Earlier this month, news broke about a censorship battle between publishers at Taylor & Francis and the editors of a Taylor & Francis journal, Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation. This journal focuses on innovation, and has an editorial board that is “particularly attracted to papers that challenge prevailing views.” Yet, when a paper dealing with some controversies in academic and scientific publishing was scheduled to be published in September 2013, it was delayed by Taylor & Francis and, after much fuss, finally published late May 2014.
This standoff between the editors of the journal and executives at Taylor & Francis included the editorial board threatening to resign over the controversy. Last week, the controversy ended when Taylor & Francis apologized, leading the editorial board to withdraw their threats of resignation.
The paper in question was a “proposition paper,” which is a rubric not clearly described on the journal’s site that I could see. I assume it’s this journal’s version of an editorial or commentary paper. It was written by four academics from the University of Leicester, who are critical of publisher profits and the Finch report’s failure to rein these in. It gets its title — “Publisher, be damned! From price gouging to the open road” — partially using a quote from The Wind in the Willows, although I do not recall Toad ever saying “Publisher, be damned!” (I find it a bit amusing that these four academics quoted Toad, who is described in Wikipedia as “rich, jovial, friendly and kind-hearted, but aimless and conceited; he regularly becomes obsessed with current fads, only to abandon them as quickly as he took them up.”)
There are two parts to this controversy in my mind — the role of the publisher in stifling the publication of the paper, and the contents of the paper itself.
As to the role of the publisher in stifling the publication of the paper — Taylor & Francis never should have interfered. It’s bizarre that they would have delayed publication, badgered editors, and upon publication left a superfluous and prominent disclaimer on the paper.
What Taylor & Francis did strikes me as counterproductive in the extreme, and it did indeed backfire. Not only did their actions draw attention to a paper that likely would never have generated much interest or attention on its own, but Taylor & Francis executives acted as if they were afraid of this paper, which only gives the many weak points in the essay some unjustified credence while making publishers, by extension, look like insensitive and paranoid ogres.
What’s doubly bizarre is that Taylor & Francis executives apparently interfered with both the proposition paper and with an invited rebuttal from a professor of publishing at another university, who called the paper “contentious and seriously flawed.” According to a report in Times Higher Education:
. . . he said even more severe criticisms of the proposition paper had been edited out of his response.
Basically, this is unacceptable publishing conduct, and Taylor & Francis executives should be duly ashamed and reprimanded. Editorial meddling is beyond the pale. Full stop. But to also create an unnecessary controversy that draws attention to a paper critical of publishers while engaging in actions that deserve widespread criticism shows a real lack of judgment.
The publishing portion of the story ends with David Green, Global Journals Publishing Director at Taylor & Francis, sharing a letter with Times Higher Education, in which he states:
. . .in our concern to avoid legal and copyright problems, we were overzealous in the changes we sought in the content of the journal’s debate. Publication of the issues was delayed and we failed to communicate clearly with the editors. We apologise for these failings. We accept that there must be a crucial divide between the roles of the academic publisher and the editor, and that this must be maintained. We look forward to re-establishing our previous amicable working relationship with the editors of Prometheus.
As to the article itself, I agree with its invited critic that it is “contentious and seriously flawed,” as the authors trot out some of the canards open access (OA) advocates once relied upon to justify their views and denigrate publishers. I won’t spend much time on them, because doing so would only increase awareness of this otherwise-forgettable paper:
- The authors draw a clear distinction between commercial publishers and non-profit societies, when in fact the two often work together to mutual advantage
- They claim academics must “take back” publishing, even though a vast majority of scholarly publishing is run by academics presently
- The paper makes an absolute criticism of the “Big Deal” or price bundling, without acknowledging that in many cases this helps to prop up less-viable journals, often to the benefit of smaller non-profit societies, and without acknowledging that break-away journals started by academics in defiance of traditional publishers often themselves engage in this practice — because it works
- The authors do not include growth in scientific outputs (i.e., research reports) as a way to explain the growth of related publishing endeavors
- The authors use data from 10-15 years ago, much of which has changed significantly or has been refuted
- Lacking data, the authors substitute anecdotes to bolster their unwavering views
- The authors draw the tired and discredited analogy between STM publishing and the music industry, claiming publishers only need to stop resisting change for a new world to blossom, just as it did for the music industry
- Please, people, stop this comparison — most journals do not make more money by selling more copies; the barriers to entry for a scholarly paper are much higher than for a hit song; more people consume popular music than scholarly journals; there are no concerts in scholarly publishing; we do not have talent competitions that are profitably televised; we cannot license our papers to become the soundtracks of advertisements and television shows and movies; and so forth. There is simply no meaningful parallel between the two economies.
It was difficult to generate any interest in blogging about this as events were unfolding, because the story was so tendentious and obvious. Now that it’s apparently concluded, this is what we’re left with — a paper that is best ignored, a publisher who committed an egregious set of misguided intrusions into editorial matters, and a lesson about how doing nothing is sometimes the wisest course of action.