Kenneth Weir, Lecturer in Accountancy at the School, examines the popularity of a controversial article which he, David Harvie, Geoff Lightfoot and Simon Lilley, recently published (about publishing)
In 2012, the four of us published a piece examining the not very well concealed relationship between the profit margins enjoyed by large commercial publishers and the manner in which these have interpreted their tax liability. Early in 2013, we completed a follow-up piece which critically highlighted the clear and present challenges to open access publishing in the light of the Finch Report. In the case of both articles our intention, as critical social scientists, was to provoke debate about the nature of academic publishing among its key stakeholders, including the tax payers who partly fund university libraries.
Not everybody agreed with our doing so. Informa, the large corporation which owns the Taylor & Francis brand which, in turn, publishes Prometheus – whose editors accepted our second collaborative effort – was particularly offended. It demanded a series of revisions to our article, postponing its publication until they were satisfied. Objections were made both to our inclusion of publicly available financial information and publicly available information concerning disgruntled editorial boards of now defunct journals. More than half of the original article, including part of the title and one of the piece’s two epigraphs, had to be cut. To their credit, Prometheus’s editors refused to countenance such a censorious intrusion on their role.What subsequently transpired is reported in a recent piece in Times Higher Education. The episode is all too reminiscent of another publishing experience recently discussed by our colleague, Professor Martin Parker.
Last week, a few days after the article was finally published, Taylor & Francis contacted us again, this time by way of a presumably automated email. The message led us to the publisher’s ‘Editor Resources’ webpage, from which we learned that our objectionable article had received by far the most ‘attention’ over the preceding seven days.
Our article’s “95” was generated by Altmetric which strives to make “article level metrics easy”. Within its algorithm, an article’s importance is determined by the number of views it has received, the level of discussion it has provoked and the number of times it has been saved, cited or recommended. Altmetric now acts as an alternative to journal impact factor and citation indices. It also feeds a variety of paradoxical incentives, not least of all the incentive underpinning the composition of this very text: to draw attention to a criticism of conventional publishing models, outside of conventional publishing models, for the ultimate yet unintended benefit of conventional publishing models.
So what sort of relationship is this? First, there is direct intervention against the article, by the publisher. Second, threats to pull the entire special issue are made, by the publisher. Third, censorship occurs through publicly available information being removed, by the publisher. Now, our damning criticism of the publishers is being highlighted to us as something to be proud of (a “95”, no less), by the publishers themelves!
But what else might critical social scientists do (other than write cynical blog posts, that is)? Within our article, as well as many others which didn’t receive so much attention, the emergent suggestion is that we should reclaim the means of production by publishing in house, thereby making our partially state-funded work freely available. The perversely enduring failure of large commercial publishers to provide us with a useful service will then, hopefully, no longer be hidden in plain sight.
The pre-Taylor and Francis intervention version of our original article (with the requested excisions highlighted in yellow) is available to view here
Our first collaborative piece can be read (for free) here