Principles vs. Publishers

This is been an interesting week. Yesterday I made the decision to formally withdraw a chapter from an edited volume about themes for teaching Introductory Psychology. It was not an easy decision because I had put a lot of thought and energy into the chapter, made the necessary revisions, and even saw it accepted by the editors more than a year ago (a change in editorial staff at Cengage prompted the massive delay). So you can imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I received a very curious email from a “Product Manager” at Cengage. It started out nicely enough, saying nice things about OER in my discipline:

“I’m familiar with some of the platforms but my favorite (and the one I most worried about) is Noba. Obviously the scholarship is first-rate but I like the organization and the way it hyperlinks too.  It’s a pleasant user experience. I believe I would give it a 2nd look if I were an instructor.”

Full disclosure: I serve as an Associate Editor with NOBA, so you might reasonably suspect this is the equivalent of “hey, have you been working out?” On the other hand, why yes, I have been working out. Nice of you to notice.

But the email went on to request a series of changes that would make my previously-accepted chapter more palatable to the publisher. In the PM’s words, “We would like to see a few more value statements made around traditional publishers’ offerings.” Yeah, no conflict of interest there.

These changes (detailed later by the editors) included:

  1. Toning down my critique of traditional publisher practices. This included references to the 1041% increase in textbook costs and the prevalence of “new editions” with only cosmetic changes.
  2. Including a description of their new business model: PM: “Publishers are not interested in selling hardbound textbooks. Our economics discipline team isn’t even going to publish them next year. The prices are hiked 33% at the bookstore and they are bought and resold 9 times. That’s not a good business for us in 2016.”
  3. Adding strong cautionary language about OER such as “and the academic buyer (i.e., instructor) should beware”

I initially attempted to work with the editors, checking to ensure that these requests reflected their own judgement (they were not copied on that email from the PM, although they had sent me an email a month earlier requesting similarly-themed revisions, some of which I made). I even indicated a willingness to look at revisions that they would write (and that the PM would vet). Ultimately, however, the changes they felt were necessary to appease the publisher (for whom this book is evidently a “service project”) were a bridge too far for my conscience to travel.

In reflecting on this experience I have been thinking more broadly about change and how and when it is possible to introduce it. I have seen how change is sometimes more easily introduced from the outside (I think any internal pioneer can attest to how much more enthusiastically an outsider with the identical message is embraced). But despite this perceptual barrier there is great value in fighting the good fight to introduce change from within. Indeed, it is precisely my knowledge that the volume will be read by many traditionalists that leaves me with a tinge of disappointment at having had to withdraw my chapter.

I face a similar dilemma with my research: Do I publish my research on open education in more traditional (paywalled) journals that are read by colleagues who are unaware of OER? Are exorbitant article processing charges (APCs) the price of avoiding hypocrisy?

I would love to pledge an unwavering commitment to only review for and publish in (truly) open access journals (I am almost there), but I also want to speak directly to the unconverted. And that might just involve periodically soiling myself by supporting the very publishers whose nefarious practices have catalyzed the birth of the open access movement. Of course I recognize that the Gold OA option–tainted as it is–is one of privilege, granted to me via an OER research fellowship funded by the Hewlett foundation (how does anyone without a source of funding pay those APCs?). But I confess that even while I do not have to personally bear the brunt of this cost right now, paying them at all still makes me feel slightly unclean as I balance pragmatism with idealism.

We really do need a cleanse for openwashing.


Post script (June 7, 2016): Although I sincerely appreciate the supportive comments I have received in response to this post and the article in Insider Higher Ed, I fear that one thing may have got lost in the noise: That despite my disagreement with them on what constitutes a balanced perspective on the textbook industry, I greatly respect and admire the two editors who have certainly poured a lot of energy into this volume. I believe that they accepted my proposed theme for the chapter because they saw value in it. They subsequently made many excellent suggestions that helped me to improve my writing. And they have always been supportive and encouraging when I speak at psychology conferences. I would not want this story to cast aspersions on their integrity.

21 thoughts on “Principles vs. Publishers

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Thank you John!

  • Good for you Rajiv for standing by your principles and not succumbing to a publisher’s pressure to revise your chapter.

    I hope you are able to publish it is a more accepting publication.

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Thank you Steven. Funny, had I known how much support I would receive the decision to withdraw the chapter would not have been as difficult or felt quite as lonely. I certainly plan to look at how I can repurpose some of that writing.

  • That is absolutely astonishing. I have been critical enough of legacy publishers in my time, but I have never heard of anything approaching this level of interference — not even from editors, but from the publisher. Needless to say, their behaviour here is nothing short of disgraceful. You did 100% the right thing in withdrawing your manuscript. I trust you will find a better home for it. (Have you considered the Open Library of Humanities?)

