Do not publish - and be damned

March 1, 1996

The Syndics of Cambridge University Press have come under fire for not accepting a book in the field of social anthropology which studies the stresses of nation-building in modern Greece. The decision was hard since academic support for the book was strong; but the subject matter touches a raw nerve in contemporary politics, both inside and outside Greece, and the book could not be considered solely as a contribution to scholarly debate: it is both politicised and politicising.

Besides academic reports we had before us clear advice from diverse sources that, if we were to publish, the safety of Cambridge staff in Greece (and not just those employed by the press) would be put at risk. The Syndics, therefore, were called on to balance conflicting values: should we publish, knowing that we would be exposing innocent people to danger, or should we decline and make every effort to help secure publication by another press which would not be faced with a similar dilemma? We decided that the latter was the most responsible course of action.

Some of our critics have argued that, in coming to our decision, we should have been guided entirely by questions of academic merit and that by allowing other considerations to weigh with us we have compromised academic freedom and given comfort to those who wish to restrict free speech. A vigorous campaign is afoot to heap opprobrium on the press, and resolutions condemning us are surfing the Internet or being drafted for submission to conferences and professional bodies. This is a serious matter, and taken seriously by the Syndics - all of whom are active scholars.

CUP exists only to publish scholarly and educational work, and it is right that decisions about what is to be published should be taken by academics and on academic grounds. But we are bound also to take account of a number of other matters. We must abide by laws of copyright and libel; in some countries there are laws against inciting racial hatred; others have laws regarding blasphemy. Usually, though not invariably, these can be seen as technical matters which rarely make a significant impact on the decision to publish; but each and every one of them imposes some sort of restriction on what can be published. Further, a contract to publish involves a commitment of resources; and since resources are limited, this too requires deciding in favour of some and not of other work. Moreover, academics sometimes study under conditions which place major constraints on publication: the ownership of some scientific work, for example, does not rest wholly, or necessarily at all, with the scientist doing it. In the arts and social sciences, scholars may have been given privileged access to archives, or allowed to undertake fieldwork under certain conditions, not all of the conditions being always explicit.

In deciding what to publish, CUP fully recognises the importance of allowing scope for the new and for the critical. Much scholarly endeavour challenges existing orders and ideas, and it is not part of our publishing strategy to maintain the status quo or to give mindless support to powerful establishments. The present controversy, however, has raised uncomfortable questions for many academics, since it shows that there are few absolute principles to which we can all hold, no matter what. Scholars may sometimes be reluctant to recognise this, particularly when they become deeply committed to a particular project, but many of our professional groupings have worked to produce ethical guidelines to help form good practice and we should remember to read them from time to time. Almost inevitably, responsibility imposes some restraints, which fall on authors and publishers alike. The Syndics have already decided that we will, later this year, review our procedures for making difficult decisions, to be sure that we continue to discharge these responsibilities properly.

In saying this, however, the Syndics have no intention of becoming more prescriptive, nor of cutting back the richness and diversity of CUP's publishing programmes. We publish around 2,000 new works a year and keep in print a backlist of more than 12,000 books and periodicals (a volume of scholarly activity maintained nowadays by very few, if any, learned presses). We exist to serve the academic community through the spread of learning and in the belief that, as the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth put it in their ethical guidelines, "greater access to well-founded information will serve rather than threaten the interests of society". Equally, like them, we recognise that this must be done with some regard for "the likely consequences for society at large". It would be a dreadful irony if, as a result of making, on good grounds, a difficult particular decision, CUP were to become a general scapegoat for the frustrations we scholars sometimes feel at reasonable and necessary constraints on the freedom to say or publish what we like, either by depriving ourselves of the opportunity to work with CUP, or by allowing a climate of intimidation to deter others from publishing under the CUP imprint.

Gordon Johnson is chairman of the syndicate of Cambridge University Press and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

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