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Oxford U. Press Defends Its Standards as Food Activists Criticize Book
By Jennifer Howard | 03/05/2012
A group of scholars and food activists are campaigning against what they say is a decline in scholarly publishing standards. But their emphasis on one publisher and one book raises questions for some observers about what’s motivating the campaign.
Led by Frances Moore Lappé, the well-known author of Diet for a Small Planet and, most recently, EcoMind, the group has set up an online petition and a Web site, Scholarly Standards at Risk. They write, “We have encountered a particularly troubling example of the breakdown in academic-publishing standards, one that appears to be part of a wider decline.”
That example is Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Robert L. Paarlberg, published in 2010 by Oxford University Press. The book appeared as part of the press’s “What Everyone Needs to Know” series, which covers a wide variety of subjects in an accessible, Q&A format. Most of the books in the series do not have citations.
That’s one of the major objections lodged by members of Ms. Lappé’s group. On their Web site, they write that the book “lacks citations for its many claims and fails to disclose that the author has been an adviser to the Monsanto Corporation,” one of the largest corporate players on the agricultural scene. (Mr. Paarlberg and his publisher respond that he did not receive any money from Monsanto.) The Scholarly Standards at Risk petitioners complain that the book is “narrowly argued from one perspective” but that the publisher marketed it as a neutral overview. They call on the press to “uphold its own standards of excellence” and to pledge to use citations in all its books, to disclose authors’ potential conflicts of interest, and to accurately represent books when it markets them. They do not include any other books or publishers as examples of a decline in standards.
They and Mr. Paarlberg come at the subject of food policy from very different angles. Mr. Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College, has written about the benefits of so-called green-revolution technology, such as genetically engineered seeds. His previous book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa, was published by Harvard University Press in 2008. He has published with other university presses, including those of Cornell and Johns Hopkins, and has signed a new contract with Oxford, for a book on the politics of overconsumption.
Ms. Lappé is more in sympathy with the agro-ecological approach to food production, which centers on organic, local, traditional methods of farming. Ms. Lappé directs the Small Planet Institute, which focuses on grass-roots democratic projects around the world, with an emphasis on alleviating hunger and poverty. The other organizers of the campaign and petition include Molly D. Anderson, a professor of sustainable food systems at the College of the Atlantic, John Gershman, a clinical associate professor of public service at New York University, Philip D. McMichael, a professor of developmental sociology at Cornell University, and Ivette Perfecto, a professor of ecology and natural resources at the University of Michigan. Their online petition has gathered hundreds of signatures, although it’s not clear how many of the signers are academics.
In interviews, Ms. Lappé, Ms. Anderson, and Mr. Gershman said that ideological differences with Mr. Paarlberg were not driving their campaign. “We really feel this is illustrative of broader concerns about university presses and the role they can play in modeling good academic practice” and informed public debate, Mr. Gershman said. “This is something we care about as academics, as scholars, as concerned citizens.”
A ‘Bigger Issue’?
Ms. Lappé rejected the idea that books meant for a general readership don’t require citations. “We’re all part of this society, and an academic press has to model evidence-based discourse,” she said. “That’s where academic presses have to hold the line.”
Mr. Paarlberg’s book “jumped out for us,” Ms. Anderson said, “because we know the topic.”
Asked why the group decided not to raise its objections in reviews or op-eds, Ms. Anderson responded, “It seemed to be a bigger issue to us that couldn’t just be settled by saying ‘There are problems with this book.’”
That’s not how it appears to Mr. Paarlberg. “Clearly what they’re doing is launching a campaign against my book,” he said. “They’re not launching a campaign against scholarly standards.”
He pointed out that Ms. Lappé is not an academic. “I don’t believe she’s ever published in a peer-reviewed journal,” he said. “I don’t believe she’s ever published with a university press. It’s pretty obvious she doesn’t like my book.”
When Oxford approached him to write for the series, he said, he was a little skeptical about the Q&A format but not too troubled by the lack of citations, because it was part of the series format. “I was confident that, if challenged, I could lead someone to the source of my information,” he said. “So I didn’t feel insecure about it.”
