From Taylor & Francis to Pluto Journals

To our readers and authors an apology for the unconscionable delay since the publication of the last issue of Prometheus, and an appreciation of their patience. They also deserve an explanation. Our relationship with Taylor & Francis, our publisher for many years, used to work well and Prometheus owes much to decent individuals in Taylor & Francis who have helped the journal over the years. But academic publishing has changed. It has come to be dominated by a few large publishers and by metrics, the latter allowing the former to become very profitable indeed. As the interest of academic publishers in profits has grown, their concern for academic values has shrunk, and the academic publishing business has come to be managed much like any other. This first presented a major obstacle to Prometheus in 2014 when Taylor & Francis managers sought to censor a Prometheus debate on academic publishing on the grounds that they knew more about academic publishing than academics. In response, the editors refused to provide any Prometheus copy until Taylor & Francis gave way, which took almost a year. Taylor & Francis managers eventually conceded defeat not because they saw an ethical light, but simply because adverse publicity was damaging the company’s bottom line.

The second battle with T&F started in 2017, again over a Prometheus debate, this one on the shaken baby syndrome hypothesis. This is that certain indications in the brain of a dead infant reveal that shaking has caused its death and also point towards the culprit. Our interest lay not in medical diagnosis, of course, but in the resolute defence of the hypothesis, unproven and unchanged over half a century. The academic literature on the subject, whether in Medicine or Law, looks to the courts for evidence. The courts look to expert witnesses for guidance, their expertise authenticated by peer review. Half a century’s accumulation of papers based on court evidence is overwhelmingly supportive of the shaken baby syndrome hypothesis. This is almost inevitable in that professing an alternative view in court is difficult: those expert witnesses who favour the hypothesis need only assert their compliance with a view endorsed by peer review: those who disagree have their work cut out. They must challenge established thinking without the support of peer review and must do so while showing deference to individuals and organisations supporting established views. They may not adopt the procedures the social sciences consider fundamental to assessing innovation. For instance, the court allows reference to only the conclusions sections of papers; expert witnesses may not query, say, a paper’s logic, mis-use of references, or methodology. Nor may an expert witness present information beyond the single science central to the qualifications of the witness. Hardly surprising then that Prometheus seized the opportunity to organise a debate focusing on innovation and the shaken baby syndrome. The author of the proposition paper is an expert witness struck off not for presenting inaccurate information to the court, but for straying from the science of her qualifications and for failing to demonstrate due deference to the individuals and organisations supporting established views.

Initial enthusiasm for this debate in Taylor & Francis dissipated as first the proposition paper and then the ten response papers spent months with the company’s lawyers. In late March 2018, after five months of deliberation, the lawyers pronounced themselves satisfied that none of the papers was libellous. Publication could proceed, a decision that was immediately rescinded. Without explanation, Taylor & Francis managers suddenly declared that the debate papers had to meet the further approval of external lawyers. A further three months passed before these lawyers pronounced all the debate papers likely to be libellous. The papers would all have to be changed again, but Taylor & Francis managers, no doubt wary of accusations of censorship, would not say what changes had to be made. Managers deferred absolutely to lawyers, but lawyers refused to say what was offensive and editors were never allowed to meet lawyers.

The external lawyers did, though, identify the general direction the debate papers should take. They pronounced that:

  • discussion must not go beyond the science of a subject
  • there should be no criticism of identified individuals or organisations unless approved by Taylor & Francis

In other words, the rules of the court, peculiar though these are, were to be applied to an academic journal. Taylor & Francis managers did not seem to realise that assuming the power to approve criticism meant an end to academic independence. Nor did they appreciate the irony in a debate on factors inhibiting innovation being inhibited by the imposition of the very same factors. Why Taylor & Francis managers took this stance we were never told, but academic debate cannot be conducted in these conditions and a critical journal cannot survive.

As it happens, we need not have worried about further alterations to the debate papers. Within days of receiving the external lawyers’ opinion, Taylor & Francis managers announced they had found a solution to the debate problem: they would divest Prometheus with immediate effect.

And that was that. News that Taylor & Francis was divesting Prometheus came on 13 July 2018 without warning and – at least initially – with no provision for a transition period. Given the lead times involved in running an academic journal, and particularly in transferring to a new publisher, this behaviour was unhelpful. It may, of course, prove to be for the best. Working with Taylor & Francis had become difficult. Academic publishing requires a trusting relationship between editor and publisher. Taylor & Francis could not trust Prometheus to be the standard publishing product – easy to manage and measure – that many academic journals have become. And for Prometheus, Taylor & Francis had become – through censorship, legal action and malign neglect – the major obstacle to producing an academic journal with something to say. When trust collapses, it is time to part.

The end of the relationship with Taylor & Francis does not mean the end of Prometheus. We have found a new publisher in Pluto Journals, a small, idealistic organisation that seems to suit Prometheus perfectly. Our optimism is boundless.