#AUPresses20 Ethics and Transparency in Publishing Collaboration Lab

Dawn Durante's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications


On the last day of programming for the AUPresses 2020 virtual annual meeting, there was a collaboration lab dedicated to key ethical issues with which university presses grapple. The lab was led by John Warren (George Washington University), Cathy Rimer-Surles (Duke University Press), Jeremy Ottley (Project MUSE), and Karen Copp (University of Iowa Press) and Feeding the Elephant’s own Catherine Cocks (Michigan State University Press). After a brief introduction about the larger topic of ethics and transparency in publishing, each panelist oversaw an individual breakout session in dedicated Zoom rooms.

Breakout topics included ethical relationships with vendors; coworkers; natural resources; readers; and authors, editors, and peer reviewers. I attended the Ethical Relationships with Authors, Editors, and Peer Reviewers breakout group, which was facilitated by Cocks, and was attended by over 50 participants. For practicality, the session focused on one case study: 

A well regarded and established book series is in a field that lacks diversity in topic and author representation. When the series editorial board is approached about the issue, there is split feedback, where some don’t think this is an issue to address. The ethical question then becomes, how to proceed? 

An acquiring editor who oversees a press is a liaison between the press and the series editor; whereas the series editor is a scholar in the field who is usually a trusted collaborator and an extension of the press network. This means that in the above scenario, the acquiring editor may be dealing with a series editor who has a longstanding relationship with the press that could predate the acquiring editor, or the series could be one that the acquiring editor and the series editor started together. Whatever the origin of the series or the working relationship, navigating a real life situation like this hypothetical presents a variety of ethical considerations.

The breakout group’s suggestions for in-house acquiring editors faced with tackling this ethical issue included trying to discover baseline data about the discipline, consulting with press colleagues, presenting the issues to press Faculty Board members, or consulting with series editorial board members (if the series has one) who were initially supportive of diversifying the series. Participants acknowledged that there may be factors that would impact how to approach the issue, like the way the series works and the level of editorial autonomy, but there was a general sense of responsibility on the part of the press regardless of the reaction and autonomy of the series editor. Several participants felt that the community would back up the idea of diversifying the series, such as peer reviewers supporting individual projects brought forward for the series.

The conversation turned to issues like intellectual freedom, experiences in journal publishing, the scale of the problem (i.e., how large is the series within the overall press publishing program). Cocks expanded on the case study, and wondered what would happen if an in-house editor had these sorts of concerns, but your colleagues did not. Possible solutions included the idea of in-house anti-bias training, fostering dialogue, ethics clauses in contracts with series editors, and going back to questioning the fundamental role of series editors and what their value would be if they did not expand a publisher’s list in a way that serves the field. The group also talked about structures that could support staff put in situations that make it difficult to stay ethical or stand up to unethical actors. The discussion then shifted to codes of conduct, where codes implemented at Princeton University Press and University of Georgia Press were offered as exemplars. While the positives of these codes are that they give support for anyone grappling with an unethical situation, one con is that they might be used against people, including authors, who are pushing intellectual boundaries.

The breakout session concluded by talking about resources for press staff who might be tackling ethical issues like these. Some solutions included: ongoing discussions in smaller groups to allow in-depth conversations; having a set of best practices from the AUPresses association given the limitations of institutional resources; and implementing a codified, unified ethics statement.  

The breakout groups reconvened to share the takeaways from each topical discussion. Warren reported that in the case of ethics with vendors, the legality of what you can do should be balanced with the ethics of what you should do, and transparency around communication is essential. Ottley reported on the need for a top-down approach within presses for enhancing accessibility when it comes to ethics with readers. Cocks distilled the takeaways from her breakout to the possible helpfulness of codes of conducts and having policies in place, particularly for junior staff, and having a clear sense of press values for staff ethical issues as well as editorial ethical issues. Rimer-Surles shared that their breakout grappled with the ethical issue of equity and what happens when unaddressed situations lower morale and require action from stakeholders at the institutional level, and the value of fostering equitable workplace cultures to mitigate such issues. As far as ethics for natural resources, Copp relayed the suggestion of having internal energy audits, including energies expended within the press beyond production, and that there might be value in a working group to continue this conversation and discover ways to lessen the footprint of presses. 

It seems clear that, for all ethical topics, there was an emphasis on carving out opportunities to continue to discuss these complicated issues and to provide support for individuals and organizations who are trying to ensure ethical futures for university presses and systems within the scholarly publishing landscape.


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