Anger at Oxford University Press

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A petition against falling standards at Oxford University Press (OUP) was delivered to the Vice-Chancellor’s office on Wednesday.

Frances Moore Lappé and Dr Michel Pimbert delivered the petition to highlight their complaint that several OUP publications are failing “to meet basic scholarly standards”.

Lappé, a multi-million selling author and world hunger activist, and Pimbert, Team Leader for Agroecology at the International Institute for Environment and Development, are among seven originators of the campaign.

The petition has so far attracted about 5,000 signatures from 55 countries and all 50 US states, including from many academics and students.

The petition has also received roughly 1,500 comments from signatories, many of whom said they were “shocked” and “appalled”.

One student commented that they “would flunk without full, traceable citations”, while another said that “democracies depend on the citizenry being well-informed”.

415 people have also signed up to follow the progress of the petition.

The campaign arose after Lappé expressed “shock” at the standards of Dr. Robert Paarlberg’s book, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, which was published by OUP in 2010.

Lappé criticised OUP’s claim that the book met scholarly standards, saying: “If it meets their standards, they are saying citations are optional, they only need to disclose conflicts of interest that involve financial ties, that it is acceptable to promote a book as a ‘map’ of ‘conflicting claims and accusations from advocates on all sides’ when it is instead narrowly partisan.”

She added: “To find OUP was publishing not just one, but several books without citations was deeply worrying. From our petition, we see many people feel the same way. It is about trust… you expect the academic community to uphold the line.”

But Lappé said that she was pleased with the response of the Vice-Chancellor’s Private Secretary, Alasdair MacDonald, on Wednesday: “He said that he was really just a messenger boy. I think he felt that he couldn’t express an opinion about anything that we were discussing, but he was certainly very respectful and communicative through body language [which suggested] that he took this seriously. He indicated that he would share this document with the delegates and with the VC.”

She added: “I think anyone reading those comments would feel quite moved, and, as we underscore, I think the pain that comes through many of those comments is that so many feel that the media in general is less and less trustworthy and really want to know that OUP, the gold standard of publishing, is holding the lines and is something they can trust.

“I said at the end of my remarks that people perceive OUP as a public treasure that they do not want to move, and that is my feeling and I think it comes through a lot of the comments.”

She continued: “I think what is striking is we even have some executives of academic publishers that have weighed in themselves, as well as quite a few professors, including one college president from the state of Maine in the US, and many students.”

She also said that she was surprised that about a third of those who signed the petition added comments, especially on “something that could be seen as kind of peripheral”.

“I think there was shock and surprise, that people thought they could count on OUP, especially at this time.

“I think there is such pervasive disappointment and fear about the decline of the trustworthiness of media… so maybe this is a reflection of this in part, this is the reason it’s struck this nerve right now.”

She also said that she hopes that Oxford students help to push for a change to the policy: “I would dearly hope that the students take this on, because you have the power that we don’t have.

“My highest wish would be a student body initiative to have a public forum on what makes sense in terms of the standards of the press. It seems to me that that would be such a high reflection on the university, on the students.”

Dr. Paarlberg claimed the criticism was the result of his defence of high-productivity farming and his view that organically grown foods are no more nutritious or safe than conventionally grown food. He described these claims as “hardly news” to crop scientists and nutritionists, but that the idea “threatens directly the dominant narrative of most food activists”.

He defended the fact that he did not include footnotes because “it was part of a series published by Oxford for classroom use or general-interest consumption, as opposed to research monographs making original claims, which remain heavily referenced”.

He added: “Lappé began her attack on my book, not with an open critique but with a private letter of complaint to the president of Oxford University Press in New York.

“As for alleged factual errors in my book, Ms Lappé and her supporters pointed directly to only four. Yet for each of these, I was able to provide Oxford with documentation revealing that it was Ms Lappé’s claims, not mine, that were in error.

“I believe activists are welcome in the academic world, but when they engage in unscholarly conduct, they forfeit their right to be taken seriously.”

Niko Pfund, President of OUP USA, said:  “We have reviewed our extensive pre-publication vetting of Robert Paarlberg’s manuscript, and of the published work itself, which has reaffirmed our confidence in the book.

“As Dr. Paarlberg outlines in his foreword, the politics of food production are an ideologically contentious subject; while we respect the right of others to engage and disagree with Dr. Paarlberg, we reject any suggestion that the scholarship of his book is skewed or flawed.”

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