Journal board in the dark over £1m surplus

Keele-based title applied for charitable status after audit revealed assets

February 19, 2015

A prominent journal accumulated a surplus of more than £1 million unbeknown to most of its board, a former board member has revealed.

The Sociological Review is one of the UK’s top sociology journals. The fees paid by Wiley-Blackwell for the rights to publish it led it to amass funds in excess of £1.2 million by 2013. However, according to Pnina Werbner, emeritus professor of anthropology at Keele University, she was unaware of this during her time on the board between 2008 and 2013.

“I repeatedly tried to find out how much was in the kitty, but it was suggested to me that if that was publicly stated, the university [Keele] might lay claim to it,” she said.

She said it was not until incoming chair Mike Savage, a professor at the London School of Economics, hired an accountant in 2011 to audit the journal’s accounts that the size of the surplus came to light.

The journal, which was launched in 1908, had been associated with and based at Keele since 1953, when its floundering owner, the Institute of Sociology, donated its library and papers to what was then the University College of North Staffordshire. After that, according to Professor Werbner, “everyone assumed Keele owned the journal”, with the university “covering its losses and paying [its] administrator”.

She said that the administrator remained on the university payroll even after the journal began to make a profit following its licensing to a commercial publisher in 1982. But the journal’s finances began to be handled separately, and the journal’s relations with Keele began to “sour” as its sociology department “went into decline”, she said.

Professor Werbner argued that the surplus should be “devoted to building sociology up again at Keele”. However, according to David Shepherd, dean of humanities and social sciences at Keele, investigations revealed that, in fact, the university had “no claim whatsoever to the journal’s financial assets or liabilities”.

Professor Savage told Times Higher Education that since Keele academics had been in the minority on the journal’s board for “several decades”, the editorial board had decided that it should operate as an independent charity.

But Professor Shepherd denied Professor Werbner’s claim that Keele had not appeared even to want the journal, noting that it had “sought and secured recognition of its valued historic connection with [the journal]” by way of guaranteed representation on the charity’s board, continued funding of sociology at Keele and the continued presence at Keele of the journal’s office “on a transparent commercial basis”.

He confirmed that this was worth between £100,000 and £200,000 a year to the university, and was ring-fenced for sociology.

Professor Savage said that the journal had “an ambitious plan” to use its surplus to “better support the discipline of sociology, as well as the journal itself”. But he warned that tax liabilities might reduce that surplus “significantly” if the journal’s application for charitable status were rejected.

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