Academic Publishers – An Insider’s perspective: Anonymous Contributor

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)

Also for more detailed discussions please see the following posts at spicyip by Amlan Mohanty (1, 2,) Shamnad Basheer (1, 2) and Prashant Reddy 1

Hello Lawrence,

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 It is not uncommon for unpublished books, only in the manuscript stage, to appear in the recommended list of university syllabi.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.

5 thoughts on “Academic Publishers – An Insider’s perspective: Anonymous Contributor”

  1. agree with everything here. confirms everything I learnt from my five months at one of India’s biggest academic publishing houses, even though this one is supposed to encourage new and original work, it does little other than pick authors with big connection (read those who either buy back their own work, those publishing for aid-funded bodies like the bill and melinda gates foundation, or those on education boards that can have the book prescribed).
    given all these malpractices-and they are essentially that-and the fact that their profist come from the fact that university libraries are obliged to buy certain kinds of titles, one really wonders why all the hue and cry- how much do these houses want to milk the weary cow?
    one is forced to wonder then whether all this anxiety over profits is just that or if its some fundamental anxiety about the fact that more and more people can now read and educate themselves and potentially upset the aristocracy of who makes knowledge.

  2. Apropos point # 1, I came across a recent piece by Garga Chatterjee which talks about the role and complicity of the academia ( esp the faculty) in this issue. Just thought of throwing that in.

    While I strongly disagree with the specific insinuations that piece makes about a specific dept at DU, I think the broad points deserve merit.

  3. Most of the points raised in this post are tangential to the topic of discussion. If one takes it to the logical end then university professors, universities and academic bodies are equally bad and collude with publishers. So what should students infer from this. Should they think that they are sucked by both.
    Even all this is true the issue of infringement of copyright is a legal issue and unless there is something to prove that theirs are ‘unclean hands’ these will not change the material facts in the case.Let the court decide on what is fair use and what is not. I am not taking the side of publishers but am only pointing out that in this polarized debate it is easy to find (all) faults with publishers and none with universities and their functioning. How many of the prescribed texts are actually read and taught in classes. How many of the suggested readings/recommended readings are really read by students or referred to in teaching. Is anyone willing to do some empirical research on this. Should I have an illusion that students read all the prescribed texts and all the reading materials are taught in the classes and are also discussed by faculty.
    ‘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’
    This not fully true. Most of the journals collect no money from authors. I agree that they are greedy and make huge profits. But I know many journals started by left groups/ supported leftist academics which have ended up with publishers like T&F, Wiley (e.g. Science as Culture, Antipode, Rethinking Marxism, and Capitalism, Nature and Socialism). Even Race and Class which was published for many years by IRR had opted for Sage as its publisher.
    Why this is happening. These are not published by University Presses. Running a journal is not an easy job and dealing with production, subscription and distribution is a challenge. I know this from my experience . Societies often turn to these publishers because there are not many options.
    Is left word willing to offer all its books under CC with free download option. I am all for open access and open source and I also know that open access publishing option is not cheap for authors.
    I am unable to describe this issue in terms of heroes and villains. Popular culture today accepts grey shades but ‘politically correct’ polemics is always based on heroes and villains. I see this amply in this controversy.

  4. This, now brings it all to the subject of how the syllabus need to be framed etc. But, that is completely new area which needs a wider debate. Given that the setting up of syllabus and book publishing is corrupted, the only best solution is that, the students should be encouraged to refer wide range of knowledge material and universities should allow for such free dissemination of work.

    In future, to avoid the human knowledge going into the monopolies, we need to inculcate a free / open source culture in all our universities from now onwards. We need to encourage and form groups across universities which encourage in publishing open journals and free e-books. Things cant be changed in one year. This is a long term process. And we need to initiate the process now.

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