Safe but sorry?

February 23, 1996

Does CUP shy away from publishing controversial work? Georgina Born believes that in her case it did. A few years ago, I had an experience not unlike that of Anastasia Karakasidou, the anthropologist whose study of Macedonia was rejected by Cambridge University Press on the grounds that it could provoke terrorist reprisals (The THES, February 9). It involved a similar example of timidity on the part of the press towards the publication of work by an anthropologist, albeit in the face of potential negative reactions of a far less dangerous kind.

In1989 I discussed publication of my PhD thesis with a CUP editor. The thesis was based on fieldwork in the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/ Musique in Paris. IRCAM is the music section of the Pompidou Centre, a state-funded computer music research and production centre with a leading role in contemporary art music. It was founded, and until 1992 directed, by the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. The thesis argued that IRCAM revealed the contradictions and problematic status of an institutionalised avant-garde. It also traced the distance between the fetishisation of technology in IRCAM discourse and the uneven outcomes of IRCAM's high-technological and musical practices. The study was critical of IRCAM and its place in history, but it also attempted to do justice to this sophisticated artistic milieu.

I had the co-operation of the institute's management throughout. Without it I would not have been able to work. Because the research dealt with the lives of individuals working in a well-known institution, I had to protect my informants' anonymity. I believe I adopted an appropriate strategy: occasionally disguising the identity of individuals when dealing with very sensitive matters, and when unavoidable, identifing them with coded initials. In due course I gave the thesis to ten key informants for feedback and factual corrections.

One Friday afternoon in January 1990, I finally received a phone call from the CUP editor saying that the proposal had been accepted by the Syndics and that we were on for publication. The following Monday I received a call to say that an executive of the press wanted to discuss certain issues. He laid out some conditions; if I did not meet them, he made it clear that CUP would not publish. He asked me to obtain an official letter from IRCAM management saying that they gave permission to publish, or that they did not object to publication. He saw this as giving the institute an opportunity to comment on the thesis and stressed that this did not imply that it would be necessary to take up every suggestion.

I pondered this meeting for some months, caught between the first-time author's desire for publication by a leading academic press and my own instincts that CUP's request for official authorisation of an independent study was misguided. I felt that my own strategy for checking the research was more appropriate. I also thought it questionable that independent academic research should have to be sanctioned by the institution being critically studied. I took advice from senior colleagues and in the end I chose not to comply.

Happily, several American presses and Oxford University Press were all less timid in their enthusiasm for the research and were content to let me deal responsibly with my obligations to individuals and to accuracy. I eventually chose to publish with an American university press whose dealings with me have been exemplary. CUP seemed, in my case, to seek excessive reassurance that their publication would not be uncomfortably controversial. Why does CUP show such lack of conviction in backing independent critical work?

Georgina Born is a lecturer in the department of media and communication studies, Goldsmith's College, University of London.

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