Large Academic Publishers are a Single Point of Failure for Academic Freedom

If you count state censorship as an attack upon academic freedom, then large academic publishers are a single point of failure for academic freedom. The current row regarding Cambridge University Press’ decision to allow the wholesale censorship of the leading academic journal on Chinese affairs, The China Quarterly is a feature, not a bug, of the current system of publishing academic research.

Academics decry this censorship for good reason: James Millward calls it “ a craven, shameful and destructive concession to the PRC’s growing censorship regime.” As Jessica C.Weiss and Greg Distelhorst point out, “it implicates Cambridge University Press in the rewriting of Chinese history.” Both of these open letters are correct. However Millward makes a further point — that this censorship is unnecessary — and here I beg to differ. Cambridge University Press, a company with a quarter-billion pounds of annual revenue, is simply doing what every other large company has done to gain or maintain access to the Chinese market: bending the knee to the PRC, even if it doesn’t touch the floor. All companies face stark choices. Google exited China in 2010, and now the Chinese market is dominated by its competitors like Baidu, Facebook decided market engagement was better, and built censorship tools to stay in the country. In this sense, censorship isn’t an exogenous event, it’s part and parcel of business in this market, particularly if any element of that business touches upon politically sensitive issues for the Chinese government.

Large companies are amenable to censorship by authoritarian states that control access to profitable markets. I expect that Cambridge University Press’s business model — like that of Oxford University Press, Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, etc — is reliant upon sales in China, or at least a lack of sales there would put a big dent in profit margins. As such, all these companies are amenable to pressure by the Chinese Government. Academic publishing has moved from small independently published journals to large walled gardens provided by a handful of companies, but our expectations of academic freedom haven’t changed. I realise there are different governance arrangements at work in this case (CUP is part of the University of Cambridge), but the structure of publishing is still the same: a small number of stakeholders who are very sensitive to legal and financial pressure who control the rest of the planet’s access to information. As offensive as Cambridge University Press’ decision over The China Quarterly is to academics, it’s a feature of the current system of academic publishing that we all buy into.

As I see it, the only lever that academic publishers have with the Chinese government is that they also control access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) publications. CUP could take an “all or nothing” approach, which would force Chinese researchers to Sci-Hub, or similar. I just checked, and at least one of the banned China Quarterly articles is up there. Here, the prospect for the Chinese government would be a) permitting access to uncensored academic journals, or b) permitting access to an uncensorable wilderness of journal articles. But that’s a thought experiment: to publisher of CUP’s size the “lever” is more like a self-destruct button. It doesn’t really matter how venerable Cambridge University Press is, because at the end of the day, The Wu-Tang Clan were right:

Mirrored at Medium.com