Why Disability Studies Scholars Are Protesting a Prominent Textbook
Pickens, who studies and writes about disability, clicked through to the website for Routledge, the reader’s publisher, to see which other works were included in the most recent edition. There, in the table of contents, she saw that not only was her work cited, her book
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Pickens, who studies and writes about disability, clicked through to the website for Routledge, the reader’s publisher, to see which other works were included in the most recent edition. There, in the table of contents, she saw that not only was her work cited, her book Black Madness :: Mad Blackness was to be partially republished there. She was surprised. And then she got angry.
Had she been consulted, Pickens would have objected to having a portion of her book be included, she said, because she believes the book works best as a coherent whole. Also, her book is reasonably priced at $23.95. The Routledge reader — $180 for the hardcover and $79.95 for a paperback — was not.
She reached out to other authors included in the reader and learned that she was not the only one who had not been contacted. Though some were not particularly surprised that the publisher had planned to reprint their work without consulting them as authors, they were dismayed as well.
After consulting with each other, a group of authors came together to push back. They saw problems not just with this edition of the reader, but with previous editions as well. They objected to the textbook’s price and the fact that it was published by a large, for-profit company. They decided to protest how their work was distributed and to demand more transparency around what happened. In the process, they’ve found themselves at odds with one of the most prominent scholars in their field.
Back then, Davis said in an interview, you couldn’t go to a library or a bookstore and look up everything that was published on disability. “There was nothing of this nature,” Davis said of the reader. “Especially not in the humanities.”
The field grew quickly, helped along by the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 and a rise in disability-studies programs at individual academic institutions throughout the 2000s. By 2010, Michael Bérubé, a Pennsylvania State University English professor, said he stopped referring to disability studies as emergent. “It’s emerged,” he said.
Scholars have long criticized the discipline for being dominated by white professors. As the field has grown, scholars of color have continued to advocate for representation and an emphasis on disability justice. White scholars in the field, Pickens said, “often discount the ways communities of color deal with disability.”
There has also been an effort within the field to make its texts more affordable and accessible. Disability Studies Quarterly, the journal of the Society for Disability Studies, for example, has been an open-access journal since 2006. The journal, which is published by the Ohio State University Libraries, provides open access “on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge,” its policy states.
“There’s a saying in the disability-rights movement: Nothing about us without us,” Schalk said. “We think the Disability Studies Reader should be edited by a collective, not one white dude.”
As the group started sharing information about their involvement with the reader, they discovered that for some, this wasn’t the first time they hadn’t been informed that their work would be included.
Ellen Samuels, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was first published in the reader’s fourth edition in 2013. At the time, she wasn’t asked for permission, but she said she was informed in an email from Davis that an article she wrote in 2003 would be included and could she send a one-paragraph biography of herself within the next 24 hours.
When the fifth edition came out about four years later, she was not contacted. But she did receive a copy of the reader in the mail when it came out, and she saw her writing was in it. Duke University Press, which first published her article, received royalty fees both years.
Under normal circumstances, academic writers might receive either nothing or a very small fee when their work that first appeared in a journal is republished. That’s because the press that publishes their work, typically a university press, often owns the rights and receives a fee. But the reader’s authors said it was a common courtesy for the publisher or editor of the volume that’s reprinting work to notify the authors.
In a statement, Eric Merkel-Sobotta, the chief communications officer at the Taylor & Francis Group, Routledge’s sister company, said that “any publisher of a reader requests permission to reuse previously published essays from, and pays any fees for reprint rights to, the holder of the publishing rights. Routledge did so for the Disability Studies Reader. The publishing-rights holder is usually the original publisher of the essay and may be different to the holder of the copyright.”
Merkel-Sobotta said obtaining rights licenses “can often quadruple the cost of book production, but Routledge always pays.”
He continued: “Payments channel first to the publishing-rights holder — the original publisher. That original publisher then pays, upon reader publication, the author according to the author’s contract terms with that original publisher.”
Samuels had no problem with the fact that often university presses hold the rights to scholars’ work and receive the payments. But she found it disrespectful that she wasn’t asked by Davis or the reader’s publishers if her work could be included in subsequent editions. And there was something else that bothered her. In 2008, two authors of the first volume in a series published by Routledge discovered that entire paragraphs they’d written had been lifted and reprinted in a later book in the same series. They didn’t receive any royalties until they complained to the publisher, the Chronicle reported at the time.
The particulars weren’t identical, but rereading the Chronicle article from 2008 gave Samuels the impression that Routledge had a troubling history of cutting corners and not respecting authors. She said she told Duke University Press that she no longer wanted her work republished by Routledge. (Merkel-Sobotta said that he didn’t think the two situations were similar enough to show a pattern and that the publisher’s mission is to “validate and connect the work of researchers and authors so that it can make the fullest possible contribution.”)
“Someone is making a lot of money off my writing,” Samuels said. “I feel like I should have input into who makes that money.”
As for Davis, Samuels first met him when she was in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. He was supportive of her work, she said, and she admired his advocacy for the field. But she was disappointed that he didn’t reach out to her when her work was included in the fifth and sixth editions of the reader.
“It’s a fine line between someone using their privilege to uplift the voices of those who have not had an institutional footing,” she said, “and taking advantage of or profiting off of their voices.”
