February 17, 2018

A Clash of Values | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne Biven-TatumI’ve written before about what I called the two cultures that sometimes clash, the commercial culture of a lot of scientific publishing and the gift culture of academia. Since then, there have been further examples of that clash, the most prominent perhaps being the takedown notices Elsevier sent to Academia.edu.

In addition to clashes of culture, there are clashes of values. Commercial publishers, scholars, and librarians have different values and goals. When people, usually publishers, complain about the tenor of conversations around Open Access scholarly publishing, the clash of values is often hidden, but always there. A lot of academics support OA publishing because they believe scholarship should be available to anyone who wants it. Commercial publishers want to make money. Those very different goals lead to different values.

Thanks to the recent brouhaha surrounding the Taylor & Francis journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation, another clash of values has emerged, that of academics editing a journal to encourage debate and that of commercial publishers trying to stifle debate about their methods. As reported in Times Higher Education, the editors of Prometheus planned to publish an article called “Publisher, be damned! from price gouging to the open road.” According to the Times, the article “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.”

Taylor & Francis wasn’t happy about it, which is understandable. In essence, the company would be publishing an article criticizing its entire business model. That would be like a public university employing professors who were critical of government policy—which of course is something that commonly occurs in academia. Debate and dissent among academics are common in every field. That’s what keeps knowledge from stagnating. Free-ranging debate and academic freedom are hallmarks of scholarly publishing—unless, it seems, scholarly publishing is itself the subject of the debate.

However, debate and dissent aren’t especially important values to commercial publishers. Usually all we see is the PR people at large commercial publishers writing or speaking somewhere to spin a debate favorably in their direction, but that’s because publishers usually don’t have direct control over the people criticizing them. There might be a call from an angry publisher to a library director complaining about a recalcitrant librarian criticizing the publisher, as has happened occasionally, but there’s really not much they can do.

But publishers with actual control over a journal about to publish an article critical of their business practices can just not publish the relevant issue. Or at least, they can try. The offending issue of Prometheus was supposed to come out last September. Only after the editor held back post-September issues from the publisher and the editorial board threatened to resign did Taylor & Francis finally publish the issue at the end of May. Eight months is a long time to fight something that should have just been published. After all, it’s the editors and peer-reviewers that guarantee the quality of scholarly publishing. It’s certainly not the publisher, as we’ll see below.

Ideally, Taylor & Francis would have just published the issue, and perhaps even tried to contribute to the debate. Surely the firm could justify its own business practices by the standards of evidence and reason appropriate to academic discourse. There might even be some academics out there willing to argue on behalf of commercial scholarly publishing. Then the publication could have continued as usual and sparked a healthy debate.

But that didn’t happen. The editor tried to find publishers to respond to the article in question, and absolutely none of them would. The only person who would respond was “former publisher Iain Stevenson, professor of publishing at University College London,” who thought the article was “contentious and seriously flawed.” Now that’s more like it! Professor Stevenson also “said even more severe criticisms of the proposition paper had been edited out of his response.” The editor claims that Taylor & Francis edited those out, not him, and he doesn’t know why.

And then it gets weirder. According to the editor, when Taylor & Francis did publish the issue, it “unilaterally added a long disclaimer to each article warning that ‘the accuracy of the content should not be relied upon.” However, that the disclaimer seems to be on every Taylor & Francis article. Is that a new thing? I sampled several journals and years, and found the disclaimer on the PDF of every article. Not only does it say the accuracy of the content shouldn’t be relied upon, but also that the content “should be independently verified with primary sources of information.” According to the “about” statement on the website, the company has “been fully committed to the publication of scholarly information of the highest quality,” but can you be fully committed to publishing high quality scholarly information while including a disclaimer with every article that readers can’t trust its accuracy? Doesn’t that pretty much say you’re not fully committed?

This isn’t the first time Taylor & Francis has had trouble with an editorial board. Last year, the entire editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration resigned over what they believed to be excessively restrictive licenses for authors’ use of their work, but Taylor & Francis didn’t do anything out of the ordinary in that situation. In fact, the resignation came because Taylor & Francis continued business as usual.

However, halting publication of a journal issue because of disagreements about the content isn’t business as usual. The content shouldn’t matter at all if the publisher doesn’t endorse any of it anyway. But it does show that the academic value of debate and the commercial value of spin control can clash in places we don’t expect.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Thank you for the interesting piece. The brouhaha surrounding the Prometheus debate is actually the tip of the iceberg, as this type of debate is alive and well in the natural sciences and in medical research publishing. In my research I explore these dynamics and I have a short pre-print on investigating journal peer review as a scientific object of study: http://www.ruor.uottawa.ca/en/handle/10393/31161. One of the interesting bits of studying journal peer review as a scientific object of study means that nothing is taken for granted… and to understand how journals have come to dominate academic publishing means looking a bit deeper into how this can be sustained… in great part through the use of closed pre-publication journal peer review – where everything is hidden from view. More to come!