public sector careers”. The existing system –where recruitment is the responsibility of joint candidate evaluation commissions (run through major research institutions like the CNRS or by the Ministry for Higher Education via its National Universities Councils) - would be replaced by a “tenure-track” system organised by academic institutions themselves. The contracts, called “conditional”, would last for five to seven years and not necessarily lead to tenure since the individuals concerned would have to first demonstrate their ability to get funding contracts.

10In short, increasing the precarity of academics and researchers’ employment conditions – and exacerbating competition between them (including between generations) – meshed with a centralisation of research controls, with research now being funded on a project basis. Researchers’ statutory instability would force them to accept rules over which they have less and less control. At the same time, tenured staff would see their income – augmented by new bonuses to bring them more in line with general wages in France — contingent on their achieving the outcomes that public and private sector customers would demand from them.

11The same report – more than 200 pages long – reserved one single page to social and human sciences. Even as it recognised that bibliometric evaluations do not necessarily correspond to the type of approach being implemented, the strong recommendation was that these sciences be combined with natural science in interdisciplinary projects. Note that whereas cooperation of this kind might be desirable in the absolute, it runs a risk of being instrumentalised (not to mention other problems that can arise where viewpoints diverge).

12The systemic and brutal nature of the transformation being mooted in France’s research and university worlds (academics’ lesser autonomy and increasingly precarious employment status) sparked a major movement opposing the Government’s attempted reforms.

Epilogue: Social and human science journals under threat

13Most social and human science journals in France — particularly more recent ones enabled by digital diffusion – only survive because of volunteer work done by researchers running the drafting committees or thanks to technical staff generally working under precarious employment conditions. Most editorial secretaries, copy-editors, proof-readers, layout and design specialists etc. are un-tenured and/or self-employed. The same precariousness applies to most staff at OpenEdition, a large structure that hosts several hundred journals (including NRT). The LPPR legislation ended the hope that their situation might be stabilised, as promised in the past. Having said that, the announcement also served to mobilise the individuals affected, sparking widespread opposition to the bill in spring 2020 as it was being debated in France’s National Assembly (see article following this editorial). Cutting non-contract research funding and worsening social and human science journal staff member’s highly precarious employment status threatens publications’ very existence. On top of this, administrative costs are also rising, a further burden on researchers and especially academics (tenured or not) who already find themselves with less time to write or evaluate articles, or to run drafting committees.

14The same pre-legislation report devoted a mere half page to “open science”, e.g. open access to scientific knowledge –a priority project for earlier French governments. This would lead to further under-funding of OpenEdition, the CNRS research institute’s political wing as well as the entity responsible for disseminating scientific studies in France and (even more importantly) the French language and culture across the world. Not only does OpenEdition lack the resources to fund its development plans (especially abroad) but it is starting to feel like France is abandoning this platform, diminishing the already limited attention paid to French language publications by the world’s leading academic journals – who, it should be noted, tend to be driven by motives quite different from French priorities, namely profitability (with the four big groups dominating global publishing declaring earnings of anywhere between € 300 million and € 2 billion).

15Lastly (and this is a question superseding the French language space alone), social and human science reviews are also being threatened by advocates of extreme open access. Digitisation has given readers worldwide free or inexpensive access to social and human science journals, a facility that has led in turn to the rise of open peer review protocols. Up until now, anonymous reviewers - chosen by drafting committees for their capabilities and to avoid any conflict of interest – have provided justified opinions about articles that were themselvres anonymised. With natural sciences there has been a confirmed tendency, however, towards the publication of non-anonymised evaluations on journal websites. The problem is that the publication process is different here than with social and human sciences, with articles tending to be debated openly before their ultimate publication.

  • 6 La structure des révolutions scientifiques, Flammarion, 1972 [1962].

16The first threat relates to a tendency towards uniform thinking within the social and human science space, embodied in the growing domination of very few schools of thought. The result is that articles lying outside of the norm tend to be greeted with negative opinions and evaluations, to the extent sometimes that they get crushed under the weight of scientific new speak (see Thomas Kuhn6). This is because natual sciences work differently: the objects of study tend to be circumscribed; and methods are relatively widely shared. The end result is that debates about findings (and the articles in which these debates are presented) also tend to be more structured. Importing an open peer review model into social and human sciences ignores the differences and back stories that constructed each of these disciplines. In other words, this model – likely causing uniformity in thinking – undermines the diversity and multiplicity of social and human science journals, who would therefore lose their raison d’être.

17The second threat relates to the disappearance of academic journals themselves7, with scientific debates today often occurring on specialist platforms. This turns them into a kind of “scientific social network” where discussions can be trivialised due to the participation of Internet users who may lack any scientific background. Note that these platforms are often free and/or owned by major international editors. The existence of a diverse array of social and human science journals operating in the same field – or combining several fields – appears today as an irreplaceable source of wealth, with journals’ friendly rivalry generating further knowledge in turn. That being the case, the death of academic journals, or their lesser visibility in an ocean of information, can only exacerbate an ongoing trend towards thought normalisation.

