The Ends of Organization & Environment

Who controls journals? Good question. The mass resignation of board members of the journal Organization and Environment raises some familiar issues that scholars should take seriously.

November 1, 2012

Quite a few years ago I resigned from the editorial board of a journal. I hadn’t been on it very long, and the editor was a colleague who I respected tremendously. She was new to the journal, too, and had great plans for it. But the publisher, Haworth, did something that I thought was so wrong that I felt I could not in conscience be associated with them. In addition to a large number of library-related journals, they published the Journal of Homosexuality. You’d think they’d be used to controversy, but they quickly caved to pressure when they got criticism (largely thanks to a right-wing website) over a planned special issue titled Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West. One author in particular, Bruce Rind, was a lightning rod. He had been one of the authors of a paper published in the APA’s Psychological Bulletin which was condemned by Congress (after being condemned by Dr. Laura on her radio program) because it had presented a meta-analysis of research, concluding that not all minors who engage in sex with adult partners are traumatized by the experience. Haworth caught a lot of flack and eventually published the issue, but without Rind’s paper. That was supposedly going to appear in another volume, but before it did, Haworth was acquired by the publishing giant Taylor & Francis, which decided not to go there.

I resigned not because I cared one way or another about the arguments made in the controversial issue. I resigned because it seemed wrong to do voluntary work for a publisher that was willing to override an editorial board’s decision in response to criticism. In an analysis of the controversy in a 2006 issue of Sexualities Dean Durber called this “a clear act of censorship; a pre-emptive attack on thought and debate.”   

I’m finding that a bit ironic at the moment, since Sexualities is published by SAGE, which has been accused twice in recent years been accused of exerting editorial control of journals they publish in order to make changes in the kind of content the journals contain. I wrote about the first of these instances involving the journal Political Theory back in 2009 in Library Journal, entirely unsure what had actually happened because nobody would talk about it on the record. Among the rumors floated was that it was an economic decision gone awry, that SAGE wanted to change editors in order to direct the journal’s content into an area more likely to jazz up its impact factor and its profitability. There’s no way to know, since the new editor brought in by SAGE resigned as soon as he realized the editorial board was caught by surprise and not entirely happy they had not been consulted. The rest is silence.

This week brings another SAGE journal into the news, but in this case things are a little less mysterious. Over twenty members of the editorial board of Organization & Environment have resigned to protest what they call a “hostile takeover” - SAGE’s decision to associate what had been a journal largely devoted to eco-social critique and an interdisciplinary focus on environmental sociology with a European group that is concerned with “sustainability management” – which, for those of us unfamiliar with these crosscurrents, is apparently more of a business management approach to environmental issues. The resigning members of the board contest SAGE’s claim that they are merely broadening the focus and readership of the journal in order to make it better, and accuse the publisher of “a gross infringement of academic freedom, scientific ethics, and intellectual responsibility.”

Who, indeed, controls journals? Clearly, large corporations that legally own them and their content can do what they will, and that includes changing the leadership and the editorial direction of an established journal for whatever reason they may have. Whatever the publisher’s actual motivation, the resignation of so many members of an editorial board suggest it was a significant change of direction.

Full disclosure: I have my issues with SAGE. They sued Georgia State over their e-reserves policy (and lost, and are appealing). They jacked up the price of our already-expensive journal package by 25% this year without warning. In this economic climate, profits are apparently more important than broad access to the scholarly record. I have no problem with whoever is new on the board of this journal publishing whatever research they want to publish. But in this instance, I really question whether moving in and inhabiting the shell of an established journal was the appropriate way to go.  A lot of the existing board feels their work in creating a strong presence and reputation has been coopted to support a different kind of scholarship, a kind that they feel runs contrary to their values and concerns. I don’t blame them for being angry.

But you know, this is kind of inevitable. Every time we sign over our copyrights to corporations,  every time we donate our labor to publishers whose mission may not actually align with those of our disciplines, we’re abdicating our control – and, one could argue, our responsibility. We’re giving businesses a free hand with academic knowledge. We don’t have to do that. This is just one more reason to question our traditional practices in an era when big businesses own and control access to a huge amount of the knowledge scholars created to share.


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