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Thank you Mike. I was told that the PM (new to this project) was also serving an editorial role. Nonetheless, many of the changes they wanted would not have reflected my opinion or voice. Perhaps most amusingly, given my involvement in the open education movement they were very concerned about me disclosing any conflicts of interest 🙂 I haven’t yet begun thinking about an appropriate outlet for this piece, but I will certainly look into the OLH. Thank you again for expressing your support.

  • __I assume the publisher and authors [NAMES REDACTED], still wish to include an ‘Openness’ chapter in their book, “Thematic Approaches for Teaching Introductory Psychology”.
    The challenge may be finding an educator-author who has experience creating, using OER – open pedagogy, and experience creating bias-free learning resources.
    In the Chapter you posted, one can see great value in reading about your personal experience with OER – open pedagogy – particularly from the section on page 8 “OER in Introductory Psychology” and onward.
    Peer review of a textbook can involve vetting content to identify and eliminate bias, and, with respect, perhaps this textbook is not an appropriate place for the personal perspectives found on pages 2 through 8.
    Perhaps you can incorporate this chapter, as is, into your textbooks?

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Hi Don. It is my understanding that there will be no effort to replace my chapter (the timeline has been pushed back long enough even without this issue). The book is about thematic approaches to teaching introductory psychology. Although I was invited to contribute a chapter, I was free to propose any theme (I proposed openness and this was accepted). Re: the inclusion of my personal experience, that was an explicit request from the editors early on in the writing process. If I look to publish this piece elsewhere (as an editor encouraged me to do) I will certainly reshape it to suit the outlet and audience.

  • So important to point out what happens behind “closed doors,” as it were, in emails like this. Thank you for sharing it so we know what can go on when one is publishing with a traditional outlet. I mean, many already know, but I was naive I think. I completely agree with your action, and especially with your blogging about it so others are aware of what’s happening. So much for traditional publishing being a useful way to present research, when you have to change your articles to suit their business model.

    I agree on the APC thing, even when funded from outside, making one feel slightly unclean. I mean, why should I use money, sometimes from taxpayers, that could go to so many useful things in teaching and learning, to pay exorbitant publishers’ fees whose interest is in their own bottom line and not in promoting research or education? I’d rather use that money to create OER without propping up traditional publishers!

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Thanks for the support, Christina. Of course this was a chapter and not an empirical piece but it was still disappointing (all the more because I really respect the editors). Re: repurposing APC money I couldn’t agree more. Aaron Jarden and Dan Weijers have written an excellent chapter about the forces that led them to launch their open access journal (International Journal of Well-Being) in our forthcoming book about Open. I think it will resonate with you.

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  • David B. Miller

    Hi Rajiv. I applaud your decision to stick by your principles and withdraw the chapter. Publishers should not be interfering with intellectual content. Editors, of course, have the right to ask for changes, but not when the marching orders are handed down by the publishing company. I greatly admire your decision, and I’m all the more proud to have a chapter appearing in your own upcoming edited volume!

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Hi David. Thank you. As I mentioned in my postscript this morning, I respect the editors. I am, however, uncomfortable with an obligation to the publisher shaping my words. Looking forward to having our (open access) book published later this year by Ubiquity Press! Thank you again for your excellent contribution.

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Thank you Todd. I appreciate the support.

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  • What a breath of fresh air! I’m a mature age first year nursing student in Australia and am appalled at the cost of our prescribed text books. The content in some of these texts can at times seem a bit questionable, however I don’t feel properly equipped or educated enough to be a true judge.
    I really enjoyed your chapter immensely, so nice to learn there is an active movement for openness in education. The part about writing essays (takes a lot more than 3 hours btw!) really resonates with me. We regurgitate something the teachers want and most likely find very tiresome to read, then it’s discarded and forgotten, seems such a waste of energy to me.
    It’s awesome that you use other online portals, ie WordPress, YouTube etc for some of your coursework, the proprietary university portals are very clunky and often inadequate. Our class had a video assignment which was managed very poorly, forcing novices to upload to a difficult to navigate & extremely slow university website rather than easily uploading to YouTube. I’ve also been subjected to writing an assignment in Blackboard’s Wiki which is utterly dreadful, using Wikipedia would make much more sense.
    I’m a huge fan of collaboration but many of my fellow students struggle with this.
    I now see a light at the end of the learning tunnel! Thank you 🙂

    • Rajiv Jhangiani

      Hi Marcie! Thank you so much for your kind words. I am gratified to hear that my views resonated with you (thank you also for taking the time to read the chapter). I try to work outside of the university learning management system whenever possible because, well, the thought of my students’ learning being “managed” is antithetical to what I hope to achieve.

      The open education movement has indeed been gaining in momentum and attracting many new adherents. If you wish to read more about it I suggest Martin Weller’s excellent book “The Battle for Open”: (available open access)
      I also unreservedly recommend anything written by Audrey Watters:

      Thanks again for reaching out and making this connection. I hope I have the opportunity to visit your beautiful corner of the world again soon (between Wineglass Bay and the Salamanca market, Tassie is among my favourite places).

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