— Cultural Sources of Newness

The Perils of Publishing

As an academic, I have lived for many years in the world of “publish or perish.” Now a clause in the publishing contract I am about to sign and the dangerous experiences of a colleague at the WZB are alerting me to the brave new world of “publish and perish.”

§3.6 “The Editor shall ensure that all the material produced by the contributors and by the Editor for inclusion in the Work: (e) does not, so far as can reasonably be determined by the Editor, contain any statements of fact which are not true or any recipe formula diagram or instruction which if followed accurately will cause illness injury or damage to the user” [sic]*

The book we are preparing will contain a chapter about new perfumes and another about the market for wines. Both substances can be considered to entail potential health risks if ingested in large quantities. Should we add a warning label to the text to protect ourselves from the consequences of readers’ consumption behaviour during or after spending time with our book?

Fortunately (but surprisingly), the clause limits the danger for which we are held responsible to the user rather than including the social and natural environment. So, if under the influence of the book a reader wears a new perfume in the presence of a person who has allergic reactions to perfumes, we should not be held liable. I have no idea whether any of the materials our authors will include as examples of innovation in our book might possibly be used to create a device the user could explode at a distance, harming others and the natural environment but not him- or herself, but that damage, too, appears to lie beyond the scope of the editorial responsibility I am being required to commit to in this contract.

The experience of my colleague suggests that such contractual clauses in our publishers’ contracts are the least of our worries. The details of the case are too complicated for me to relate here, but it is well presented and discussed in a respected journalist’s blog (Stefan Niggermeier). My brief, non-expert summary is: A journalist in a leading German newspaper described my colleague as considering  copyright laws to be superfluous and as siding with people who make money from file sharing. My colleague denies both charges and required the paper to withhold its defamatory article. She tried to resolve the problem informally with the newspaper but they refused, so she had to sue them to protect herself. The court told the newspaper it could not publish its incorrect description of my colleague but it assigned three quarters of the legal costs for the proceedings to my colleague because, to our amazement, the judge held my colleague legally responsible for the presence of a phrase relating to problems in copyright laws that another scholar wrote in a book she had edited.

The story is not over: the newspaper continues to pursue my colleague by publishing a misleading press release and encouraging journalists to report about the case in other papers. Indeed, a paper belonging to the same publishing group did publish, so while facing the prospect of already horrendous legal fees, my colleague has to defend her reputation once again.

The case raises questions for all of us academics whose research addresses current issues in society and whose questions and ideas may irritate the powers that be. The example of my colleague happens to relate to copyright laws in the digital age, a topic that raises the shackles of powerful stakeholders. If we academics choose to engage in relevant research, we all run the risk of being intimidated by stakeholders with deep pockets capable of feeding many lawyers to protect their economic and political interests.

We have some options to deal with the perils of publishing:

(a)   Withhold from addressing relevant issues in society, return to our ivory towers and study the love life of ladybirds (hoping that the agrochemical industry will not find fault with us there).

(b)  Formulate disclaimers to all the articles we publish and books we edit so that we cannot be held responsible for anything we and our colleagues write.

(c)   Buy expensive professional insurance that allows us to face the powers that be in whichever courts they take us to.

I don’t like any of these options! Academics need the freedom to address difficult issues, raise uncomfortable questions, challenge assumptions, and suggest potential changes. Only then can they fulfil their responsibilities to society.

*NB: When I spoke with the publisher on the phone about various aspects of the contract, I ended the conversation jokingly mentioning my surprise at the absence of commas in §3.6(e). His response was: the company’s lawyers use commas very sparingly to avoid incorrect inflections in contracts (?!) I found it particularly amusing that the very next item in the list of responsibilities we will have as editors of the volume is “conforms to the style guidelines for Authors drawn up by the Publisher,” a guideline that specifies the use of commas in sentences with a series of items.