Cambridge University Press (gratifyingly, to those warriors of yesteryear, described consistently as “the world’s oldest university press”*) is in hot water over articles in the China Quarterly. On 18 August they announced that, at the request of their Chinese distributor, they were removing from their Chinese website over 300 articles from the journal, including articles about the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. It seems that the journal’s editorial board had not been consulted. Apparently the articles in question had in any case long been unavailable to Chinese scholars as a result of state censorship tools, and the decision was made in order to keep the rest of the journal’s articles available. Chinese authorities have furthermore suggested that failure to comply with their take-down orders might result in all material from the “offending” publisher ceasing to be available at all in the Chinese market.

Here are a couple of reports, from Scholarly Kitchen, and Publishing Perspectiveswho report that the International Publishers Association is applauding Cambridge’ decision to restore the articles.

You just hate to be at the middle of international turmoil like this. Wouldn’t you know straight away that this was going to become a scandal? Maybe the poor person who had to make the decision was doomed: whichever way you jump people are going to scream at you. Defy the censor and all of the content disappears, and everyone affected complains; comply so that most at least can remain available, and you’re a craven collaborator with the oppressor. Hindsight may be an easy way out, but it seems clear that whichever way you jumped, you should have had loud public discussions before your leap.

Seems to me the original decision was the right one. Of course we all deplore censorship, and believe we ought to do whatever we can to fight it. But if the Chinese authorities have decreed that nobody in China may see the 315 articles in dispute, then nobody in China can see them. Insisting on putting them up on your site just has the effect that even more articles will probably be made unavailable to Chinese researchers. That can’t be a good outcome. Sure it may make you feel virtuous in having stood up for the right, but the many academics who weighed in to condemn CUP’s original decision had of course no skin in the game. By loudly claiming the path of virtue they signal their virtuousness while hazarding nothing. By listening to these virtuous voices and reversing their stance it sounds like CUP may be risking the loss of its entire Chinese business.

Now The Bookseller reports that 100 articles from CUP’s Journal of Asian Studies have fallen afoul of the censor in the same way. Cambridge has refused to take them down. In the same story we find Lexis Nexis admitting that they took down content in China earlier this year. I’ll bet lots of others have quietly done the same.

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* The bone of contention being that whereas Oxford University Press published/printed a book in 1468 or was it 1478 — there’s some consensus that an X was dropped in error from the Roman numerals of the date, and sixteen more books were printed between 1478 and 1486, there then followed a period of over a hundred years where there appears to have been no activity, apart from a small burst of 8 books in 1517-18. Cambridge University Press on the other hand received a charter from King Henry VIII in 1536 entitling them to print “all manner of books”. And Cambridge has been at it ever since — well ever since 1583 anyway. So the claim is that Oxford’s press didn’t get going till after Cambridge’s, the few earlier books being discontinuous accidentals. Much executive energy was spent in the 1970s “proving” that this meant Cambridge was the oldest university press.