Fearing Libel, Cambridge University Press Rejects a Book

Cambridge University Press has decided not to publish a book about corruption in Russia by Karen Dawisha out of fears that British libel law would leave it vulnerable to litigation. In response to the letter from Cambridge University Press, Dawisha wrote the following open letter.

By Karen Dawisha, Miami University

Thank you for the recent letter setting out CUP’s ultimate decision not to proceed with my book on the origins of Putin’s corrupt system.

I appreciated your statement that “the decision has nothing to do with the quality of your research or your scholarly credibility. It is simply a question of risk tolerance in light of our limited resources.” I also accept your advice that the manuscript would likely not face the same kind of challenge in the U.S. where, as your letter puts it, “the book would benefit dramatically from the ‘public figure’ defence.”

Of course, as we have talked about previously, I will pursue American publishing options. But I hope you will at the same time entertain some of my own further thoughts on the matter.

It seems to me that CUP’s attachment as an addendum of several sentences that were potentially libelous represented a meager effort when compared with the many months that the Press’ legal department was reviewing the manuscript.  I understand the ultimate reasoning that the basic premise of the book was such that the Press decided that no matter how many legally acceptable qualifiers were inserted, the book could not be rewritten in a way to give you “comfort”.  That’s a decision that could have been made in November, but let’s assume that many efforts were made to move on the book that ultimately came to naught.  But the time lost is not the issue. The real issue is the rather disturbing conclusion that no matter what was done, the book would not have been publishable because of its subject matter.

One is left to conclude that the main lesson to prospective authors is not to publish in the UK anything that might be seen as libelous. Leaving aside the amusing thought that using the standards of ‘comfort’ set out in the letter–deftly written, one assumes, by your legal department–even the King James’ Version should probably also have been published outside the UK, I do think the field of political science and Russian studies (but also Middle East studies as evidenced by CUP’s pulping of Alms for Jihad) needs to come to terms with the difficult situation that no empirical work on corruption (and probably many other topics) should be published with a British publisher.

Last week the EU and the US Government issued a visa ban and asset freeze on the very inner core that is the subject of my book. Many works will now come out on the makeup of the list and why each individual was placed on it. The answers to these questions are in my book. Isn’t it a pity that the UK is a ‘no-fly’ zone for publishing the truth about this group? These Kremlin-connected oligarchs feel free to buy Belgravia, kill dissidents in Piccadilly with Polonium 210, fight each other in the High Court, and hide their children in British boarding schools. And as a result of their growing knowledge about and influence in the UK, even the most significant British institutions (and I think we can agree that CUP, with its royal charter, 500-year history and recent annual revenues in excess of $400m, is a veritable British institution) cower and engage in pre-emptive book-burnings as a result of fear of legal action.

Having said this, I greatly appreciate the many efforts I am sure you personally made to push the project forward. I would never for a moment doubt that you wished it well and worked for its publication. Had the project gone forward, this would have been my eighth book with CUP, and on those grounds alone, I was willing to wait for your lawyers’ decision probably longer than I should have. We can only hope that British libel laws will indeed be “modernized” and thoroughly tested so that authors can once again turn to CUP with the knowledge that it is indeed devoted to publishing “all manner of books” and not just those that won’t awaken the ire of corrupt Russian oligarchs out to make a further mockery of British institutions.

With best regards,


4 thoughts on “Fearing Libel, Cambridge University Press Rejects a Book

  1. Dear Ms Dawisha
    I have very strong sympathy with your position and so I note does “The Economist” which is where I became aware of the shameful decision of Cambridge University Press. (The Economist, 12 April 2014, pg 28). You are too polite in your reply to CUP: they and their layers have betrayed the post fundamental value of academic research: the freedom of thought and expression in the pursuit of truth. Those supine grovelling lawyers at CUP should be reminded of the fate of Socrates. You may or may not know that the influence of Russian oligarchs is already penetrating even into certain higher education institutions in the UK and has resulted in some gross infringements of academic freedom of which I am directly aware.
    But I have a practical suggestion to make to you on the publishing front. Have you considered Routledge, a publishing house with a fairly distinguished record in publishing critical works? I have published with them (they are now part of Taylor and Francis) and have found them very efficient.
    If your timely work is too hot even for Routledge then I have another less known publisher for you located in Tbilisi in Georgia and who would be delighted to publish your work in English for the European market. I was teaching there last week and discussed the whole episode in an executive MBA Ethics and CSR class…and one of the students was a publisher!
    On the whole question of the European Union’s response to the behaviour of Russia in relation to Ukraine you may be interested to read my piece on sanctions “Soak the oligarchs” at the academic blog http://www.theconversation.com.
    Good luck for the publication.

    • Dear Doctor Davisha,

      congratulations on release of your Putin’s Kleptocracy book at Simon & Schuster. Please accept sincere compliments for the many decades of your study of advanced phases of communism.

      I am a former coal miner from Donetsk, Ukraine. You work is important.

  2. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: April | The Academe Blog

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