I am posting an email I received this morning by someone who works at a leading multinational academic publishing house and hence wants to remain anonymous which raises very important points relevant to the ongoing debate about copyright, photocopying and the practices within academic publishing. (Thanks to anonymous contributor for this)
In his Op-Ed in today’s Hindu, Sudhanva Deshpande referred to your work, and soon, I stumbled upon your articles at Kafila and the general discussion on the blogosphere. As someone who worked for a few years in a leading multinational academic publishing company, I thought I might — if this doesn’t sound too pretentious — offer some more ammunition to you. What I have to say may not be immediately relevant to the DU case, but I hope you’ll have the time to read.
1. Publishing companies have no qualms about violating copyright when it serves their interests. Aspiring — but unqualified — authors in positions of influence at Indian universities routinely get published by leading publishing companies. Some of these books are heavily plagiarized from books by other publishers and even without attribution from Wikipedia — which publishers so readily dismiss with contempt– a fact which everyone in the industry chooses to ignore. Publishers publish these manuscripts with minor changes in language to skirt the issue of copyright; this involves re-writing sentences. Copyright violation in spirit, if not in letter. The author, being in a position of influence, guarantees sales of a certain number of copies, usually in the thousands. For the publishing company, such agreements cement a good relationship with the author, enabling access to his/her colleagues who serve on the advisory board which recommends textbooks in that university.
2. These boards are corrupted by the influence of sales managers from publishing companies. It is not uncommon for unpublished books, only in the manuscript stage, to appear in the recommended list of university syllabi. It used to be the case that the syllabus for a course was framed first, and then books matching the syllabus are recommended. These days, the reverse happens — syllabi are framed from the contents of a book by a favoured publisher. What goes in the book is dictated by self-appointed editors at these publishing companies.
3. Publishing companies are concerned with selling their books to the syllabus review committees and not the students. Prices are sometimes kept artificially high for the simple reason that multinational companies do not want to be seen selling their books at the “cheap price-points” of their Indian competitors.
4. Editors of highly technical textbooks often have no subject knowledge at all. It is a miracle that a student gets a usable book after passing through their hands.
5. Contrary to what they may claim, editors do not “value add”. Manuscripts usually fall into two categories. Those written by expert authors, where an editor can do no more than beautify it and prepare it for “production”, an act which could just as easily have been done by the authors themselves. The other kind of book involves heavily-plagiarized work, or manuscripts so badly written, that the editor involved practically has to become the co-author. Such authors scarcely deserve to be published and amount to cheating the students.
6. The “production” of a manuscript by a publishing company takes months, which is totally anachronistic in today’s world — especially for technical manuscripts, where one can produce a beautifully typeset work using LaTeX instantly. This “production”, in fact, is where a publisher incurs a huge chunk of the cost of any project and then proceeds to justify the price-points at which the end product is sold. Notwithstanding the fact that numerous errors are introduced at this stage, all this is justified in the name of “value add”.
7. The authors are milked to the limit and paid peanuts for their hard work. Royalty is never more than 10%; any author who demands more is “greedy”.
8. Perfectly good manuscripts by Indian authors are sometimes rejected if they pertain to topics which have no “sales potential”. Or are deemed to be written at a “higher level” than is suited for the “average Indian student”. This not only does these scholars a disservice, but also forces them to turn to publishers based abroad, who are usually more willing. Thus, Indian students have to either turn to expensive books by foreign authors, or to expensive books by Indian authors published by foreign companies.
9. Publishers assume that students only like to read “syllabus-oriented” books. Only such proposals are accepted — if not, the author is forced to dilute the book’s contents and “simplify” it. This deprives students in India, at least those of us who like to go beyond the syllabus, of quality material.
Academic publishing, as it stands, is a fundamentally unethical business. Nowhere is this more evident than in journal publishing, where the publisher collects money from the author for publishing, gets it peer-reviewed for free, and collects more money from the readers. No qualms.
Publishers are terrified of the potential of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) to up-end the whole education ecosystem. And as Clay Shirky says, “Publishing is not a process. Publishing is a button.” Tomorrow is, no doubt, brighter for those of us who believe knowledge should have no gatekeepers and this is something we should fight for.