You may remember the debates that were sparked by a piece entitled ‚What are we to do with feral publishers?’ in the UK. This debate has now continued with a further position piece by the Leicester academics David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot, Simon Lilley and Kenneth Weir written for the journal Prometheus entitled ‘Publishers, be damned! From price gouging to the open road’. The debate, consisting of the proposition piece and responses, including one written by myself, Steffen Böhm and Chris Land, is now published and available in open access. However, its story is rather remarkable, as is the outcome.
As a recent article in the Times Higher Education recounts, the piece was subject to a serious and extremely worrying attempt of censorship by the publisher Taylor & Francis (T&F). It was only after the editorial board of Prometheus led by Stuart Macdonald threatened to collectively resign that T&F grudgingly agreed to publish the piece with responses – more than half a year late. What makes this case so extraordinary is that as far as I know it is the first open attempt by a publisher to censor the debate on open access. One of the authors has published the original version of the article with highlighting of those passages the publisher wanted to censor on Academia.edu for us to get a sense of how serious the attempted (and as the editor writes, unexplained) censorship was.
You may be quite surprised that T&F is scared of quotes by The Clash as much as by the quite carefully researched and thoroughly referenced argument of the authors concerning both the pricing models of publishers producing exorbitant profits and the tax avoidance schemes designed to safeguard those profits. Of course T&F produced no argument or even evidence against the case made in the proposition piece. It is equally telling that no publisher agreed to respond to the piece. Only one ex-publisher, Ian Stevenson, agreed to respond, arguing that the ‘contentious and seriously-flawed’ essay is ‘highly selective, quoting extensively well-known critics of commercial academic publishing, and ignoring a very wide contrary literature’. Yet how does Stevenson back up his own claims in defence of publishers? With three references to his own work. (Mind you, apparently his response was censored as well, but we don’t know what was cut.)
Even if censorship was avoided here thanks to some brave editors (thank you!), the case demonstrates the absurdities of contemporary academic publishing. Some commercial publishers feel threatened by the arguments expressed in such debates, and use their crude commercial powers to protect themselves and each other (the main target of the proposition piece was not T&F or Informa, but Elsevier), while others encourage such debates and actively participate in them, as e.g. Sage did by publishing the earlier debate in Organization and by contributing to the ensuing debate. While it is laudable that some publishers do not shirk the debate, the structural absurdity remains that publishers are in a position to censor debate on their own role in the publishing system. Luckily much of that debate does not rely on commercial outlets but can take place elsewhere.
In this case at least two further absurdities remain. The first concerns the way in which the debate is now made available by T&F. It is published in open access, presumably to now open up the debate T&F tried to censor and suppress in the first place. Yet the proposition piece and responses are all marked by an extended disclaimer including this sentence: ‘The accuracy of the article should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information.’ Where T&F does not succeed at censorship, it clearly tries to undermine existing academic standards of quality negotiated and guaranteed by editorship, peer review and citation, amongst other things. Whatever one may think of such processes (and I would be willing to put up a defence of many of their features), it is completely absurd that a publisher a) takes the right to question these when the whole publishing system relies on clear boundaries between publishing and editorial work; and b) undermines them while their own business relies on them as differentiating factor to e.g. vanity publishing or blogging (which can of course be equally or even more seriously scholarly).
A further absurdity concerns how the articles now feed into the metrics and evaluation of journal publishing. During the last week of May 2014, the proposition piece by Harvie et al. made the list of the ‘top five Taylor & Franics Online articles (recorded by Altmetric)’, demonstrating that T&F can even use such (in their view) inaccurate, unreliable and censorship-worthy pieces of garbage for its own marketing purposes. While there is much to be said for publishers being indifferent to content (they should leave that concern to academics), it is absurd that a commercial operation including its marketing algorithms is oblivious to what it spurns out and profits from. It once again demonstrates that while in the current system of commercial academic publishing we can hope for benevolent publishers, what we really need is to take charge of publishing ourselves to avoid any potential abuses of power by publishers. Where that does not mean self- or society-publishing, it should at least mean different contracts with publishers that clearly delineate boundaries between publishing and editorial work and a more concise definition of publishers as service providers, not overlords of academic publishing.