As for conflicts of interest, Mr. Paarlberg pointed out that he was never employed by Monsanto, and that the advisory group he served on was “a notable group of obviously independent people,” including the president of the World Wildlife Federation, a former dean of the Tufts school of nutrition, and a Kenyan parliamentarian. “I naively thought this would protect me from accusations of my independence being compromised,” he said.
Mr. Paarlberg described himself as pleased with Oxford’s response to Ms. Lappé et al. In September 2011, Mr. Paarlberg’s editor, Angela Chnapko, defended the book and the author in a three-page response to Ms. Lappé. The editor pointed out that the book went through Oxford’s peer-review process. She noted that the series, aimed at general readers, does not use citations. She reviewed Mr. Paarlberg’s various associations, including grants from the Rockefeller and Gates foundations, and noted that he declined an honorarium for his dealings with Monsanto. “I do not believe that any of this compromises his scholarly integrity,” the editor wrote. The letter is linked to on the Scholarly Standards at Risk site.
Niko Pfund, the press’s president and academic publisher, said the publisher had weighed the complaints of Ms. Lappé et al. “We stand firmly behind Robert Paarlberg and the book he has published,” Mr. Pfund said. “We reject the suggestion that OUP’s desire to reach a broader audience with a series of books on issues of current public interest—all of which have been subjected to the same, vigorous pre-publication process which all OUP books undergo—in any way translates to a decline in scholarly rigor or standards.”
Mr. Pfund added, “Sometimes a difference of perspective is simply that.”
Ms. Lappé said she and her group remain unsatisfied with Oxford’s response. She plans to hand-deliver the petition to the press’s British offices in April.
The Politics of Food
Meanwhile, Mr. Paarlberg’s book has found its way onto some undergraduate syllabi. At least one professor said it adds a useful balance to the reading mix and that he compensates for the lack of citations by making sure his students know where the author’s coming from.
Ike Sharpless, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, assigned Food Politics for his spring 2012 undergraduate course on “The Politics of Food.” It’s one of seven required-reading texts, along with Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Marion Nestle’s Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
He included it as a counterweight to the other reading, he said, particularly Stuffed and Starved. “If it were being assigned as the only resource for class discussion, however, I agree that would be a serious problem,” he said in an e-mail.
He has found that most of his students disagree with Mr. Paarlberg’s take on the issues. “Not presenting this perspective would only prevent them from nuancing their own views,” he said. “More generally, I’m going to tell my students about his links to Monsanto (and anyone with the most basic Google skills could find such info).” He also makes sure the students know about Mr. Patel’s and other authors’ links to the antiglobalization movement.
Given how charged the subject is, Mr. Sharpless harbors some skepticism about what’s motivating the Scholarly Standards at Risk campaign. “I would agree with the concerns raised about citations and conflicts of interest, but would raise a countervailing concern that the core critique may really be that Lappé and others simply disagree with Paarlberg’s conclusions, and that calling for censure on those grounds would be against academic integrity, not for it,” he said.
Scholarly Presses and the Need for ‘Evidence-Based Discourse’
To the Editor:
Your article about our petition campaign asking Oxford University Press to uphold basic scholarly standards (“Oxford U. Press Defends Its Standards as Food Activists Criticize Book,” The Chronicle, March 5) states that we offer only one example of declining standards. Yet, from its launch, our petition-campaign Web site has noted that Food Politics is part of a “What Everyone Needs to Know” series of 20 books, some of which lack citations. The site also noted that Oxford University Press has also published at least a few other works without citations; and some other distinguished academic presses are now publishing a few works without citations.
The “one example” frame of your article distracts readers from our key point and the reason we resorted to a petition campaign: Oxford University Press (in letters to us posted on our Web site) affirms that Food Politics meets its standards, and thus the press, in effect, is saying that works on vital public issues do not require citations, its “conflict of interest” policy only covers financial ties, and there is nothing wrong in promoting a highly partisan work as an overview of “contested terrain.” Whether applied to one work or to hundreds, this stance by Oxford University Press represents an abdication of the critical role academic presses have played in upholding fair, evidence-based discourse on which a democratic society depends.
