A pile of books

I published my first single-authored book in 1979, my first edited book the same year. Although there never was “a golden age” of scholarly publishing, many elements have deteriorated significantly since that date.

The greatest decline has come in the past five to ten years. My students, colleagues, and I all experience it. Among many factors, including changes among editors and reviewers, economic calculations rose to rule.  

The major forces are not peculiar to scholars but hold true across the spectra of professional writers. Not only do often wholly ignorant economic guesses rule, but almost all major commercial publishers now require the intermediation of a paid agent rather than direct communication with prospective authors.

Self-publishing and hybrid presses are more often than not—although not always—bottomless, deceptive, unregulated profiteers.

In the spirit of academic freedoms—plural, I propose for discussion an Academic Authors’ Bill of Rights. (For context and detail, see my essays under References below)

To be endorsed and enforced by professional disciplinary and interdisciplinary organizations, AAUP and similar groups, PEN America, publishers, and publishers associations. 

1. Authors, editors, editorial board members, reviewers and all publishers’ departments share in the requirements for professional conduct, collegial responsibilities, constructive criticism, academic standards, journalistic ethics, and an educational mission dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the intellectual growth of all parties. 

2. Scholarly publishers provide clear and direct information about the interests and scope of their lists, mission and aims, specific or current interests and emphases. 

          a. This includes information on all processes and procedures including expectations for major steps in the editorial and review processes and reliable estimates of the time duration for each. Editors communicate with authors about any delays or changes. 

          b. Publishers provide submission sites and proof correction sites that are accessible, consistent, and operational, and workarounds when sites are nonfunctional (which is not unusual). 

3. Editors meet stated criteria for selection and undergo training and/or internship. They are responsible for overseeing relevant fields of scholarship; and must demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and responsibilities of book editing broadly defined. This needs to be supervised. 

          a. All submissions promptly acknowledged, with an outline of steps to follow, and reasonable expectations for the time required for editorial, review, and appropriate production processes. 

4. Editors obligated to identify and solicit qualified reviewers who conduct themselves professionally, responsibly, constructively, and educationally. 

          a. Reviewers meet at least minimum scholarly qualifications for conducting the review they agree to do. Editors never violate this minimum; reviewers should accept an invitation outside their areas of expertise. 

          b. Peer-reviewing/peer-reviewers long held an accepted meaning. That needs to be reestablished. “Peer” represented shared bases of knowledge and collegiality. The working concept combined a sense of equals or colleagues working together constructively. Today, too often reviewers demonstrate ignorance of the subject and a false display of power. Reviews too often reveal a lack of familiarity with the text itself as well as the subject. Reviewers too often construct themselves unprofessionally to the detriment of the entire process. 

          c. Editors should consider following the practice of some scholarly journals in requesting that submitting authors nominate potential qualified reviewers. Some, but not necessarily all, of a manuscript’s reviewers might be selected in that way. 

          d. Reviewing must be accorded the status of professional service and receive appropriate acknowledgement in annual and promotion reviews. 

          e. Scholarly publishing may require a register of unprofessional reviewers who should be avoided. 

          f. Editors must be alert to unprofessional, inappropriate reviews, and remove them from the review process. A third review or fourth should be sought immediately, and the author informed of delays.  

5. Editors should be open to regular constructive, educational, and professional discussions with authors about reviews and decisions to publish or not. Constructive criticism and professional education should be central goals for all parties in the collegial process. Editors should respond professionally and respectfully to legitimate questions. 

          a. Editors must recognize and recommit to the century-long meaning of “revise and resubmit,” as opposed to immediate outright rejection if there is a difference of opinion among reviewers. Expectations of all parties—author, editor, reviewers, editorial or advisory boards—must never be in doubt.  

6. Authors’ rights do not end with acceptance of rejection of a proposal or manuscript. They extend throughout the entire publication, copy-editing, production, printing, sales and marketing, and supply processes. 

          a. This includes consistent professionalism, expertise at all steps in the publication process, and regular communications. Special emphasis falls on clear communications including confirmation of all important actions. 

          b. Major examples of publishers’ failures in my own and my colleagues’ recent experience include these unprofessional breaches of contract: 

          i. proof correction sites that do not operate 

          ii. submission of textual corrections that may be confirmed but are not made in the final text.  

          iii. failure to explain the procedures, circulation, and accessibility of E-Books, online chapters, and print editions. Different publishers make works available in different ways; there is unnecessary confusion. 

          iv. delivery of authors’ contractually guaranteed copies and copies promised      to endorsers upon publication. 

7. In sum, publishers must honor their contracts or face penalties. These issues lie at the intersection of professional standards and legal responsibilities. 

Let the debate begin. 

References: Essays by Harvey J. Graff (most available online)

“Mis-advice on Academic Journal Submissions: An essay provides outdated advice that could hurt scholars, especially younger ones,” Inside Higher Education, Feb. 12, 2022

“Peer reviewing is becoming more cavalier, self-serving and ignorant,” Times Higher Education, June 2, 2022

Academics’ publishing options are an ever wilder west. Beware!” Times Higher Education, June 24, 2022

“Editors have become so wayward that academic authors need a bill of rights,” Times Higher Education, August 18, 2022

The US’ new open access mandate must not line the pockets of grifters,” Times Higher Education, Nov. 17, 2022

“Demythifying: An author and retired professor challenges some long-held university press assumptions,” Publishers Weekly, Dec. 19, 2022

“Scholarly Book Authors’ Bill of Rights,” Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy, 7, 4 (2022), 5-9 [August 2023]

“Universities must embrace, not hinder, student journalism: Nurturing investigative skills will make for a better democracy—even if it embarrasses campus administrators in the process,” Times Higher Education, October 16,  2023

“Pay to Play--Publish for a Price: The Myths and Manipulation of the New Corporate Open-Access Journals,” Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy, 8, 4 (2023)


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author most recently of Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies (2022), My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. His new book project is “Reconstructing the ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘mega- and multi-versity.’”