18The third threat is linguistic in nature, given the risk that English may become the only language in which ideas are traded. On top of this, there is the question of whether scientific culture is best envisioned as an original way of asking questions and constructing concepts in different countries and languages worldwide. Everyone who has worked on international research projects knows how long it can take to get social and human science researchers from different cultures to agree, whether this relates to concepts, their use or the scientific approach itself. Articles are themselves structured quite differently in the English vs. French-language worlds. Once again, the new model would lead to increasingly uniform thinking, an outcome diametrically opposed to the essential principles of scientific research. Once again, the differences with natural sciences are significant. Aligning social and human science practices with natural sciences erodes the former’s specificity – especially in terms of their critical dimensions.

19Lastly and above and beyond the way in which scientific debate is structured, there are questions about the future of jobs and indeed of the people working for social and human science journals – or even for OpenEdition – in a brave new world where automated platforms are destined to replace the multitude of academic journals. The fear is that politicians will view this new way of rationalising intellectual output as a new means for saving money.

  • 8 c.f. European Commission, Call for tenders RTD/2019/OP/006/ Open Research Europe – The European Com (...)

20This threat is particularly salient in light of the tender bid that the European Commission organised in July 2019 seeking the development of a “European Commission Open Research Publishing Platform”8. The project will necessarily take a long time to conclude, meaning that its effects would only be felt over the long run. But it is important that academics participate in relevant discussions, however complex and technical they might be, to avoid everything being controlled by European experts and/or decision-makers.

21****

22There is only one article in this special issue that looks at working and living conditions under a pandemic (“Covid-19, war and poor neighbourhoods”) since the event is too recent for much more to be said at this stage. Several studies are underway, relating in particular to tele-working both during the health crisis and afterwards. A whole slew of articles will also be published on the pandemic’s social effects over the coming months, including interpretations of why “things will be unlike they were before”. La Nouvelle Revue du Travail will publish the most innovative of these articles.

23Lastly, readers may wish to note that all articles in the current issue are signed Camille Noûs from the Cogitamus research lab. This reflects a collective decision made by the Revues en lutte movement in which La Nouvelle Revue du Travail participates. Camille Noûs is a collective denomination with a non-gendered first name and collective surname, created to affirm the collaborative and open-ended character of knowledge creation and dissemination, placed under the control of the academic community. Noûs refers to the first-person plural in French as well as a concept of rationality inherited from ancient Greek philosophy. The Cogitamus research lab is a delocalised institute convening scientists from all kinds of disciplinary horizons and including all nationalites. Camille Noûs is proud to be a part of this.

24Signing dozens of articles in various academic journals with a single generic name reflects our collective rejection of the way bibliometry is being used nowadays to evaluate researchers and research labs. The goal here is to restrict the role that quantitative methods play in these evaluations and replace them with more qualitative parameters. Lastly, the decision to sign all articles in the name of a single author working out of a single research lab reflects a consensus decision to reject research lab or university rankings due to their detrimental effect on the allocation of human and financial resources.

25Translated by Alan Sitkin

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Notes

1 A central argument for transitioning to this “universal regime” involved criticism of existing regimes’ multiplicity and complexity. This was wrong, however: the number of special regimes was exaggerated; and the fact they applied to only 20% of all workers was ignored. C.f. https://www.liberation.fr/checknews/2019/09/24/combien-y-a-t-il-en-france-de-regimes-speciaux-de-retraites-et-combien-de-beneficiaires_1753059

2 To understand how this movement could last so long, note the social and working conditions enumerated in “Obfuscating strenuous work; gender mixes and relationships” plus the interview with Bernard Thibault, former General Secretary for the CGT labour union.

3 The first time this concept would be applied was during the winter 1995 social movement, as noted in the interview with Bernard Thibault.

4 Emmanuel Macron’s manifesto had also asserted that the problem wasn’t financial in nature. “After more than 20 years of successive reforms, the problem with pensions is not financial. The Pensions Orientation Council, the leading analyst in this field, has shown that for the first time in decades, people can be relatively sanguine about the sector’s financial situation”. https://en-marche.fr/emmanuel-macron/le-programme/retraites

5 This article, part of the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic, allows the Prime Minister to call a vote of confidence to get a bill passed without requiring a full vote of the National Assembly. In essence, it is tantamount to a law being adopted without debate.

6 La structure des révolutions scientifiques, Flammarion, 1972 [1962].

7 c.f. Pierre Carl Langlais (particularly the conclusion) : https://www.eprist.fr/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/EPRIST_I-IST_Note-Synthese_Evaluation-ouverte_Mars2020.pdf

8 c.f. European Commission, Call for tenders RTD/2019/OP/006/ Open Research Europe – The European Commission Open Research Publishing Platform. Open procedure

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La Nouvelle Revue du Travail , « Editorial (English) »La nouvelle revue du travail [En ligne], 16 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 mai 2020, consulté le 16 juillet 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/nrt/6872

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