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Controversy over an article related to the ongoing dispute in UK universities – a statement from The Editor

The Conversation has no editorial line. It exists purely as a channel for informed knowledge from academics to the general public. The one issue we believe passionately in is that the public is presented with facts – trustworthy information that it can rely on. That is why we exist.

To fund our work we rely upon annual fees from our university members. These pay for a team of professional editors, who work closely with university academics to produce our articles. Authors and editors sign off on articles before they are published. Membership fees in no way allow university management or university communications professionals to edit articles that appear in The Conversation. Editorial independence is written into our Charter.

It was therefore with deep disappointment and concern that I read a tweet from the Exeter branch of the University and College Union accusing The Conversation of colluding with the University of Exeter “to intimidate and then to censor the views of two of our members”.

The union has not contacted us to discuss the matter, but I hope they will do so upon reading this post. We assume that the article to which it refers is this: Home Office rules mean non-British academics can be denied right to strike.

For the sake of transparency, I wish to explain the process by which this article was published. A pitch was made directly to one of The Conversation’s editors. This was then discussed with senior editors. The proposed University of Exeter authors’ academic expertise on the issue was considered. The decision was made that such a piece could provide good coverage of an issue related to the university strike.

A draft was initially written by the two academics. One of our editors worked on the draft with them, before it was given a second edit by a senior editor of The Conversation. The article was signed off by both authors. The article was published on Tuesday.

So far, a typical Conversation publication process. Then, late on Tuesday we were contacted by a representative of the communications department at the University of Exeter. This person flagged a number of concerns about the piece with us. Upon consideration of those concerns it was felt that some were valid, and that corrections would have to be made. It is Conversation policy when we feel we may have made significant factual errors or if we (The Conversation and authors) may be at risk of legal action, to remove the piece in question while we investigate and make any necessary changes.

That is what happened in this case – we were concerned that we had made factual errors. The senior editor and the original editor who collaborated with the academics worked through the following day with them to correct the errors. We also sought advice from our lawyer. On further internal discussions we came to the view we should offer a right of reply to the University of Exeter. We did so. To be clear, this right of reply is in no way connected to The University being a member of The Conversation. Exactly the same approach would have been made had the article been perceived to relate to a corporation or individual. This reply should have been sought by us ahead of initial publication.

Other than providing a comment and raising concerns about accuracy the university had no input at all into the piece. All edits made were by the senior editor and the original editor and were signed off by the authors. Our two Conversation editors and our two Exeter authors then agreed that the piece could be relaunched, having considered all edits and the statement the university sent us. The article was relaunched on Thursday afternoon. The University of Exeter was not involved in editing the article in any way, and did not have an opportunity to read it before we reposted it. The Conversation editorial team subsequently took a decision to close the comments under the article because we feared there was potential for defamatory comments. We remain open to pitches, by academics with relevant research expertise, on issues raised by the ongoing strike action.

As I say at the beginning of this post, we are a media organisation (and a registered charity) that has no editorial line of our own. We seek to inform, and to do so we bring academics and journalists together. So, as an editorial team, we have no collective view on the current industrial dispute taking place within the Higher Education sector. However, we greatly appreciate all of our academic authors who contribute time and expertise to write with us, for the general public. We will always fight for academic views and research to be represented clearly and without censorship. We also, always fight for these to be channelled safely and professionally to a wide, public audience.

As I mention above, we were not contacted by the local branch of the UCU before its tweet was issued. But I would be extremely happy to discuss the matter further with the union, should it wish to do so, as well as with individual academics.

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