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.