And we, are we silent?

“Error 404. Sorry, we can’t seem to find the page you’re looking for. The link you requested might be broken or no longer exists. Why not start at our home page?”.


This is the message displayed on the Tylor & Francis homepage when we search for the work “Sexual Misconduct in Academia. Informing An Ethics of Care in the University”, coordinated by Erin Pritchard e Delyth Edwards and published by Routledge, a label of this editorial group. 

Two months ago, the work was taken out of circulation without a clear explanation of the grounds for such a decision. This week, it came to light that Routledge had decided to withdraw chapter 12 of this book, “The walls spoke when no one else would. Autoethnographic notes on sexual-power gatekeeping within avant-garde academia” (pp. 208-223), co-authored byr Lieselotte Viaene, Catarina Laranjeiro and Myie Nadia Tom.

It has since become clear that what started as an accusation of sexual abuse and academic extractivism, has now developed into a blatant and grotesque case of censorship, an intolerable attack on intellectual rights and freedoms, not only freedom of expression and freedom of thought, but also scientific freedom, for we must not forget that the censured work in point is not an opinion piece, but a scientific paper, published according to the strictest protocols (such as double-blind peer review) by one of the most prestigious publishers in the field of Social Sciences. 

Not incidentally, the main target of the piece written by the three scholars, Boaventura Sousa Santos (BSS), is a household name at Routledge, which has published a number of works by this author: Globalizing Institutions. Case Studies in Regulation and Innovation (2000, com Jane Jenson), Epistemologies of the South. Against Epistemicide (2014), Reinventing Democracy. Grassroots Movements in Portugal (2019, com Arriscado Nunes), Knowledges Born in the Struggle. Constructing the Epistemologies of the Global South (2020, com Maria Paula Meneses), Demodiversity. Toward Post-Abyssal Democracies (2020, com José Mendes), The Pluriverse of Human Rights: The Diversity of Struggles for Dignity (2021, com Bruno Sena Martins), Decolonizing Constitutionalism. Beyond False or Impossible Promises (2023, com Sara Araújo e Orlando Aragón Andrade), From The Pandemic to Utopia. The Future Begins Now (2023).

We are invited to ask an obvious question – has Rouledge been publishing falsities and libels alongside scientific woks by such renown authors as BSS?

Let us go back a little. At the beginning of June, Routledge received a cease-and-desist notice from an obscure “Portuguese lawyer”, whose identity remains unknown, acting on behalf of a client whose name has equally been kept secret (perhaps one of the alleged harassers targeted in chapter 12?). We can’t know, since no-one has shown their face, no-one has had the courage or decency to own up to their involvement or to having contacted Routledge. We must bear in mind that it wasn’t the idea of Routledge to withdraw the chapter, having acted at the behest of a secreted inquisitor. 

The “Portuguese lawyer” demanded that Routledge suspend the publication of said piece and take some measures to “mitigate the damage caused to the reputation, health and academic work” of the alleged harasser, as well as the reputation of the Social Studies Research Center (CES), of Coimbra University, Portugal. If Routledge did not comply with their demands, they would take legal action. 

In light of this, Taylor & Francis and Routledge have decided to temporarily suspend the book, removing it from the market and simply stating on their online page that the work is “temporarily unavailable as it’s currently under review.”

Three months later, on August 31st, Routledge made the final decision to censor the chapter, returning the publication rights to the authors. According to the message from the publisher sent to the three authors, the two book coordinators had “accepted and understood Routledge’s decision.”

This, however, is false, blatantly so, as evidenced by the article by journalist Fernando Câncio in Diário de Notícias on August 31st – “British publisher withdraws chapter that accuses Boaventura [de Sousa Santos] in a book about sexual harassment” – where the coordinators, Erin Pritchard and Delyth Edwards, state that they are “very disappointed with Routledge’s decision to permanently withdraw Chapter 12 from publication and possibly the entire book. This amounts to siding with those trying to silence this book, without making any attempt to support the book against legal threats and, therefore, not defending academic freedom or the right of survivors of sexual harassment to speak about their experiences. The decision to permanently withdraw the chapter is nothing more than a way to support systematic abuse of power in academia.” A very different understanding, therefore, from what the publisher implied in the message sent to the authors of Chapter 12.

The attitude of the coordinators and authors is understandable. First and foremost, because neither has been given a valid reason in support of the decision by Routledge explaining what had led to the censorship of that chapter. Moreover, Routledge has not yet revealed the name of the Portuguese lawyer who wrote and sent the “cease-and-desist” notice that led to the censorship of the chapter, nor has it disclosed the identity of the complainant. 

