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.

wind in the willows illustration
Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger from Wind in the Willows

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.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


24 Thoughts on "Hit the Road — How a Forgettable Paper and a Misguided Publisher Created an Unnecessary Controversy"

For the last several years, I have been working with students to get their best papers published with my being the second author for my editing and taking care of the submission process. In the fall 2013 semester, one of my most academically gifted students ever wrote a paper on open access to compare its status today with the original goals of the movement . While not as controversial as the paper described above, we both decided not to send the paper to a journal whose publisher’s embargo period was criticized in the paper. We did so even though the comment was an easily defended factual matter.

While this decision may not have been the bravest course, another reputable journal accepted the paper, which will appear shortly. I didn’t see any reason to get into a hassle with a publisher whose journals I’ve frequently published in.

I wonder how many authors make similar decisions.

Does anyone have a copy of the actual apology? The Times Higher Education article that Kent links says “its publisher publicly apologised” which indicates that they made a public apology, but I’ve not been able to find the actual apology yet — only the brief except that Kent quotes.

Kent, you do not discuss the legal issues which set off this flap. My understanding is that the original paper said some potentially libelous things about specific publishers. Apparently the T&F lawyers objected so T&F was caught between the lawyers and the editors. The compromise took out the specific names and added a disclaimer. The second paper may have suffered the same fate, if its criticism of the first paper’s authors was too personal and harsh. This all seems quite reasonable to me.

If legal issues like libel and slander were indeed the legitimate source of concern, then it should have been relatively easy and painless for the publishers and editors to align around these. However, with the story involving a public falling out, threats of editorial resignations, a public apology from the publisher, and so forth, something was clearly mishandled.

Editors often consult with publishers about things like libel, slander, and defamation, and most of these things are resolved painlessly. As you note, removing specific accusations and names was all it took to move the paper forward. There is no need for a special disclaimer, etc. Usually, papers are edited to avoid libelous statements, and that’s proper, with most editors being fully in favor of avoiding such things.

Also, your portrayal as there being three unassociated parties here — the lawyers, the publisher, and the editors — and the publisher being caught “between” the lawyers and the editors, isn’t accurate. The lawyers involved were clearly T&F lawyers, so were part of the publisher’s infrastructure. The publisher was not caught “between” any two parties, but seems to have mishandled a routine play — fumbling, bumbling, and stumbling its way into the public eye.

As the headline says, the controversy was unnecessary. As you say, this was probably all reasonable at its base. How it came to be a public spectacle is really the question.

I agree it was mishandled, but this kind of confusion is fairly common. T&F is a big company so there are large administrative distances to be covered as a flap bubbles up, with lots of people in many layers and departments along the way. It is an interesting phenomenon in its own right, one I have studied and call the “issue storm.” Ironically the strong separation between publisher and editors may have contributed to the way things got out of hand.

Kent, I was unaware that comparisons between the music industry and academic publishing have become “tired and discredited.” Discredited by whom? I’ve been looking for a scholarly economic comparison between the two industries but have been unable to find one. Can you cite some references to back this up? The issues you list above are accurate and do define clear differences between the industries. On the other side of the coin, a huge difference is that the content for academic journals are provided for free: there is no need to pay the authors. In contrast, the music industry requires paying the artists, studio time, backup singers and musicians, sound and recording engineers, mastering technicians, royalties for those who wrote the music and lyrics, advertising costs, disk pressing costs, etc. which are usually born by the music publishers or the artists themselves. These costs must be paid whether the song sells millions of copies or only a few. There are also numerous ways to obtain music content (e.g. purchase CD, download music, get CD from public library, watch YouTube video) whereas scholarly journal content can generally be obtained directly from the journals themselves (not everyone lives near a readily accessible academic library, which may or may not carry a particular journal title). Both industries can take advantage of the “long tail” to sell access to content that only a few people each year may want to obtain. Many scientists I have spoken to would love to purchase scholarly content on a “per article” basis, since many might want to read only a single article or two in a journal issue containing 30 articles. The current rate for purchasing single articles is generally around $30-$35 and is unaffordable to many researchers, such as those at small biotech companies who have a very limited budget for accessing the literature. More details on how a new model for scholarly publishing based on a melding of an iTunes like interface with PubMed might work can be found on my iPubSci website (www.ipubsci.com), for those who are interested.

