June 9, 2014

Report that criticizes major academic publishers is censored, and you’ll never guess by who


It's too damn hot. (Prometheus bringing the gift of fire to humankind. Image from Wikipedia.)

It’s too damn hot. (Prometheus bringing the gift of fire to humankind. Image from Wikipedia.)

Taylor & Francis, a major academic publisher, is facing controversy over their censorship of a series of papers on academic publishing that appeared in the journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation. A June 5 article by Paul Jump on the Times Higher Education site details the story. It is not a pretty story.

It began with a “proposition” paper by four academics from the University of Leicester’s School of Management, David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot, Simon Lilley, and Kenneth Weir. The paper, “Publisher, be damned! From price gouging to the open road,” analyzed the current state of academic publishing, with an understandably critical eye. This paper was due to appear in the September issue of Prometheus, along with responses. Prometheus is published by Taylor & Francis, and in its self-description on Taylor & Francis’s website, it states that Prometheus publishes critical papers, those that express—and justify—opinions on innovation issues. We are particularly attracted to papers that challenge prevailing views. We encourage debate.”

But the journal’s editor, Stuart Macdonald, discovered earlier this year that there are certain debates Taylor & Francis just does not want to have. First, the issue was delayed without any explanation, then a senior manager sent Macdonald a letter demanding that half the proposition paper be axed before publication could go forward. From that high point, things descended further:

He said matters came to a head at a “very unpleasant” meeting in January, when the journal’s editorial board threatened to resign en masse unless Taylor & Francis backed down.

The publisher eventually did so, but insisted on removing all publishers’ names from both the proposition article and the four responses. Professor Macdonald reluctantly agreed, but Taylor & Francis still did not publish the debate… He was also upset that, when the edition was finally published, Taylor & Francis unilaterally added a long disclaimer to each article warning that “the accuracy of the content should not be relied upon.”

The removal of publishers’ names from the final version of the paper, which is available in its entirety here, makes for a number of awkward constructions that mostly just draw attention to themselves, like “One publishing giant is currently boycotted by academics, and not for the first time.” No points for guessing who that “one” is.

Even the response paper that criticizes “Publisher, be damned!” was subjected to this hugger-muggery. Iain Stevenson’s “Academic publishing riposte: Do not shoot the messenger” (available here) mentions no major publisher by name and was, according to Jump’s article, also edited with a mysteriously heavy hand: “he [Stevenson] said even more severe criticisms of the proposition paper had been edited out of his response. Professor Macdonald said this was done by Taylor & Francis, but he did not know why.”

Should “one” be a publisher trying to justify one’s existence in a turbulent new world—as all publishers must do—directly violating principles of academic freedom and debate in a journal devoted to innovation would seem to be shooting oneself right in the foot. I look at it as an editor: if I wanted to convince an author that they needed an editor and that I was the right person for the job, I would not proceed by changing all the names in the book and moving the action from 18th-century France to the year 2045 on Mars.

Obviously this is a flippant comparison, but there’s a less flippant truth (I hope) behind it, which is that the aims and values of big academic publishers are increasingly not the same as those of academics. Most publishers are more subtle about papering this over than Taylor & Francis have been in this case, whose only outcome seems to have been bad publicity. As Macdonald puts it, “It is a mess and I just don’t see why the mess was necessary.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.