Friday 21 January 2011

Jefferies Still Mucking About

It seems to me that the editorial staff at Oxbow Books would be setting a dangerous precedent in acceding to the demands of Rosemary Jefferies and expecting me to accept substantive changes to a text about the Mucking excavation submitted two years ago which they have apparently already 'agreed' with her without my participation. Since my emails to the person responsible about this matter are being ignored, I'll put down here what the problem is.

Rosemary Jefferies is not an institutional sponsor, but an individual, one of several thousand who took part in the Mucking project over the years since it began in 1965. She has apparently challenged several points in my text on the grounds, presumably, that - like the text's author - she was a participant in part of the project and is unhappy about the way the bit of a project in which she participated is represented in print. If however anybody in the same position can get hold of unpublished academic texts and then challenge them in court in this manner (ie, apparently threaten to sue the publisher for misrepresentation if they do not make the author change his text), this obviously could have profound implications for the way sites are published.

I am told by the volume's editor that - despite the fact that the text was accepted for publication two years ago - now if I want the text published in the form I wrote it, I will have to "accept liability should Rosemary [that is: Jefferies] sue" the publisher. Oxbow have not at any stage informed me of the grounds on which the threat of litigation is being made or why they are taking this threat at all seriously. The author apparently is therefore currently expected to either accept blind to foot the bill of any legal action with which Jefferies has apparently threatened this firm, or allow the text to be changed in the way already agreed behind the scenes. This sets a very dangerous precedent, and in the circumstances is I think an unreasonable imposition.

The only reason Jefferies would - in theory - be able to take Oxbow to court and I am placed in this position is because (instead of making her contact the author with her doubts and comments), the publisher admits they had earlier actually given her a copy of my text behind my back before publication. So I am apparently now being urged by the firm to accept liability for the consequences of an action for which they alone are responsible. That is to accept their liabilities should Jefferies actually launch a nuisance claim. Whether she wins or not is immaterial, I'd still have to go to court the other side of the continent and sit with Oxbow's lawyers (who can't seem to cope with this woman themselves). On top of the time wasted, if they botch the case, I'd be expected to pay up! Hardly a very tempting prospect.

Let me be clear. Of course an author is responsible if making false and damaging allegations, slander, libel or whatever. A publisher however also has responsibilities in this regard (and a legal department to consult about such matters). There is of course nothing like that in my text about the Mucking project which has already been through the entire editorial process and is at page-proof stage, so on what grounds any form of legal action is threatened is wholly unclear. From what I have been able to glean, however, this does not appear what is at stake here. Ms Jefferies apparently threatens by legal means to challenge an opinion expressed in my assessment of the project. This is something quite different entirely. Expressing an opinion is what authors, academic or otherwise, do. The manner in which one person is attempting to gain control over what opinion another publishes is disturbing.

I have written nothing in that text which is consciously inaccurate. The text does not discuss Rosemary Jefferies or her work, but is about a complex archaeological project in which many thousands of people took part over the years. It has been read by a number of people involved, several in quite senior positions, and their comments acted upon in the usual manner. The text has already passed without incident through all the normal editorial procedures and is currently at page-proof stage. In this text I attempted to sum up the progress of the project from the beginning to the present day as I see it based on my long-term association with the project (since 1975). Ms Jefferies is of course welcome to disagree with what I write, but to actually go from that to attempting to cause my text to be altered against my wishes to fit HER view is surely going too far.

Rosemary Jefferies has not at any stage sent me her detailed objections to the phrasing of my text and the reasons for them. She reportedly refused point blank to discuss them with me when the publishers asked her to (so they tell me), but instead succeeded in going over my head. I have only been able to learn about her comments at second and third hand. This has rendered impossible any means of reaching some kind of compromise with the wording which all parties would be satisfied with. Instead, as a result of a recent 'agreement' process from which I was excluded, I am to be presented by the publisher with a fait accompli to either accept or not. Well, in the circumstances (see below) and in the manner in which it is presented, I suspect there are few authors that would consider this acceptable treatment.

Although in the manner presented to me the 'agreed' changes are difficult for me to follow, and the publisher has not yet complied with my request to provide clarification, it seems to me that among the current round of alterations (because earlier to try and ease tensions, I agreed to a couple of cosmetic changes - probably a mistake) are those that affect three main areas of the text as originally written:

1) One particular element of my account of the development of the project is that I do not see the overall forty-five-year story as one of smooth and coherently-managed continuity. That is one of the fundamental leitmotifs of the text, and I attempt to explore the reasons for and significance of this in the context of the development of archaeology over this period, insofar as space allows. Furthermore, writing about these aspects was part of the specific brief that all authors received from the book's editor - and indeed forms one of the marketing points of the volume. It is clear however that an underlying theme of the changes Ms Jefferies is intent on inducing Oxbow to make in my text are intended to present the bits of the project with which she was involved as part of a continuous programme of development with the rest. Presumably she felt (here I can only surmise, as it has not been explained to me) that her own self-importance was somehow eroded by being associated with a late phase of the project when (according to my understanding) the whole thing was unwinding. To my mind, this period of the project quite clearly was not however a seamless continuation of the early period of the post-excavation project, and that to me is a fundamental point about the development of the project as a whole. To represent it as otherwise would not be in accordance with the facts as I see them. Yet removing references to this, distorting the overall picture, is the fundamental purpose of most of the changes that seem to have been "agreed" between MS Jefferies and Oxbow.

