Oxford University Press, Hear Our Appeal

April 27, 2012

Scholarly Standards at Risk launches a defense of basic integrity in academic publishing that, with your help, can become a broad and effective initiative. We hope you will join us by signing our petition.

We, the seven originators, unequivocally support the right of publishers to choose the content they release. However, we believe that academic presses have a distinct and essential role in democratic societies: Democracy’s advancement—even its survival—depends on open, evidence-based discourse on matters of public import.  As public discourse in the wider culture is increasingly ungrounded in evidence, democratic societies depend more than ever on academia and academic presses to hold the line on integrity in communication. Yet we have become aware of a troubling breakdown in academic publishing standards.

Oxford University Press

Oxford University Press, long regarded as the gold standard of academic publishing, is publishing works that fail to meet standards required of students even at the undergraduate level.

One, citations are not required for all works with evidence-based claims.

Two, authors are not required to reveal important conflicts of interest, such as high-level corporate advisory posts, unless they involve direct financial payments.

Three, the Press promotes certain books as broad overviews above the fray, when they are clearly partisan.

We were first alerted to these important issues upon reading the Oxford University Press book Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Robert Paarlberg. It lacks citations for its many claims and fails to disclose that the author has been an official advisor to the Monsanto Company. The Press also casts this book—via the choice of subtitle, as well as in promotional copy—as an overview rising above “polarized” and “conflicting claims and accusations from advocates.” Our response explains why this book is instead narrowly argued from one perspective.

Other examples of works on significant social issues without citations include The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It 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?

Our Actions

So far, we have asked Oxford University Press to uphold its own stated standards of excellence. On its website the Press states that it publishes “…works that further Oxford University’s objectives, including its objectives of excellence in research, scholarship, and education. Thus aspiring to the same goals as the University, excellence, authority, and innovation are the cornerstones of our publishing philosophy.”

Last fall, we sent a letter with the points above to Mr. Niko Pfund, president of Oxford University Press in the United States and, later, the same letter to Professor Andrew D. Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford and Chair of the Delegates of Oxford University Press, its final authority. Expressing our profound distress at the lapse in scholarly standards, we requested a meeting with each to discuss the problems noted above. We proposed this specific remedy, reflecting standards that should apply to any academic press book:

1. Citations for evidence-based claims;

2. Disclosure of potential conflict of interest, whether financial or other associations; and

3. Accurate representation of the publication by the Press in its promotion.

Both Mr. Pfund and Professor Hamilton refused to meet or to even discuss these matters with us and have confirmed in writing that Food Politics meets the Press’s standards. By implication, therefore, other works that lack citations, fail to disclose conflicts of interest, and that are misleadingly promoted, would meet its standards. On April 25th we hand delivered a petition to the Delegates of Oxford University Press of more than 5,000 signers from 55 countries. It was received by the Private Secretary to the Vice-Chancellor of the University. We are now reaching out to student organizations with the hope that they will take up this critical matter.

Your participation

Please help us continue to build this campaign by signing our petition urging Oxford University Press to uphold basic standards. Note that if we succeed, this initiative could have an effect beyond Oxford University Press in defending publishing standards. Please forward this website link to colleagues who would share your concern. We also ask you to add your own comments, including corrections, suggested strategies, and any additional evidence of sinking standards among academic presses.

We defend academic freedom. Individuals are free to write and presses are free to publish content as they see fit. We ask only that academic presses fulfill their stated commitment to uphold widely acknowledged standards of scholarship essential to productive debate and to democracy itself.
Thank you for your interest and support,

Professor Molly Anderson
College of the Atlantic

Professor John Gershman
New York University

Dr. Hans Herren
President, Millennium Institute

Frances Moore Lappé
Co-Director, Small Planet Institute

Professor Philip McMichael
Cornell University

Professor Ivette Perfecto
University of Michigan

Dr. Michel Pimbert
Team Leader Agroecology and Food Sovereignty
International Institute for Environment and Development, UK


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