Some of the authors included hadn’t published their work with university presses. Lydia X. Z. Brown, a community organizer and adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University, said they had been contacted about including their work in the reader. Some cuts were proposed, but Brown objected to them and was told the piece would be included without the cuts. “When I finally received the apology email from Routledge,” Brown said, “they were hoping and/or planning to publish an abridged version that I had not agreed to.”
In an email to The Chronicle, Davis said Routledge had still wanted to publish Brown’s piece in full but that an editor had misspoken in an email.
The authors decided to protest the way the reader came together. After one of them had alerted Davis to the problem, he had written them an email explaining that it was the job of Taylor & Francis to seek permission from the original publishers of the work. “However, shockingly, they did not, and, worse, we did not know that they did not,” Davis wrote. The authors thought he should take more responsibility.
Davis described the issue in an interview as “a perfect storm of misunderstanding.” He said he learned not long after sending that email that every single rights-holder, whether it was the original publisher of the work or an author that held the rights to their work, was contacted for permission to republish the work. He said it’s the original publishers of the work, who hold the rights to the work, who would normally inform the authors that their work was being republished.
“The second that I picked up that people were upset,” he said. “I told Routledge, we’re shutting the whole thing down.”
A Taylor & Francis editor wrote to the authors individually to apologize and ask them what they wanted to do. They considered their options. Pulling their work from the reader entirely seemed like a loss to some.
To Bérubé, the latest edition of the reader had been, at first glance, incredibly exciting. His work has been included in previous editions, and he’s worked in the field for decades.
”This is vastly better than DSR 5,” he thought when he saw the table of contents of the latest edition. “There’s a number of ways that this lineup is signaling a changing of the guard.”
He saw a diverse group of authors, many of whom, like Schalk and Pickens, had become leaders in the field. There was a whole section on neurodivergence. Fifteen or 20 years ago, Bérubé said, a common lament was that “most of disability studies was focused on physical disabilities.”
“The idea that these were the people that weren’t contacted is just, facepalm,” he said.
By then, the group of authors felt like a virtual collective, united in their desire to change how the Disability Studies Reader is published. Together they wrote a three-page statement, which they sent to Routledge last week and posted publicly online. They described how many had not been contacted about their inclusion in the reader, how they were not involved in the selection or editing of their writing, and how, for some, their work was abridged in ways that fundamentally changed it.
Some of these practices were unethical, they wrote. “The fact that others are standard within the textbook industry does not make them any less exploitative. Our field of Disability Studies foregrounds values and relations of reciprocity, accountability, and transparency that these practices have clearly undermined.”
They condemned the reader’s “tokenizing approach to writers and bodies of knowledge, most notably through the process of canonizing white scholars (who have steadily comprised the opening chapters of this book since its inception) while treating authors of color, women, queer, trans, and nonbinary authors, authors from the global south, and young scholars — as well as essays on race, intellectual disabilities, non-U.S. perspectives, and other underrepresented topics — as supplemental, even interchangeable.”
If a sixth edition of the reader is published, the authors demanded that Routledge get consent from each contributor before including their work in this and future editions, that the authors who hold their own copyrights be paid, that half the reader’s royalty income be donated to disability-justice organizations headed by disabled people of color, that Routledge match that donation, and that the text is made to be more accessible financially and across digital formats. Twenty-two authors included in the reader signed it.
In his statement, Merkel-Sobotta said that “Routledge will not republish any essays in the Disability Studies Reader by scholars who objected, including those who signed the collective statement.” He said the publisher had already emailed all contributors to request confirmation of their decision about whether they’d like to be included. He added that “bringing together a diverse range of people, communities, and approaches benefits everyone we serve and, ultimately, we believe, makes a positive difference in society. These values will be reflected if we publish a newly reformulated edition.”
Davis felt like he was caught in the middle of a dispute between the authors and the publishing industry in general. He agreed with the critique that the field of disability studies has been too white. But he said he’s always published scholars of color, some of whom confronted the issue directly, such as Chris Bell, a former graduate student of his, whose essay “Introducing White Disability Studies” first appeared in the reader’s second edition in 2006. The issue, he said, is not new to him.
“I personally come from New York,” Davis said. “I grew up in a poor family, in an immigrant family in the Bronx. And my parents are deaf and Jewish, and they were first generation in the United States. I went to public schools in New York. I lived in a housing project that was like 60 percent African American.”
To him, it was ironic that the reader’s most diverse edition was the one that was protested. Rebecca Sanchez, an associate professor at Fordham University, had worked on the edition as a consulting editor, and Davis said he hoped she would take over as editor next time.
“I’m very sad about it,” he said. “It was going to be a really good book.”
Davis said he is happy to see a new generation of scholars take over the field. “Argument is how you learn,” he said. “I’ve always been encouraging people to disagree.” But this letter did not feel to him like a conversation between the past and the present. He made an analogy.
“I was trying to do a peaceful transition,” he said, “and I feel like the Capitol got stormed.”
For some of the authors, this is not only a scholarly argument. It’s a disagreement about how publishing should work in their field.
“What we’re looking for is not necessarily a changing of the guard where we do the same thing with younger editors,” Samuels said. “But rather, this is a time to pause and reimagine the entire project.”
The authors credited Schalk and Pickens with raising an issue that others might have let go.
“The fact that this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Pickens, paraphrasing the rapper Mos Def, “means that there’s a million other straws underneath it.”
Correction (April 15, 2021, 1:52 p.m.): This article has been updated to reflect that it was not Therí A. Pickens's book Black Madness :: Mad Blackness that was cited by Dennis Tyler, but a different work by Pickens.