On the “conflict of interest” point, we wish to clarify that in our interviews with your reporter we stressed that we have never suggested that the author of Food Politics received remuneration for his association with the Monsanto Company. We emphasized that the widely recognized standard for disclosure of conflict of interest covers any association that might compromise the objectivity of the scholar.
Professor of Food and Sustainable Agricultural Systems
College of the Atlantic
Bar Harbor, Me.
Clinical Associate Professor of Public Service
New York University
Frances Moore Lappé
Small Planet Institute
Professor of Development Sociology
Professor of Ecology and Natural Resources
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Agroecology and Food Sovereignty
International Institute for Environment and Development
Can Criticizing a Book Go Too Far?
To the Editor:
Two years ago I published a book with Oxford University Press titled Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. A number of academic journals reviewed the book favorably, but one reviewer made a telling prediction: “The book will drive food activists half-nuts.”
And indeed some food activists have objected to my book, because I do not endorse a lock-step view that high-productivity farming is bad, and because I review scientific evidence that organically grown foods are no more nutritious or safe to eat, or better for the environment, than conventionally grown foods. For agricultural economists, crop scientists, and nutritionists, this information is hardly news, but it threatens directly the dominant narrative of most food activists.
A strong blowback against my book eventually came from Frances Moore Lappé, a well known alternative-food and farming advocate who now heads her own Small Planet Institute. In September 2011, Ms. Lappé began her attack on my book, not with an open critique but with a private letter of complaint to the president of Oxford University Press in New York. It was also signed by several like-minded critics and accompanied by a 21-page catalog of her concerns. The central concern was that I had not embraced her preference for “agroecological” food-production systems, plus the fact that the book lacked footnotes (this is because it was part of a series published by Oxford for classroom use or general-interest consumption, as opposed to research monographs making original claims, which remain heavily referenced). As for alleged factual errors in my book, Ms. Lappé and her supporters pointed directly to only four. Yet for each of these, I was able to provide Oxford with documentation revealing that it was Ms. Lappé’s claims, not mine, that were in error. Oxford responded to Ms. Lappé with a polite letter pointing out the accuracy of my assertions and restating confidence in the book.
Rather than admitting error and backing off—or even engaging substantively with the issues she herself had raised—Ms. Lappé took her campaign to a higher level. She re-sent her 21-page document to the vice chancellor of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, along with a new letter describing my book as “a threat to the culture of academic rigor and democracy itself,” and she demanded a face-to-face meeting with the vice chancellor. When this gambit was rejected by Oxford for the same reasons, she turned to the Internet, putting up a Web site called “Scholarly Standards at Risk,” where she invited followers to sign an online petition of complaint to Oxford. Someone from her institute even altered my personal Wikipedia page to add a direct link to her petition site. Last month she wrote a letter to The Chronicle asking you to cover this controversy (the one she was working to manufacture). The Chronicle did cover the matter, in a clear-eyed dissection of her campaign (“Oxford U. Press Defends Its Standards as Food Activists Criticize Book,” March 5).
Ms. Lappé’s campaign continues, however. She has restated her case in a letter to The Chronicle (“Scholarly Presses and the Need for ‘Evidence-Based Discourse,‘” April 9), and this month she posted a blog on Huffington Post, offering a melodramatic account of the personal “shock” she felt when first reading my book (“I couldn’t believe my eyes”), and once again soliciting signatures for her petition. She explains that her next move will be to travel to the United Kingdom to present her petition to Oxford University Press in person.
As an academic, I am not accustomed to getting this much attention from anybody. Colleagues who question my judgments usually register their views by publishing scholarly work of their own, or by speaking at professional meetings, or through direct correspondence with me. My academic associates would never think of starting with a back-door letter of complaint to my publisher, or a disingenuous petition drive on the Internet, or by hijacking my Wikipedia page. Most of all, my academic colleagues would never think of repeating false charges after facing a documented correction. The world of the academy has many limitations, but it also has unparalleled virtues, including requirements for scholarly credentials, evidence, and peer-review.
