Mass resignations at Wiley journal over academic independence

Former editors-in-chief at European Law Journal say the departure of editorial boards raises issue about ‘who owns’ scholarly journals

February 7, 2020
Source: Getty

The resignation of all members of a journal’s editorial and advisory boards in a row over academic independence raises fundamental questions about “who owns” academic publications, scholars have claimed.

The mass resignations at the European Law Journal – in which a total of 20 academics linked to the Wiley publication quit – follow more than a year of negotiations with the US publisher in the wake of its alleged effort to appoint new editors-in-chief in 2018 without consulting either its board of editors or its advisory board.

According to its most recent editors-in-chief – Joana Mendes, professor of comparative and administrative law at the University of Luxembourg, and Harm Schepel, professor of economic law at the University of Kent – Wiley later agreed a new system for appointing editors in which committees would be consulted but it refused to formalise the change in their contracts.

Writing on the legal website Verfassungblog, the two academics explain that editors’ insistence on that “modest point” had “vital importance” because enshrining the system would have “clear[ed] the way to a model where editors respond to the board, not to the publisher” and would have established a framework “where editors work for the journal, not as remunerated contractors for the publisher”.

“In other words, it is a fundamental condition for safeguarding academic autonomy,” they conclude.

Wiley would continue to publish “something that is called the European Law Journal” and would find a new editorial and advisory board, the professors continue, but they question whether it would be “business as usual”.

“It is their right to do so. After all, they ‘own’ the European Law Journal. Or do they?” they ask.

The two scholars also commented on the “marvellously cheap” services provided by academics to publishers, who profited from the “free labour of authors and reviewers” to generate products in the form of journals whose “demand has the elasticity of cast iron”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Schepel said that he and his fellow editors had not taken the decision to resign lightly.

“I have been with the journal for 15 years, and many editors have worked [on it] since its creation 25 years ago – this is not something we would have done if we’d had a choice,” he said.

“It was not the issue that we didn’t approve of their suggested appointments either, who were wonderful. But we felt it is the prerogative of a journal to appoint its own editors, and we had to draw a line in the sand.”

A Wiley spokeswoman told THE that the company was “saddened by the decision of the editorial board of the European Law Journal to resign”.

“Wiley is engaged in discussions with independent academic advisers as we search for a new editorial team,” she added, saying that this team will “have the authority to set editorial policy and appoint a new board for this important journal”.

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