It is a mistake to think that it is not important to know the name of the “Portuguese lawyer” and respective clients. In order to defend themselves against the lawyer’s action, the authors need to know the identity of the persons behind all of this (it’s not unreasonable to ask why Routledge also maintains the anonymity of the “Portuguese lawyer” and the client who hired their services).

By censoring Chapter 12 – effectively committing epistemicide, to use one of Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ favoured neologisms – Routledge appears to be corroborating the claims of BSS, alleging that he is being the victim of a “shameful and vile defamation.” Let us not forget BSS has himself publicly admitted in a published article to “inappropriate behavior,” typical of someone like him, born in 1940, belonging to a generation in which such behaviors were accepted by society (“I acknowledge that at certain times, I may have engaged in some of these behaviors,” Expresso, June 4, 2023). By the way, we must also remember that an inquiry is currently underway at CES (led by the Independent Commission of the Center for Social Studies, “for the clarification of possible cases of harassment”), the conclusions of which no one knows yet. To top it all off, at about the same time, Routledge published a work coordinated by BSS, “Decolonizing Constitutionalism, Beyond False or Impossible Promises.”

What if the inquiry were to demonstrate that BSS did indeed commit some of those serious acts described in Chapter 12? Where will that leave the reputation and prestige of Routledge? Wouldn’t it have been wiser and more prudent to await the inquiry’s conclusions? Isn’t this timing peculiar? Is Routledge confident that the inquiry will lead to nothing and on that conviction decided to act preemptively, fearing future legal problems?

On the other hand, isn’t it strange that, among the names that have been publicly involved in this controversy – albeit never explicitly identified in the article, mind you, namely BSS, Bruno Sena Martins, and Maria Paula Meneses – none have the courage and frankness to admit their responsibility for contacting the publisher?

Bruno Sena Martins denied initiating any legal action (“I did not initiate any legal action with the publisher”), BSS initially did not respond – being evasive and typically playing with words – finally admitting to having a conversation with Routledge about Chapter 12, but still denying responsibility for the complaint to his own publisher.

Despite so much ambiguity, one thing is abundantly clear: such an episode is quite unprecedented. A publisher in a democratic country like England, operating on the principle of freedom of expression, has decided to censor an academic article. BSS, on the other hand, risks adding academic censorship to the accusation of sexual harassment if it turns out he was indeed the secret client behind “the portuguese lawyer” who contacted Routledge.

Something else is also crystal clear. Routledge subjected the book to a system of scientific arbitration, or peer review, which approved the publication of the work coordinated by Erin Pritchard and Delyth Edwards. Whether one likes it or not, the experts – and the publisher advised by them – considered that all the chapters possessed sufficient scientific quality to be published by the “world’s leading academic publisher in the Humanities and Social Sciences” (“Today Routledge is the world’s leading academic publisher in the Humanities and Social Sciences. We publish thousands of books and journals each year. Founded in 1836, we have published many of the greatest thinkers and scholars of the last hundred years, including Adorno, Einstein, Russell, Popper, Wittgenstein, Jung, Bohm, Hayek, McLuhan, Marcuse and Sartre,” as stated on their website).

Now, faced with threats from a “Portuguese lawyer,” does the publisher retract the endorsement of the experts it chose, implicitly acknowledging that its evaluation system is flawed? After reaching an agreement or consensus among experts in that field, did it decide to publish Chapter 12 and then remove it from publication? Because, as one of the authors pointed out, “the book was held to high standards of quality. It underwent several revisions and evaluations before being published. It is a high-quality book. But someone prosecuted the publisher because they didn’t like an article that denounces a case of sexual harassment (statements reproduced by Fernanda Câncio, “Legal action behind the suspension of a book that denounces Boaventura. Author speaks of ‘silencing’,” Diário de Notícias, August 13, 2023). Again, it cannot be sufficiently stressed - the text signed by Lieselotte Viaene, Catarina Laranjeiro, and Myie Nadia Tom is not an opinion piece; it went through the most demanding scientific review processes of one of the most demanding European publishers. 

And if there should still be any doubts, the authors’ CVs are eloquent:

Lieselotte Viaene is an anthropologist and professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Carlos III University in Madrid; holds a Ph.D. in Law (Ghent University, Belgium, 2011); has articles published in indexed international journals such as Journal of Transitional Justice, Critique of Anthropology, International Human Rights Journal, Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights, Antipoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología, received an individual Marie Curie fellowship (2016-2018), and worked at the United Nations in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2010-2013).