Ms. Lappé has none of these things on her side. She has never been a scholar, and has never published a peer-reviewed article, let alone a university press book. Because Oxford has remained confident in its review process for my book, which involved four pre-publication reviews plus my own subsequent engagement with the readers’ comments, it has wisely decided to limit its response to the original polite letter of rebuttal. I am now limiting my own response to this one letter as well. I believe activists are welcome in the academic world, but when they engage in unscholarly conduct, they forfeit their right to be taken seriously.
Professor of Political Science
(Please note that the word “anger” in the headline in no way reflects the spirit of our initiative)
Anger at Oxford University Press
By Jonathan Tomlin | 04/26/2012
A petition against falling standards at Oxford University Press (OUP) was delivered to the Vice-Chancellor’s office on Wednesday.
Frances Moore Lappé and Dr Michel Pimbert delivered the petition to highlight their complaint that several OUP publications are failing “to meet basic scholarly standards”.
Lappé, a multi-million selling author and world hunger activist, and Pimbert, Team Leader for Agroecology at the International Institute for Environment and Development, are among seven originators of the campaign.
The petition has so far attracted about 5,000 signatures from 55 countries and all 50 US states, including from many academics and students.
The petition has also received roughly 1,500 comments from signatories, many of whom said they were “shocked” and “appalled”.
One student commented that they “would flunk without full, traceable citations”, while another said that “democracies depend on the citizenry being well-informed”.
415 people have also signed up to follow the progress of the petition.
The campaign arose after Lappé expressed “shock” at the standards of Dr. Robert Paarlberg’s book, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, which was published by OUP in 2010.
Lappé criticised OUP’s claim that the book met scholarly standards, saying: “If it meets their standards, they are saying citations are optional, they only need to disclose conflicts of interest that involve financial ties, that it is acceptable to promote a book as a ‘map’ of ‘conflicting claims and accusations from advocates on all sides’ when it is instead narrowly partisan.”
She added: “To find OUP was publishing not just one, but several books without citations was deeply worrying. From our petition, we see many people feel the same way. It is about trust… you expect the academic community to uphold the line.”
But Lappé said that she was pleased with the response of the Vice-Chancellor’s Private Secretary, Alasdair MacDonald, on Wednesday: “He said that he was really just a messenger boy. I think he felt that he couldn’t express an opinion about anything that we were discussing, but he was certainly very respectful and communicative through body language [which suggested] that he took this seriously. He indicated that he would share this document with the delegates and with the VC.”
She added: “I think anyone reading those comments would feel quite moved, and, as we underscore, I think the pain that comes through many of those comments is that so many feel that the media in general is less and less trustworthy and really want to know that OUP, the gold standard of publishing, is holding the lines and is something they can trust.
“I said at the end of my remarks that people perceive OUP as a public treasure that they do not want to move, and that is my feeling and I think it comes through a lot of the comments.”
She continued: “I think what is striking is we even have some executives of academic publishers that have weighed in themselves, as well as quite a few professors, including one college president from the state of Maine in the US, and many students.”
She also said that she was surprised that about a third of those who signed the petition added comments, especially on “something that could be seen as kind of peripheral”.
“I think there was shock and surprise, that people thought they could count on OUP, especially at this time.
“I think there is such pervasive disappointment and fear about the decline of the trustworthiness of media… so maybe this is a reflection of this in part, this is the reason it’s struck this nerve right now.”
She also said that she hopes that Oxford students help to push for a change to the policy: “I would dearly hope that the students take this on, because you have the power that we don’t have.
“My highest wish would be a student body initiative to have a public forum on what makes sense in terms of the standards of the press. It seems to me that that would be such a high reflection on the university, on the students.”
Dr. Paarlberg claimed the criticism was the result of his defence of high-productivity farming and his view that organically grown foods are no more nutritious or safe than conventionally grown food. He described these claims as “hardly news” to crop scientists and nutritionists, but that the idea “threatens directly the dominant narrative of most food activists”.
