Sage journal coup

I’ve just read here that the Editors and entire Editorial board of Organisation & Environment, a well-respected critical environment studies journal, resigned last week in protest against Sage, the journal’s publisher.

I have no more than dipped into it on the odd occasion, but as I understand it O&E brought eco-socialism, environmental sociology and critique to the study of environmental degradation. From March 2013, however, the journal will focus exclusively on ‘sustainability opportunities and challenges’. Sage apparently took advantage of a scheduled hand-over of editorial responsibilities to present this ‘new direction’ as a fait accompli to the existing editors.

Although the journal was chugging along nicely, by all accounts it was difficult for Sage to bundle with its other business, management and sustainability publications, focused as they are on processes like ecosystem services, efficient corporate exploitation of environmental ‘resources’, and so on. The new approach is fundamentally at odds with O&E’s hitherto critical stance, in that it presumes ecological modernisation and liberal democratic capitalism are the solutions, not the problem.

Sage has of course behaved disgracefully. It has interfered in editorial autonomy and made a mockery of academic freedom. It has abused its wage-free labourers. The parlous state of academic publishing is well known: with aggressive out-sourcing of proofing and type-setting, free labour from academics, low overheads and a RAE/REF-driven growth market, profit margins have soared to the region of 30-40% (this and more on the takeover at Monthly Review). Barely a day goes by that you don’t see another rant about the nefarious Elsevier on various listservs. So in a sense it is not that surprising that a large for-profit publishing house has chosen to forsake a journal that was more often than not critical of business-is-usual environmentalism.

But the new editors would seem to have behaved as disgracefully as Sage. They have staked out their plans for the first ‘re-booted’ issue of the journal which pays no respect to what has gone before. They seem to want to airbrush this ugly takeover by vomiting the word ‘sustainability’ all over the screen: no less than 41 times in 900 words. They have invited:

“Sustainability management, policy, and related social science researchers” to submit pieces “about their ‘sustainability-in-transition’ ideas and to think, feel, and write ‘outside the box’”.

This is just depressing. Thinking outside the box? Do we have to ‘unpack’ the box first, too? Is the box solutions-oriented? And you could have a field day deconstructing their invitation to ‘feel’ outside the box. The new editors seem to have abandoned actual thinking for management-speak / policy-jamming. No, worse: an absurd parody of decade-old management-speak gibberish.

I can see these trends at my own Institution, where ‘problem-based research’, always couched in the same anodyne language of challenges and opportunities, squeezes out disciplinary and critical knowledges. This is the language of EC funding, of the UK’s research councils, of the obsession with impact, and the demand that academia must contribute solutions to ‘real world’ challenges (as opposed to academic challenges which must presumably belong to the surreal, hyperreal or unreal world).

I’m not against sustainability and sound environmental policies. Yes, let’s have those; the more and the sooner the better. I just don’t think academia should be organised around shallow technical concepts like sustainability. What should be the exception – academics collaborating and innovating with business and policy-makers – is fast becoming the expectation.