2) Another section of my text she apparently wants removed concerns the Roman kilns, she just wants them not mentioned. A whole sentence has to go right from the middle of one paragraph. Why are they mentioned? They are mentioned by me as the only part of the Mucking site that was in fact published by the excavators during the excavation (1973). Because that is how it is, and it is something I think is important to note in the context in which I wrote of this. Why does Jefferies want this not to be mentioned? Nobody really knows, but two factors may be significant. The first is she is writing on the Roman pottery, and somehow would prefer people not to be reminded that her work builds on the work of others (like Warwick Rodwell who wrote up the pottery of the part of the kiln dumps accessible in 1973), as though that in some way would detract from her own achievements. Another and possible more sinister factor is her affiliations with the Cambridge team. This (to judge from bits of the text they are producing which I have seen at the author's request) is busily "deconstructing" the Mucking excavation in a somewhat (to my mind) insulting and patronising manner. One of the themes of this seems to be an attempt to show that the Joneses were incapable of processing their own results and publishing their own site properly(!). Obviously a member of a team working on that basis might have reason to want to play down any facts conflicting with any "Hooray for us" picture. But is that honest? Let us judge the new people on the project by their own achievement and not by the alacrity of some in doing down their (in the case of the Jones, now deceased) predecessors.

3) Finally it is extraordinarily comical that Jefferies appears to presume to know better than myself what the early attitudes of the post-excavation team to the computer-based database were, when I was part of the initial group of post excavation staff that helped set it up and test it, well before she came waltzing along. It was not her that began the computing of the Roman pottery, but Ruth Birss. She apparently wants the edited text on this to say completely the opposite of what I wrote about the team's early expectations. This is appalling interference. This was the prehistory of computer use for this kind of work; while what we were trying to do may seem laughable now, it was apparently cutting edge stuff at the time. I really resent any attempt to make me present it as anything other than what it was. In fact there is an old text in Computer Applications in Archaeology (by Jonathan Moffat, who - unlike Jefferies - was there at the time), which as I recall says about the Mucking project exactly what I said - and which Jefferies apparently wants written as something else entirely. The sentence that the Oxbow editor has apparently 'agreed' ought to be inserted in place of what wrote is not my words, and as far as I am am concerned is fundamentally untrue. Quite why that should be I cannot fathom, but as author of that text I am surely entitled to my own observations.

It would seem from the above that the principle motive for Jefferies demanding these changes would be some poorly-articulated quest for self-aggrandisement at the cost of the original content of a third party's text.

I would like to know, and now, if these changes are not introduced as now apparently demanded by Rosemary Jefferies - what grounds are there for legal action against the publisher by Rosemary Jefferies and in what capacity? Nobody has explained that to me. I really cannot see any. Who does she think she is? What kind of a precedent is this setting?

The fact that the Oxbow editor who I now learn has already 'agreed' these changes (in 'very useful discussion') with Ms Jefferies is on record as describing the changes she wants to make (see above) as "seem fairly benign to me" suggest to me that she is the last person who should be nearing my texts with her blue pencil without consultation. These are not "benign" changes if they change the meaning of what was written, if they determine what is going to be published under my name as my assessment of the site and the story of the project - which obviously is Jefferies' intention in suggesting them. Is it unreasonable for an author to be opposed to such arbitrary interference? Or at least expect some kind of reasoned explanation for the manipulation of their text? I have received none, not from Jefferies, nor the Oxbow editor who apparently has already 'agreed' these changes.

Jefferies is quite at liberty to disagree on points of detail or general interpretation. I am sure she's not the only one who will. Like them, she is perfectly at liberty to discuss them with the author, and to publish in her own right a text polemising with mine after the publication of this book. That is what I invited her to do in December when this matter blew up. That's the way civilised people do things. Blocking the publication of another person's text and forcing its editing by threats of legal action is a step that, if at all, should be taken only in extremis. Her reaction is certainly extreme, but she is not in extremis for the very fact that she has not actually even attempted to resolve this question in any other way.

This is why I feel justified in calling her current approach totally unprofessional, and why I am angry and disappointed that instead of dealing with this differently, a publisher has put me (and the editor of the volume they are publishing) in such a situation. This is at a time when I have other things I should be doing than digging around trying to deal with repeated quibbles about a text I finished two years ago and discussing with my wife whether, to avoid the publication of untruths under my name, I will agree to be blackmailed into potentially sitting (on Oxbow's behalf) in a UK court about some silly article if some foreign woman she has never met decides to throw a wobbly. My wife has little sympathy for the publisher - if one of her unauthorised employees leaked an internal document to the outside that threatened legal consequences on her Department, it is not the author of the internal document that would be facing the consequences that same day. Why, she asks, would an academic publisher apparently go out of its way to get an author to publish a text which is not true to what he knows? And all this is about a text about a big hole in the ground?

Sometimes British archaeology and its pettiness and lack of fibre and professionalism disgusts me just as much as it irritates the collectors. What is the matter with these people?

PS. I should add the actual editor of the volume, John Schofield of York has been a proper gentleman here, none of this is his fault, and he seems as bemused by this Jefferies-Oxbow affair in which we have been caught as the rest of us have the right to be. UPDATE: Monday 24th Jan, six in the evening, still no contact from Oxbow - four polite emails ignored. UPDATE, UPDATE: At ten on Monday I eventually heard something (the power of the blog, eh?). Let us see if they agree to my proposal to sign an annexe to the author's contract with the clause that the author is responsible for the content of their own texts - which is a pretty standard clause these days, I can't think why they did not think of it themselves - another reason why I'd prefer to rely on my own intellectual property lawyer pals and not theirs.

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