Scholars challenge OUP’s standards

A group of leading scholars has presented a petition to Oxford University Press calling on the renowned publisher to uphold what it describes as “basic scholarly standards”.

May 7, 2012

The petition arose out of a letter sent to Niko Pfund, president of OUP USA, about the book Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.

The signatories were Frances Moore Lappé – co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and author of Diet for a Small Planet – and six other experts in the field of food, agriculture and rural development.

While acknowledging that “our analysis of food policy differs from that of the author”, they flagged up 16 pages of alleged flaws in Professor Paarlberg’s book, noting that he had failed to provide citations for some of his claims and had not disclosed that he had “served on the Biotechnology Advisory Company of the Monsanto Company”.

The letters writers also argued that Food Politics was a “strongly partisan” text that had been misleadingly marketed by OUP as a dispassionate overview of “conflicting claims”.

Not satisfied with the response from Professor Paarlberg’s editor, the group then put together a petition calling on OUP to adopt as policy: “citations for evidence-based claims; disclosure of potential conflict of interest, whether financial or other associations; and accurate representation of the publication by the Press in its promotion”.

Signed by more than 5,000 individuals from 55 countries, the petition was presented to the delegates of OUP as well as to the office of the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford on 25 April.

A spokesman for OUP commented: “We have reviewed our extensive pre-publication vetting of Robert Paarlberg’s manuscript, and of the published work itself, which has reaffirmed our confidence in the book.

“The politics of food production are an ideologically contentious subject; while we respect the right of others to engage and disagree, we reject any suggestion that the scholarly standards of this book, or those of OUP’s wider publishing programme, are flawed.”

Addressing the claims over a lack of citations, the spokesman added that while titles “intended purely for scholarly audiences” were “heavily footnoted and referenced”, books for university students and general readers “often rely instead on suggestions for further reading and bibliographies”.

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