Last Wednesday I reported on a controversy involving the decision by academic press Wiley-Blackwell to suspend publication of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, allegedly on the grounds that it is “too Christian.” The editor of the Encyclopedia, George T. Kurian, has claimed in a memo sent to the work’s contributors that the press intended to pulp the entire initial print run of the work and demands that it be revised so as to make it less pro-Christian, more friendly to Islam, and in general more “politically correct.”
In its initial reply to Kurian (which has been posted here), though Wiley-Blackwell made a general statement to the effect that Kurian’s claims were “inflammatory” and “completely without foundation,” the publisher did not address any of Kurian’s specific charges. It did not deny requesting the various changes of content Kurian referred to in his memo. Moreover, as I pointed out in my original article, the press did not deny or even address the most amazing charge made by Kurian — that the publisher intended to recall all copies of the Encyclopedia and pulp the entire initial print run.
Pulping a print run, a very costly and unusual action, might be done if a work was known to contain libelous information. But no one has claimed that the Encyclopedia contains any such thing. Nor would the destruction of a print run be the sort of thing that would be done if a work merely contained a few non-libelous errors of fact — these would be handled by correcting them in a second edition. In any event, the publisher’s statements have not claimed that the Encyclopedia contains any such errors. (In an article on the story run Monday by Inside Higher Ed, Bernard McGinn, a member of the editorial board, is quoted as claiming that Kurian’s introduction to the work contained “outright historical errors.” However, Wiley-Blackwell noted in its initial statement that the concerns scholars had about the introduction were raised “in November 2008, prior to publication” — so any such errors were presumably already corrected to the publisher’s satisfaction before the work was printed and bound.)
Indeed, in its initial reply Wiley-Blackwell did not even claim that there are lapses of scholarship of any other sort in the work. It claimed instead that Kurian had failed to consult the editorial board in the course of his editing of the work in the manner agreed to in his contract, and said that its concern is merely to review the work more thoroughly so as to be sure it is up to scholarly standards. But then, why pulp the entire run, at great expense, before this review is even carried out? What would be the point? Why not wait until it is known that there are problems with it that are so serious that they could not be corrected in a second edition? Wiley-Blackwell’s initial reply arguably made the situation only more mysterious. As Kurian put in an interview with the Catholic News Agency, “If you publish a book, you edit the book and then publish. You don’t publish a book and then edit.”
Now there are some further developments in the story. In response to my original article, Susan Spilka, a representative of Wiley-Blackwell, sent me a further statement by email (a statement that she has also posted here). This second statement mainly reiterates the claims made in the original one. And once again it fails to deny the specific charges Kurian made about the press’s requests for changes to the Encyclopedia’s content. But the publisher does at last, at least indirectly, address Kurian’s charge that the original print run was to be destroyed. The new statement says that “no decision has yet been made about the inventory that is being stored in our distribution facilities.” What this does not tell us, however, is whether Wiley-Blackwell never intended to pulp the print run in the first place, or instead has changed its mind about doing so in the face of the controversy. And if Wiley-Blackwell really had never intended to take such an extreme and controversial action, it would be odd for them not to have made this absolutely clear from the beginning.
After hearing from Spilka, I sent her some follow-up questions:
1. You say that “no decision has yet been made about the inventory that is being stored in our distribution facilities.” Does that mean that a decision was initially made to destroy the existing print run but that that decision is now being reconsidered? Or was there never any such decision in the first place?
2. If the latter, are you saying that Mr. Kurian was lying about there having been such a decision?
3. Is it true that there is material critical of or unfavorable to Islam which Wiley-Blackwell and/or the Editorial Board wants removed from the Encyclopedia or softened in some way?
4. Is it true that Wiley-Blackwell and/or the Editorial Board wants certain references favorable to Islam inserted into the Encyclopedia?
5. Is it true that Wiley-Blackwell and/or the Editorial Board wants certain material critical of Christianity, or at least of more orthodox or traditional forms of Christianity, inserted into the Encyclopedia?
6. Is it true that Wiley-Blackwell and/or the Editorial Board wants the traditional BC/AD chronological references removed and replaced with some other sort of reference (e.g. BCE/CE)?
7. If the answer to any of questions 3-6 is “No,” are you saying that Mr. Kurian is lying when he says that these changes were requested?
Spilka responded to my questions in an email on Friday. In reply to questions one and two — about whether Wiley-Blackwell had originally planned to pulp the existing print run, and whether Kurian was lying in claiming that the press planned to do this — Ms. Spilka now says flatly: “There was never any such decision in the first place.”
In response to questions three through seven, concerning the changes of content allegedly demanded by Wiley-Blackwell and/or the editorial board, Ms. Spilka reiterated the general claims made by Wiley-Blackwell in its first two statements — that several contributors had raised concerns about portions of the Encyclopedia, and that the publisher is simply asking the editorial board to review the work as the publisher had originally intended for it to do. She did not address the specific changes in question. In particular, she neither confirmed nor denied that these changes were demanded by the publisher, the editorial board, or by anyone else.
I had also emailed George Kurian to get his reaction to Wiley-Blackwell’s public statements. In response to the charge that he failed to live up to his contractual obligations to have the editorial board review the Encyclopedia’s articles, Kurian says: “My Blackwell contract does not even mention an editorial board, much less their right to review anything. If I have agreed to a review by the board why don’t they show some documentary proof?” He adds that “the editorial process was conducted entirely by Blackwell. Further, when they talk of the board, they are leaving out two Christian members who have protested against Wiley’s actions.”
In reply to Wiley-Blackwell’s latest public statement to the effect that they have not yet decided what to do with the existing copies of the Encyclopedia, Kurian said: “It was [Philip] Carpenter himself [Wiley-Blackwell VP and Managing Director for Social Sciences and Humanities] who mentioned to me that the books are going to be pulped at their cost. Why else is Blackwell withdrawing the books [from circulation]? Probably they decided against pulping at this stage because of the protests from contributors.”
So where does all of this leave us? In three consecutive statements now — their first two public statements, and Susan Spilka’s emailed response to my questions — Wiley-Blackwell has failed directly to address any of Kurian’s specific allegations to the effect that the publisher and/or editorial board demanded that certain changes of content be made so that the Encyclopedia would be less pro-Christian, more friendly toward Islam, and so forth. Moreover, whereas in its first public statement Wiley-Blackwell did not address the matter of pulping the existing press run at all, and in its second statement it indirectly indicated that the press had not yet settled on such an action, only in its third statement — in the form of Spilka’s emailed response to my questions — has Wiley-Blackwell explicitly claimed that no such decision had ever been taken. On the other hand, Kurian not only continues to maintain, as he always has, that the press intended to pulp the existing print run, but now names a specific individual, Blackwell official Philip Carpenter, as the source of his information.
One might be tempted to dismiss all this as a case of “he said/they said.” But it seems fair to conclude that while Kurian’s claims have been clear, consistent, and specific, Wiley-Blackwell’s statements have seemed piecemeal, vague, incomplete, and bureaucratic.
– Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.