When three major international academic publishers take a photocopy shop located in the Delhi School of Economics to court over copyright infringement issues, it does seem a trifle excessive, using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. But it is more than breeze in a teacup- the issues are germane to a wider audience, and that includes us.
The facts, such as they are, are simple enough. On the D’School campus, the Rameshwari Photocopy services provides ‘xeroxed’ course material, and that includes chapters from books, articles, notes, what have you. In the strictest sense of the phrase, there probably is copyright infringement. But this has been going on ever since photocopy machines became easily available, and generations of students will testify to the absolutely crucial role that photocopied material has played in their education, augmenting (or even bypassing!) taught material. Not to mention research…
But this post is not just about the controversy- Lawrence Liang has written very forcefully on it, as has Sudhanwa Deshpande, in response to a poorly argued opinion piece in The Hindu a few days ago, all of which is worth a read. And all also skirt around a somewhat more serious issue, that of academic publishing in India, particularly that of book and textbook publishing.
There are any number of reasons why it is absolutely necessary to used photocopied material when studying for a degree in India. The scarcity (and the high cost!) of books, the paucity of textbook copies in even the best libraries, the poor availability of journals… The list goes on. However there are two other reasons that any good student would need (rather than choose) to photocopy material, particularly from books.
1. Most textbooks written in India (and I mean most in the sense of the majority of) are of very poor quality. They tend to be extensively plagiarized and frequently are written by people who do not really seem to know the subject at all. There is an infamous series of books by an author, Sa*sh, who has written on essentially every topic in undergraduate and graduate physics. This versatility is not just impressive, it is impossible. Needless to say, all the books are unreadable cut and paste trash, even if they are much better than even worse tripe that other less ‘well-known’ authors are capable, of churning out.
Most of these books are also poorly produced- a step away from pulp, even when new!- and seem to be just money making vehicles. Given the large numbers we need to educate, this is a double tragedy.
2. Even well-known Indian scholars prefer to publish with publishers outside India. This is not just in journals (it is well known that selection committees ask candidates how many publications they have in international journals and how many in Indian ones) but also with respect to books. OUP, CUP, Sage, Harvard, Duke… All these publishers are typically seen as preferred and prestigious destinations for manuscripts. And since all these publishers will have Indian editions, the Indian market is not totally ignored, but still the books tend to cost a bit more than they would have, had the primary publication been with an Indian publisher.
To be sure there are good reasons for this, and one can understand an author’s position to some extent. The royalties with an international publisher sometimes work out to be more lucrative. On the matter of distribution, again the international publishers score, so that visibility, both at home and abroad is not compromised. A more serious reason is that the books tend to get better critiques and better reviews, so an author finds his or her work being taken more seriously. For the most part, that is.
But a given, as a consequence, is that most Indian students do not have access to high quality textbooks that are produced and published in India in most subjects. Many international publishers do have Indian editions, but the number of local authors who write good textbooks that are first published here? Rare.
There are exceptions, of course, but these only seem to reinforce the rule. Many of the boutique presses in India tend to have high production value, but they also are tied into co-publication with University presses abroad for their financial models.
Which brings me to the final point of this post: Why has the University Press culture in India died out so decisively? There was a time- when the world was younger- that textbooks from Andhra University Press or Madras University Press, for instance, were treasures. Bhagavantam and Venkatarayudu’s Theory of groups and its application to physical problems for instance. Most of these presses are now gone, but even if extant, for the most part they seem to churn out the most mundane bulletins and reports. The exceptions are few like the Calcutta University Press. Or that of the MS University in Vadodara, which has recently brought out the Gopinathasaptasali for their Oriental Institute. But even their other activities are more along the usual lines- the printing of question papers, under conditions of very high level of secrecy, for the University Examination, Senate Proceedings, Minutes of the Syndicate Meetings, details of Establishment, Annual Accounts, Budget Estimates, Questionnaires, Magazines, Pamphlets, Certificates, General Forms, Prospectus, Admission forms, Examination forms, Letter heads, Receipt Books, and different kinds of job works of the different Faculties and Institutions of the University, the University Diary, University Calendar and other publications. Is that all a University Press is set up for?
It’s time to change that now. What we need urgently is a University Press in India that will produce high quality books in both print and electronic form, written by academics with serious concern for pedagogy in the local context.
Why a University Press? Although one cannot guarantee it, we need a publisher who is not entirely governed by sales and one who can support purely academic imperatives. One who is not afraid to take a chance on a book because of poor markets, or because it ruffles some feathers… Or worse.
There is enough reason to have a local emphasis. Not every subject is context free, and although π will always be irrational and ∞ will always be further away no matter where one is, some things are better taught with local references, and keeping the local backgrounds in mind. Furthermore, for many of the subjects that are taught here, some global international benchmark textbook is simply not available.
The fact of the matter is that there are remarkably few academics in the country who give serious thought to the production of serious textbooks in virtually any subject. At the tertiary level, the problem is worse than it is at the primary and secondary levels, for which there are excellent books- the NCERT series, for instance. But college and postgraduate books? The shelves are bare.
This deserves a longer discussion, so more on this, and on a reachable pipe-dream, the Golden Threshold Press, in a subsequent post…