Published in AMS Quarterly, vol. 6 (April 2003), p. 12
original manuscript.
copyright retained by author

Pusillanimous Paranoia in Pedagogical Publishing
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Auburn University Alumni Professor
Marketing Department

I once had a paper rejected by a conference editor despite a lack of any substantive negative comments from the reviewers. One set of comments noted that my comparison of research journals and their summaries in textbooks would be sure to generate a wealth of discussion, providing a few suggestions on how to improve the presentation. Another person's concerns, however, were obviously the basis for the negative decision, a single sentence stating that if I have anything critical to say about textbooks I "should talk to the authors directly instead of making it the basis for a public discussion." Obviously, there was an editorial fear that a textbook author might attend the session and get upset.

In a similar vein, an author told me how a journal editor wanted to handle a reviewer-mentioned potential problem with an otherwise-accepted paper, a concern that it "might offend some readers." A rigorous and thorough presentation of a new theoretical model, the author had presented his own views of how other models fell short in answering certain questions or in providing directions for research, naming the authors of the other models and properly citing the key articles. The editor wanted to delete the names or citations of these other models, with a footnote that the list of references were "available on request from the author." Of course, if someone read the article after the author died or retired from academia, any comparison with the other models would remain unknown and the claimed benefits of the new model would have to be based on faith.

These editors suppressed academic discussions out of a strange sense of fear that someone somewhere might be offended by the publication of critical comments. Opening doors for academic discussion only would have required a lack of cowardice by the editors. Note that I didn't say "bravery," just a lack of cowardice.

Such fear probably explains those editors that want all referees' approval of any accepted version, sending each revision, no matter how trivial, out for another set of reviews. Not doing their job of making editorial decisions, these editors worry about reviewers' possible anger when a decision does not fit what they recommend, while they also hide behind the reviewers in fear of author reactions to a negative decision.

These editors worry about whether they will be liked by all stakeholders in the journal. Publishers, on the other hand, are increasingly paranoid that someone will sue them.

As the issue of a respected research journal neared publication and distribution, an article that was accepted by the editors and referees was listed in the table of contents on the publisher's web page and in the announcements on internet discussion lines. At the last minute, a manager in the publications office called the president of the business association whose public service efforts were shown by the article's data to be much less effective than generally claimed. Why the call was made, or what the journal publisher actually feared is uncertain. Yet when the association president asked that the article not be published, it was quickly pulled from the journal within days of the final printing.

In an effort to avoid any and all potential legal actions, one British publisher of numerous academic journals has written guidelines barring any potentially defamatory or otherwise unflattering statements of companies, regardless of whether the statements are true or extensively documented. The journal's solicitors might not suppress the article if the names are disguised, but not if the identity of the company might be discerned from the rest of the discussion. Accordingly, their editorial guidelines note that "there are individuals and companies which are impossible to hide," and any research paper or case report critical of them would not be published. As a specific application of these guidelines, a paper was accepted by an academic journal editor but was later killed by the publisher's managing editor. The article named the companies engaging in sweatshop-like operations in third-world countries, and the discussion was not "saved" by citing newspapers who had already written about the heavily-reported manufacturing practices.

These publishers or managing editors are usually removed from the academic issues of publication and discussion. To them, academic integrity, open discussion or free speech are irrelevant. They want to avoid problems.

This is not to say that their concerns are totally unfounded.

Boise Cascade responded to a negative article in the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy by having a company lawyer contact the authors and the university publisher to demand that they cease distributing the article. Physics Today and Bulletin of the American Physical Society published companion articles, a cost effectiveness study of various scientific journals that compared subscription charges and content. The owners of a journal that came out low in the rankings responded with intense legal actions in several different countries against the non-profit association that owned the two publications that distributed the infomration. One author told me that his first book got killed by an academic publisher after a news organization described in his manuscript wrote to him to threaten legal action if he published his well documented research on the company's international practices.

And yet, it is one thing to be cautious and another to be paranoid. In a similar vein, when Federal Trade Commission regulatory activism was at its peak, an advertising agency account manager observed that if given total control, their lawyers would never let them make any substantive claims. So many claims were open to possible FTC investigation, the lawyers' stock answer to everything was "No." If they worried about everything, their advertising would never say anything.

Discussions of ideas are all we really have of value in our academic conferences, journals and books. If editors and publishers perpetually fear criticism, instead of acting as facilitators of academic thought, they become our greatest enemy.