He defended the fact that he did not include footnotes because “it was part of a series published by Oxford for classroom use or general-interest consumption, as opposed to research monographs making original claims, which remain heavily referenced”.
He added: “Lappé began her attack on my book, not with an open critique but with a private letter of complaint to the president of Oxford University Press in New York.
“As for alleged factual errors in my book, Ms Lappé and her supporters pointed directly to only four. Yet for each of these, I was able to provide Oxford with documentation revealing that it was Ms Lappé’s claims, not mine, that were in error.
“I believe activists are welcome in the academic world, but when they engage in unscholarly conduct, they forfeit their right to be taken seriously.”
Niko Pfund, President of OUP USA, said: “We have reviewed our extensive pre-publication vetting of Robert Paarlberg’s manuscript, and of the published work itself, which has reaffirmed our confidence in the book.
“As Dr. Paarlberg outlines in his foreword, the politics of food production are an ideologically contentious subject; while we respect the right of others to engage and disagree with Dr. Paarlberg, we reject any suggestion that the scholarship of his book is skewed or flawed.”
Our Response to Robert Paarlberg’s Letter to the Editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education
To the Editor:
In his letter accusing me of unfairly criticizing his book (“Can Criticizing a Book Go Too Far?” April 23), Robert Paarlberg misses the point of our Scholarly Standards at Risk initiative. Ours is an appeal to Oxford University Press concerning a breakdown in publishing standards.
We first approached the press with concern that this book lacked citations, failed to disclose that the author has been an adviser to Monsanto’s CEO, and is presented as a “map” of “contested terrain” rather than the view of a proponent on one side in a debate. In its response, the press made clear to us that: (1) Citations are not a requirement, even for works on serious and contentious public issues; (2) conflict-of-interest disclosure is only required if there is direct financial payment—a much lower standard than that of, for example, the Society of Professional Journalists; and (3) works by strong proponents in contentious arenas may be described as overviews above the fray.
first alerted us to what we view as transgressions of publishing standards because it is in the general field of the seven petition co-originators, who include distinguished scientists and academics. The press’s response confirmed our fear that the problem is with its publishing standards.
Never did we suggest that the press should not publish this book, but only that any future printing—and all Oxford University Press books on public issues—should include citations and disclosure, and should be appropriately described by the press. We learned that this book is not the only Oxford University Press book on a major public issue that lacks citations and is presented as an overview, even though written by a known proponent.
The more than 5,000 signers of our petition to Oxford University Press appear to grasp the purpose of our appeal. Very few mention a book. Typically, comments express profound alarm and disappointment that Oxford University Press has not committed to reverse the above policies, especially given the breakdown in evidence-based discourse in our wider culture. Some note that students are, of course, required to meet the standards we seek. Our petition asks simply for: (1) citations for evidence-based claims; (2) disclosure of potential conflict of interest, whether financial or by association; and (3) accurate representation of the publication by the press in its promotion.
As to Mr. Paarlberg’s charge that my office altered his Wikipedia entry, this is something I would never do or request. Using InfoSniper or similar utilities, one can see that the IP address linked to the text change in question is located in Britain. As to Mr. Paarlberg’s charge of errors on my part, readers are welcome to review the background documents on our Web site.
Finally, I hope that will take on the critical, underlying question our initiative raises: Is there is a pattern of decline in standards in academic publishing, and what might we do to reverse the trend?
Frances Moore Lappé
Small Planet Institute
By Frances Moore Lappé | 4/5/2012
Eighteen months ago I read a book that changed my life. Yeah, yeah, I know… sounds corny. But it’s not what you think. This book changed my life not because of what it said but because of what it didn’t say.
On a nothing-special summer afternoon in 2010, I sat in the Cambridge Public Library preparing a speech on something I’d been studying for decades. I plugged “world hunger” into the library’s computer. Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know popped up.