“a huge difference is that the content for academic journals are provided for free: there is no need to pay the authors. In contrast, the music industry requires paying the artists, studio time, backup singers and musicians, sound and recording engineers, mastering technicians, royalties for those who wrote the music and lyrics, advertising costs, disk pressing costs, etc. which are usually born by the music publishers or the artists themselves. These costs must be paid whether the song sells millions of copies or only a few.”

Whereas the copy-editing, design and layout, web hosting, server maintenance, marketing and selling of academic content doesn’t cost a penny, right??

The ecology you’re describing here is the difference between Dark Side of The Moon and a High Street busker banging out Money on an out-of-tune guitar.

Of course there are costs associated with publishing. The question is: how do the costs actually compare? I don’t know the answer to that question, and would love to have someone point both of us to a creditable economic study that addresses the issue. Until then, it’s simply a “does to, does not” argument. But this should not allow the outright dismissal of a novel idea meeting an unmet need simply to maintain the status quo.

Your comment only shows why these comparisons don’t work. You basically are agreeing with me (either by agreeing outright or citing specific differences I didn’t drag out), and then you note that you’re promoting your own interest in such false parallels. The music economy and the scholarly economy are very different. You’ve only served to prove the point.

I do agree that there are differences between the models. Where we differ is on the idea that the music based publishing model that I describe can’t succeed simply because there are differences. The current model certainly does not serve all people well, which is why it is ripe for disruption. I think it’s fine to let people make up their own minds as to the merits of the various approaches. The iPubSci website simply lays out the groundwork for why a new model is needed (in short, journal unaffordability) and presents a picture of how the new model might work. What would convince me to abandon this idea is not having it repeatedly said that such an idea is “tired and discredited”, but actually backing this up with some economic studies that show why it wouldn’t work. I can’t find them but would be happy to have Scholarly Kitchen readers or editors point one or more of these out. Otherwise, it seems that you are simply defending the status quo.

This notion is “tired” because it’s trotted out again and again to no effect, and “discredited” because if it were capable of replacing the current model, it would have already.

You’re not saying anything new. People can make up their own minds, and most people who know how a) the music industry works and b) how scholarly publishing works don’t pursue this futile approach very far, if at all.

There is no resistance here to trying new ways of doing things. In fact, scholarly publishing has been one of the most adroit industries at moving from business model to business model — advertising, licensing, subscription, APC, institutional sales, direct sales, article rentals, you name it. There is no status quo, really. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a meaningful site license business model. Ten years ago, there wasn’t a meaningful APC model. Ten years from now, there may not be a meaningful print advertising market. Things change, and we change with them.

However, your notion is irrelevant. The music business model depends on a massive consumer market and a blockbuster model, neither of which exists in scholarly publishing.

You are welcome to try it.

It’s good to have your definitions in hand of what “tired” and “discredited” mean. Sometimes the wheels of change move quickly, other times slowly. I don’t accept your idea that if something isn’t immediately adopted than it has been “discredited”. I’m sorry that you were unable to provide a single citation for an economic study backing up what you are saying, as I would have been really interested in reading it. There are plenty of music companies that succeeded in producing artists with modest sales to niche markets; no blockbusters required. We can both agree that there are differences in the models and the economics. Time will tell if a “buy a single article at a time” model will some day supplant journals as they now stand now. It won’t be today, tomorrow, next month, or this year. Some ideas take time to percolate, spread, and grow. Any market that has large numbers of customers that are not satisfied with the current offerings are ripe for disruption, and scholarly publishing fits the bill. Ask Hilton about Air BNB, taxi companies about Uber and Lyft, 4 year brick and mortar universities about Udacity and the University of Phoenix.

