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Resignations threat over Taylor & Francis ‘censorship’

Editorial board of journal could quit after debate on publishing suffers delay

Man holding hand over mouth of statue

Source: Alamy

Silence! Publication delays and unexplained editing have ‘destroyed trust’ between the journal editors and Taylor & Francis

A journal’s editorial board has been left on the brink of resignation after an eight-month standoff with its publisher Taylor & Francis over the publication of a debate on academic publishing and the profits made by major firms.

The debate, in the journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation, was due to appear last September, but was delayed by Taylor & Francis and published only at the end of last month.

Its “proposition” paper, “Publisher, be damned! from price gouging to the open road”, by four academics from the University of Leicester’s School of Management, criticises the large profits made by commercial publishers on the back of academics’ labours, and the failure of the Finch report on open access to address them.

The paper compares academic publishing with the music industry, which, it says, has “booming” sales after lowering prices in the face of widespread piracy. It suggests that “doing nothing to prevent the trading of electronic copies of our academic work” could also force prices down in publishing.

The journal’s general editor, Stuart Macdonald, a visiting professor of economics at Aalto University in Finland, said the non-appearance of the journal in September was followed, two months later, by a letter from a senior manager at Taylor & Francis demanding that more than half of the proposition article be cut.

“They never said why. They just said they didn’t want this debate to take place,” Professor Macdonald said. “They also said I should have got their approval before inviting debate papers, but I have never done that before and it seems quite improper.”

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, prompting him to withhold subsequent editions of the journal for fear they would be published in preference. The result was a “huge backlog” of papers waiting to be published.

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”.

He said the episode was illustrative of the “enormous sensitivity” surrounding publishers’ profits. He had been unable to persuade a single publisher to respond to the proposition paper, managing to elicit a riposte only from former publisher Iain Stevenson, professor of publishing at University College London.

Professor Stevenson dismisses the article as “contentious and seriously flawed” but he 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.

Professor Macdonald said the episode had destroyed trust between the publisher and the editors, who were all considering their positions. One option was to resign and set up a rival journal. “It is a mess and I just don’t see why the mess was necessary,” he said.

In a statement, Taylor & Francis confirms that it “worked with” the editors “and, through them, the authors, to agree a version of the…articles…We have subsequently published the debate on an open access basis, at no cost to the authors, to ensure all readers can access [it] and come to their own view.”

Professor Stevenson said that if the editors resigned, “they will find that ‘publishing without publishers’ is not as easy or as trouble-free as they fondly imagine”.

But Steffen Böhm, director of the Essex Sustainability Institute at the University of Essex and co-author of one of the response articles, said the episode lent further strength to his call for academics to take publishing back in-house.

“This is the first time I have seen a publisher directly interfere with the autonomous work of academics and it is a very serious breach of the relationship,” he said. “We can only keep our freedom to publish what we like if we control the publishing process.”

Simon Lilley, head of Leicester’s School of Management and co-author of the proposition paper, said if universities launched their own branded journals, the cost of open access publishing could drop by two-thirds.

“Taylor & Francis’ ham-fisted attempt at censorship gives some indication of the level of fear that must be running through the industry at the moment,” he added.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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Readers' comments (9)

  • Here is the paper in question http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08109028.2014.891710 also at http://figshare.com/articles/Publisher_be_damned_From_price_gouging_to_the_open_road/1046703

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  • We the the academic workers of the world have been immiserated by the stranglehold of the publishing houses. In fact it might be said: never in the history of literary publication has so much been owed by so few to so many !

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  • If you are interested in another example of Taylor and Francis censorship, in a different journal, see -

    http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/2014/04/09/academic-freedoms-and-the-university-ltd/

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  • Grant Denkinson

    We've now put the paper in our Open Access Repository:

    Publisher, be damned! From price gouging to the open road http://hdl.handle.net/2381/28892

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  • mgpiety

    Commercial publishing, and that includes most large academic presses (see: http://pietyonkierkegaard.com/2012/08/23/kirmmses-cover-up/ ) has gotten completely out of hand. Hardly any concern exists for the quality of material published and editing services have been slashed to a bare minimum. The only criterion that seems to matter anymore is whether a book will make money for the publisher. There is a good article on this in the most recent print edition of the political journal CounterPunch.

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  • The situation is unfortunate indeed. There are many dynamics in journal publishing that have not received much social scientific research. In contrast, in the natural sciences and in medical research there is extensive discussion about publishing where academics (sometimes in tandem with funding agencies) are getting involved in setting-up more open and transparent journals (see eLife, Faculty 1000, and Copernicus suite of journals).

    Have a look at a first preprint from my doctoral research on journal peer review and the shaping of peer review from inquisition, to censorship, to journal peer review: http://www.ruor.uottawa.ca/en/handle/10393/31161

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  • The blind expansion of grant-supported research and lab facilities was noted by Pres. DD Eisenhower in his 1960 Farewell Address. This debate started after universities decided to limit library spending in the 1970s, thus creating a grave imbalance between input and output. University managers' prolific blame-propaganda, of which this article is an example, dominates the literature. The present comparison of science publishing to the music industry strikes me as plain silly. At one point they tried to sully the non-profit tax status of the American Chemical Society.

    Tear the wool from your eyes! The resulting increases in numbers of pages printed -- and skyrocketing prices -- should be addressed to university managers, not the publishers.

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  • Perhaps the dynamics are a bit more complex than reduced library budgets... Non-elastic market, such as those found in journal publishing, are worth looking into... You might be interested in work by Jean-Claude Guédon. There is also research into how some journals are publishing fewer pages than before... in spite of a rise in submissions and active academics. I also recently looked into the shaping of journal peer review, here is a preprint: 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/10393/31238

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  • I offer two new preprints, unabridged socio-historical pieces that can (perhaps) contribute to framing the debate on journal publishing dynamics, starting in the twelfth century:

    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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