On the ‘bowdlerization’ of scholarship

This post was published on an earlier iteration of this blog on 9th March 2019 to time with Academic Book Week.

This time last year, the Association of University Presses issued a joint statement on the censorship of the scholarly record. The AUP was responding to news that Cambridge University Press and Springer Nature had removed access to journal articles on ‘sensitive topics’ on their Chinese platforms, such as the Cultural Revolution and 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The statement condemned ‘any bowdlerization of a curated collection of scholarship (e.g., a journal issue, an edited volume)’, claiming that such actions do ‘damage to the editorial work invested in the construction of that collection’.

The AUP’s terminology hasn’t been widely adopted. Springer Nature stated earlier that the removal of content from platforms in China ‘…is not editorial censorship and does not affect the content we publish or make accessible elsewhere in the world.’ As they and others have argued (here and here), this is a question of consumer choice and the local regulatory frameworks within which publishers operate. Publishers haven’t redacted politically sensitive passages in scholarly books or journal articles. This position has been buttressed by some academic commentators too. Asia studies scholar, Michel Hocx. Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement, questions the appropriateness of the term ‘bowdlerization’ in the context of research distribution. The problem, he argues, is publishers’ sales models that offer incentives to purchase large collections of content without the option to tailor them. He argues that the ‘integrity of the journal issue’ is an outmoded notion that misrepresents how readers access and how institutions buy academic content, i.e. via content aggregators, bundles and sales deals: ‘[i]t is only because large publishers offer to sell things in bulk at a cheaper price that the issue of “censorship” has emerged.’

At the level of semantics at least, ‘bowdlerization’ might not be appropriate in this context. Thomas Bowdler (1754 –1825), the eponymous bowdleriser, made his name expurgating the works of Shakespeare to suit the imagined moral sensitivities of Victorian households. This with such a degree of hysterical prudishness that Falstaff ‘…was not allowed to “unbutton” himself after dinner’ (Jones, 2001, p.277). Bowdler’s bowdlerized Family Shakespeare is the canonic example of pre-publication moral censorship, marking out obscene passages (explicit, or subliminal) to shield from innocent readers. CUP and Springer Nature are not guilty of pre-publication censorship. It’s doubtful that China’s General Administration of Press and Publication were concerned that access to (in some cases) obscure book reviews of out-of-print scholarly texts would lead to the corruption of public morality.

But this quibbling over terminology bleeds into another, more significant debate about where to fix the boundaries of ‘censorship’ – in particular, political censorship. Hocx’s argument doesn’t discredit the AUP’s concerns regarding the scholarly record and role of the GAPP, itself a governmental regulator, not merely an importer, distributor, or some other solely commercial intermediary. The negotiation between publishers and the GAPP isn’t simply one of content provider and customer. Indeed, the idea of ‘customer’ in the world of scholarly communication is notoriously contested, with content often bought by subscription agents acting on behalf of librarians, themselves acting on behalf of academics, who carry out research at the behest of publicly-funded research bodies. The transition to Open Access, and the provision of scholarly resources for a wider public, also obscures this notion of a single, transactional ‘customer.’

Following recent news that similar requests from China’s GAPP have led to the removal of 115 articles from SAGE’s Index on Censorship; that Taylor & Francis has had 83 journals removed from circulation, for refusing to comply; and news of more explicit demands to redact academic texts printed in China, it is important that this debate isn’t mired by semantic quibbling. The debate about where to draw the line between political censorship and scholarly content curation will and should continue in academic publishing circles, and beyond.


Jones, Derek. Censorship: A World Encyclopaedia. Routledge, 2001

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