You are seeking disruption for disruption’s sake. You might contemplate instead how the subscription model is disrupting the iTunes model.

And can you produce a single economic study showing why candy canes aren’t good as soap? If not, then certainly you can’t say the idea is discredited. At least, that seems to be one part of your argument.

It’s not disruption for disruption’s sake. It’s disruption because not all of the marketplace is being well served by existing models. This is also true for hotel rooms, taxis, and university educations, as I pointed out above. I’m a scientist, and I like things like data and evidence to back up what I’m saying. I can’t prove my model will work, because it hasn’t been tried in the marketplace and I don’t have modeling data showing it to be highly viable. By the same token, you can hardly claim that the idea is discredited just because it has not yet been adopted and widely implemented. You’re welcome to call is unlikely or highly improbable, but I suggest you save “discredited” for issues where you have something besides a hunch to back your arguments.

Years ago it was widely understood that ulcers were caused by stress. Then some crazy Aussies suggested that they were, in fact, caused by bacterial infections. What a silly idea! One of them infected himself with the suspected strain of bacteria and showed it caused an ulcer, and then he cured himself by taking antibiotics. We now know that ulcers are, in fact, caused by bacteria and that antibiotics are the appropriate treatment. The data showed the new viewpoint was correct. As neither of us has the data to support either side, we can just agree to disagree and we will see how it all sorts out in the end.

Note that the subscription model that is disrupting iTunes is also based on being able to access single songs, not entire albums or catalogs. One is buy, the other is rent. As long as music can be listened to again and again for the same cost, renting it is a viable option. I’m not proposing a rental model, which is already being tried in scholarly publishing and which I hear is failing. Scientists want to own the papers that they read so they can refer to them again and again (and without paying for each time).

I would suspect that the lack of traction gained by DeepDyve is indicative of the market for individual article purchases.

As the ‘professor of publishing at another university’ who provided the response to the original proposition paper, I should perhaps clarify that the editing of my paper was mainly the excision of specific names of publishers (presumably on legal advice although nothing I said about named publishers was remotely libelous, quite the reverse) and a reference to the original authors’ home institution, where I used to run the University Press. The main point of my response was unchanged which was that the proposition paper lacked data, ignored key literature, was outdated and out of touch and clearly fuelled by prejudice and irrational anti-publisher rhetoric. I stand by this.

It does seem as if the issues around this article have escalated. I take the point about the publishers being caught by the lawyers. My society has published with Routledge and pervious incarnations for twenty years – all it with David Green. We’ve dealt with a number of difficult issues on our suite of journals and the publishers have always been quick to respond, generous with their time and purchase of legal advice and together we’ve found solutions to all the problems. Handling complexity requires give and take in publishing as it does in all parts of life.

Thank you for this interesting post-analysis of the Prometheus controversy. Fundamentally, the relation of accountability to journal publishers/owners for editors is part and parcel of journal peer review and therefore the dynamics observed are not surprising according to my research… Following are a few preprints from my research on journal peer review:

http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31238 – Gaudet, J. 2014. All that glitters is not gold: The shaping of contemporary journal peer review at scientific and medical journals. uO Research. Pp. 1-23.

http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31161 – : Gaudet, J. 2014. Investigating journal peer review as scientific object of study. uO Research. Pp. 1-11.

http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31198 – Gaudet, J. 2014. How pre-publication journal peer review (re)produces ignorance at scientific and medical journals: a case study. uO Research.
Pp. 1-67.

Below are a few historical pieces that go into more detail on proposed ‘beginnings’ of journal peer review, unabridged versions of the ‘Investigating journal peer review as scientific object of study’ piece.

http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31319 – Gaudet, J. 2014. Investigating journal peer review as scientific object of study: unabridged version – Part I. uO Research. Pp. 1-24.

http://hdl.handle.net/10393/31320 – Gaudet, J. 2014. Investigating journal peer review as scientific object of study: unabridged version – Part II. uO Research. Pp. 1-20.

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