Perfect, I thought. I knew I would have differences with the book because I’d just read a critique of the views of its author, Robert Paarlberg, by my daughter Anna Lappé on the Foreign Policy website. But I’m always eager to know how those with whom I disagree make their case. Noticing that Food Politics was published by Oxford University Press, I felt confident I could count on it being a credibly argued and sourced counterpoint.
So I began reading.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes” doesn’t do justice to the shock I experienced.
The book’s subtitle suggests coverage of essential food issues and its back cover indicates Food Politics is not just another example of “conflicting claims and accusations from advocates,” but rather “maps this contested terrain.” Yet, I was finding only one piece of the “map” with key issues at the center of the global food debate omitted altogether. But what was jaw-dropping for me was that Food Politics lacked any citations for the book’s many startling claims.
What? Why would the gold standard of academic presses, Oxford University Press, release such a work and misleadingly promote it, to boot? The UK Oxford University Press website says that “all books are referred to them [the Delegates, i.e., selected faculty of the university] for approval.” The Press’ USA website stresses its peer review process.
But how, I wondered, could a book on any serious topic be evaluated in the absence of citations?
I soon learned that Oxford University Press had published other books on vital public concerns, including nuclear power, with no citations. Hmm, I thought, even high school students are required to provide sources.
Then I got to the author’s defense of Monsanto. He cites the “political stigma” that has been attached to GMOs, which “dried up investment” in GMOs in Europe, as a reason that the company now dominates the industry.
The claim seemed so wild that my suspicion was piqued. From there, a quick search on Monsanto’s website showed that the author had been an advisor to the company’s CEO. In the book’s opening, moreover, Dr. Paarlberg thanks the Gates Foundation, among others, for supporting his independent work, without noting that the foundation is itself an investor in Monsanto.
My journalist son Anthony Lappé has always stressed to me the absolute rule of “full disclosure” of ties that could influence, or appear to influence, one’s reporting. Surely, Oxford University Press grasps that such transparency is a foundation of democratic discourse; and how especially critical it is to uphold in a work on the life-and-death matter of hunger.
I had to act. After all, almost every speech I give ends with a call for greater boldness. I argue that humans are “good enough.” It’s our courage we need to stoke. So what could I do?
I began reaching out to scholars, and others whom I trust, to present a constructive challenge to Oxford University Press, asking it to hold the line on academic standards. Some weren’t moved, saying, “Oh, Frankie, why don’t you just publish a critical review yourself somewhere?” Or, “You’ll never get anywhere going to the Press.”
Their reactions spurred me on. My alarm was not about Dr. Paarlberg’s views, for they can be addressed in fair debate. My distress was about the threat to democracy itself in Oxford University Press’s choice to lower its standards.
OK, that might sound overblown. But not to me. Democracy depends on honest, fair, accurate debate. Without it, we can’t possibly meet today’s challenges. And if academic presses don’t hold the line — when fair discourse in the wider culture is in collapse — who will?
In time, six distinguished, courageous scholars and leaders in the field of food, hunger and ecological farming, who share my alarm, joined me. First we sent our critique to the leader of Oxford University Press in New York City, Mr. Niko Pfund. We asked to meet to discuss straightforward remedies. At first, I truly believed top leadership at the Press would be distressed that this book had slipped through and would recommit to uphold basic standards.
Instead, after several weeks, we received a letter saying that Food Politics met its standards and no one would meet with us. (On the particular point of lack of disclosure, the Press told us that Dr. Paarlberg did not accept payment from Monsanto and therefore disclosing his advisory role was not required. However, we’d never said that he was paid by Monsanto. Our position is the widely accepted standard that any association, which could appear to influence a writer’s coverage of his or her subject, must be disclosed.)
OK, we thought, what about the home base of Oxford University Press in Oxford, England? Surely, there, where two dozen faculty of the university, known as the Delegates, have final authority, we’ll find leadership who shares our dismay. Calls and offers to travel to Oxford for discussions got nowhere. Finally, the office of Oxford University Vice Chancellor Andrew D. Hamilton, speaking for the Press, wrote to affirm the position of his New York office: The book met Oxford University Press standards; and no one would discuss the matter with us.