Catarina Laranjeiro is a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History at the School of Social and Human Sciences (Nova University, Lisbon); holds a master’s degree in Visual and Media Anthropology from Freie Universität Berlin and a Ph.D. in Post-Colonialisms and Global Citizenship from CES (University of Coimbra); has published articles in The International History Review, and has published with Palgrave Macmillan (London).

Myie Nadia Tom is a professor at the University of Nebraska (USA); studied at the University of San Francisco and Complutense University of Madrid, and has published articles in the International Review of Education (UNESCO journal, in an issue organized by her), Comparative Education Review, and University of Wisconsin Press (USA).

Erin Pritchard, one of the book’s coordinators, is a professor at the University of Liverpool, holds a Ph.D. from Newcastle University, is the editor of the academic journal Disability & Society, has articles published in journals such as The Canadian Journal of Disability Research and The Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, and has research published by Bloomsbury Academic and Peter Lang.

Delyth Edwards, the other coordinator, taught Sociology of Childhood and Youth at the University of Liverpool, is currently a professor at the University of Leeds (England) in the area of Inclusion, Childhood, and Youth; obtained a Ph.D. in Sociology from Queens University (Belfast), a master’s degree in Sociological Research from the University of Essex; has articles in academic journals like Cultural Trends, and research published by editors like Sage and Springer International Publishing.

These are the credentials of the women involved. So we go back to our questions. Does the exclusion of the chapter imply that the publisher does not consider it scientific? If so, why was it published? Shouldn’t it have been rejected to begin with? 

And we also have to wonder - what do the scientists responsible for the peer review of the book think of this whole story? Doesn’t the decision represent an affront to their formal and professional dignity? The same goes for the authors, whose undesirable reputational damage is difficult to predict. What about Routledge’s publication and scientific quality control processes? Aren’t they called into question? Apparently, the editorial procedures of the world leader in Humanities and Social Sciences are not so thorough after all…

The fact that BSS behaves like a feudal lord no longer surprises us in this “global south”. The same cannot be said of a publisher like Routledge, whose act of censorship does not honor its history (a history that began in 1836 and includes the publication of thinkers and scholars such as Adorno, Einstein, Russell, Popper, Wittgenstein, Jung, Bohm, Hayek, McLuhan, Marcuse, and Sartre). The irony, or hypocrisy, is that Taylor & Francis, the owner of Routledge, even ventures (and rightfully so!) to provide advice to its authors who are victims of harassment in academia…

But ultimately, the most obvious question remains unanswered in the midst of all these obscure maneuverings: Why, exactly, was this text censored? Because it was defamatory? Because it lacked quality? We don’t know because Routledge does not explain. And it has an obligation to do so, even if only for the benefit of the affected parties, should they wish to contest the decision, in court or otherwise. Without such an explanation, we are thrown into the realm of pure arbitrariness, of tyrannical decision-making of the sort “I do it because I can.”

For those who publish works on democracy and human rights, on the oppressed of this world, on victims of violence, on racism and feminism, all of this is “an international scandal.”, to use the words of one of Boaventura’s alleged victims. Routledge’s decision may have unpredictable consequences, which should make academic researchers worldwide apprehensive about the future course of events.

Caught in the crossfire, between those on the side of the authors of Chapter 12 (Lieselotte Viaene, Catarina Laranjeiro, and Myie Nadia Tom) and those on the side of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, an academic with immense international influence, with several wide-selling books published by Routledge – the publisher chose to side with the powerful. The same side which a year ago, referring to the war in Ukraine, NATO, and the USA, said that “a new witch-hunt period, very similar to that experienced in the USA in the 1950s and known as McCarthyism, was being created.”

We are undoubtedly faced with an undeniable act of censorship, violating the spirit of criticism and freedom of thought, and it must be vehemently denounced. Cases like these cannot be concealed or relativized through ideological, professional, or personal interests. It is very strange to be faced with this act of silencing and with the silence of those who proclaim themselves defenders of the weakest and oppressed. What took place in the final days of August 2023, is one of the most iniquitous attacks on academic freedom of expression, perpetrated by one of the most prestigious publishers in the world, giving itself the right to censor a text it had published – and, what is worse, doing so on the behest of an anonymous denunciation by a “Portuguese lawyer,” without justifying or substantiating its action.

Academic power has perpetuated situations of sexual and moral harassment and intellectual extractivism for years. Now, it stifles thought and censors freedom. What can we do, participate in the silence?


Translation:  Diogo Freitas da Costa

by João Pedro George
A ler | 11 September 2023 | academia, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, book, CES, Routledge