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Who Controls Journals?

July 7, 2009

As more journals shift from being run by university presses and scholarly societies to corporate entities, the goal is better management, better sales (since packages of journals are frequently sold together) and economies of scale. The fear of some involved in journal publishing is that corporate interests will limit the role of scholars in making key decisions.

On Monday, both the promise and concerns about corporate management of scholarly journals were evident. Sage Publishing announced that it would start publishing (but not owning) the flagship journal in sociology -- American Sociological Review -- along with seven other journals that until now have been directly published by the American Sociological Association. The move by sociologists follows by two years a similar announcement by the American Anthropological Association that it was shifting its journals from the University of California Press to Wiley-Blackwell.

At the same time Sage was landing a prestigious batch of journals, it was trying to reassure political scientists who have been trying to figure out what was going on with the leadership of Political Theory, a key journal in the discipline and one published by Sage. The political science blogosphere has featured unconfirmed reports that Sage replaced the editor in what some have called a coup. While Sage officials insist nothing of the kind happened, and the original editor is in place, another political scientist has confirmed that he was offered and accepted the editorship, then withdrew when he learned of the controversy.

While Sage officials will acknowledge only some sort of "misunderstanding," they admit that whatever it was they were were trying to do was done without consulting the scholars on the editorial board of the journal, and they are apologizing for that.

Needless to say, having respected editors removed from their positions at journals without any consultation with editorial boards is exactly the kind of move scholars fear when they consider corporate management of their journals. While some have speculated that Sage was taking sides in some kind of philosophical battleground, many have said that the problem here isn't one of philosophy or of one editor or another, but of academics not making the decisions.

In the discussion on Crooked Timber, a popular social science blog, one political scientist wrote: "Given the nature of journal publishing anymore, where firms like Sage and Elsevier think of their journals as profit engines first and charge enormous amounts for subscriptions, I’m amazed -- though perhaps I shouldn’t be -- that people immediately leaped to the conclusion that this must be a Berkeley against the world thing, or a Habermas vs. Foucault thing, or a history-of political-thought-vs.-critical-theory thing, or an administration-vs.-faculty thing, or what have you, and ignored the possibility that it’s all about the Benjamins (Franklin, not Barber)."

Another replied: "It seems astonishing to me that academics still put themselves in the power of these companies."

Sally Hillsman, executive officer of the sociology association, said via e-mail that she couldn't say anything about the Political Theory situation since she knew "absolutely nothing" about it. But she said that she was confident in Sage as a publisher and that Sage would have "no control whatsoever over ASA journal editors, editorial boards, editorial processes, or editorial offices, as is appropriate with journals that are not owned by a publisher but by a scholarly society."

Exactly what took place at Political Theory remains murky -- in part because Sage won't provide details. Most members of the journal's editorial board who could be reached declined to comment, with several saying that they did not want to hurt their relationships with Sage.

What is clear is that in the last 10 days, rumors started to circulate that Sage had ousted Mary G. Dietz, a political scientist at Northwestern University, from the position of editor. The rumors appeared to have substance when Mark Bevir, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, posted an online notice that he had been offered and accepted the editorship of the journal but had then withdrawn.

Bevir wrote: "I am posting one message here to state facts now that I am no longer bound by confidentiality. Sage approached me about the editorship of PT. They asked me to submit an application, which I did. They offered me a contract and I accepted. Throughout I had no knowledge that this procedure was at all unusual. Once I knew it was unusual, I asked Sage to explain their position. I understood that Sage had reasonable concerns about existing editorial practices. But I had no desire to be stuck in the middle of that dispute. I therefore offered Sage my resignation. The future of PT now depends on Sage and the existing editorial team."

Bevir could not be reached for comment. Dietz, via e-mail, said that she was still the editor and that "since the situation with Sage has been resolved to our complete satisfaction, I don't see any need to comment further on it."

One editorial board member who did respond was Terrell Carver, a professor of politics at the University of Bristol, in Britain. He said via e-mail: "Sage has apologized in an e-mail to me for breaching academic protocols and necessary consultation with the editorial executive committee of Political Theory. They have expressed their full confidence in Mary Dietz's ability to continue to edit the journal and are giving their full support in going forward productively. Sage reports that it has severed any connection with any third party in the matter of the editorship."

Carver also posted a notice on one of the online discussions of the matters, urging colleagues to move on to other issues and saying that "members of the Editorial Board have emphasized the importance of vigilance in defense of academic freedoms, principles and protocols in relation to commercial interests, where they are sometimes not fully understood ... which is what happened in this case."

Jayne Marks, vice president and editorial director of Sage, said in an interview that there had been "a misunderstanding," but that Dietz had never stopped being editor of the journal. "It's all been cleared up and everything's back to normal." She hinted that Sage's view is that it was trying to line up a successor to Dietz by saying that it was appropriate for publishers to engage in "succession planning."

But she declined repeatedly to explain what took place, or to acknowledge that anything had happened. Asked explicitly about how another political scientist said he signed a contract for an editorship that wasn't apparently open, and that many political scientists were expressing concern about the lack of information, Marks repeated that everything has been "sorted out" and that she wouldn't say more.

"We publish well over 500 journals. We have a long history of working closely with the academic community and we have excellent relationships," she said. "From time to time we have a misunderstanding," she added, but it is "in the interest of all the parties involved" not to say more. "The whole situation is behind us."

 

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