With those channels closed, we launched a petition campaign. And here’s where we need your help!
On April 25th, I’ll arrive on the steps of Oxford University Press in Oxford, England. And we would love to have your signature on the petition I’ll deliver. The petition asks for just three basic standards to be upheld by Oxford University Press: citations for evidence-based claims, full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest (whether financial or other associations), and accurate promotion of publications.
Is not each of these three — transparency about sources, disclosure of conflicts of interest, and accurate promotion — precisely the type of standard that distinguishes an academic press from, say, a Fox News?
We believe our appeal goes to the very heart of democracy itself; for, absent transparency and commitment to evidence-based argument (impossible if authors provide no sources for claims!) democracy’s lifeblood — open, fair dialogue — drains away.
Thank you. It really matters.
By Frances Moore Lappé | 5/1/2012
On April 25th, in a small French café across the street from the Oxford University Vice-Chancellor’s office, Jonathan Tomlin, a classics major and reporter for The Oxford Student, asked me what I hoped to achieve by the act I had just committed. Moments before I’d delivered a petition to Oxford University Press of over 5,000 signers from 55 countries to Alasdair MacDonald, the Private Secretary to the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice-Chancellor was away.
For months, six other scholars and I had pressed to speak with authorities of Oxford University Press about a shocking retreat by the Press — the gold standard of academic publishing — in upholding three basic academic standards. But not one of the two dozen Delegates (faculty ultimately responsible for the Press), would meet, even for tea, though we raise foundational questions about the integrity of Press’s policies:
One, the Press now publishes some books without citations for evidence-based claims on the most critical issues of our time. Examples include The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier and Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Charles D. Ferguson. Without citations, how can readers evaluate the credibility of a work? Without citations, how can the Press uphold its commitment to a quality review by peers?
Two, the Press has said in writing that conflict-of-interest disclosure applies only to financial associations. (The effect of this policy? Its book Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know doesn’t disclose that the author Robert Paarlberg has been an official advisor to the CEO of the Monsanto Company, and in a letter to us the Press said that such nondisclosure is just fine.)
Three, the Press promotes as an overview what is an argument by a proponent of one side of a contentious public issue: For example, it promotes Food Politics as a “map” of “conflicting claims and accusations from advocates on all sides,” while the work presents one perspective by a widely recognized proponent.
So my response to Jonathan, an earnest young man, about what we hope to achieve, was simple: to reverse these indefensible policies. To that end, we’ll continue our petition and work to arrange a meeting with Vice-Chancellor Andrew D. Hamilton.
“But it’s you who have the power– you students,” I told Jonathan. “My biggest hope is that you students pursue these questions.”
As we talked more, the obviousness of what I had just said hit me. So through the cold rain, shielding my head by with the plastic sheath that had held our 100-page petition, I hurried to the multi-story office of the Oxford University Student Union. I’d hoped to talk with its president Martha Mackenzie, but no luck. So I left her our press release … and crossed my fingers. The Student Union, I was told, gets involved in critical campus issues like these.
And then there’s the Oxford Union — the famous debating society. So as soon as I got back to London, I emailed its president Isabel Ernst. Maybe questions raised by our campaign could be a perfect debate topic, I more than hinted.
Now, if you know something of my work — from 1971 Diet for a Small Planet to 2011 EcoMind — and wonder why I’ve taken this on, it’s easy: Without evidence-based discourse democracy itself is not possible, and without democracy solutions to hunger and environmental collapse — the focus of my life — are out of reach. So it’s been immensely gratifying to feel similar passion coming through the comments of so many petition signers. I sense that many see Oxford University Press as I do: a public treasure they do not want to lose, especially as we experience the wider media becoming less and less trustworthy.
Ultimately, the question before Oxford University students right now is whether they will demand that their university’s press hold to the same standards that are required of them.
Let’s hope so.
P.S. So please join in. Sign our petition and leave your comments. For more background, please visit www.scholarlystandardsatrisk.org. And if you want to know what happens next, just send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org subject line “Scholarly standards.”