Lecturer takes row over book to tribunal

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The Independent Online
A UNIVERSITY lecturer who was sacked following a long-running dispute over inaccuracies in a colleague's books is to take his claim for unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal next month.

For many scholars, the case raises serious questions about the quality of some academic books produced by small publishers unable to subject their texts to the same rigorous peer-group vetting procedures as larger houses.

Rob Slack, a senior lecturer in business studies at the University of North London (UNL), lost his job last July after repeatedly criticising two books on accounting and finance written by his colleague Humphrey Shaw.

Although Mr Slack's immediate boss, Frank Blewett, agreed that one of the books had faults, Mr Slack was told in December 1997 that a series of memos he had written to senior staff were libellous and represented a "campaign of continued harassment and totally unreasonable behaviour".

He was given a first and final written warning last March but was sacked for misconduct after allegedly behaving aggressively towards Mr Blewett at a London Underground station.

Mr Slack denies he was threatening in the exchange but said he felt the university had failed to act in the best interests of his students by ignoring his identification of dozens of typographical errors as well as mistakes in the explanations of accountancy theory.

Tony Pointon, the case consultant from his union, the Association of University Teachers, has accused staff of collaborating to silence Mr Slack. "It is bizarre that so many people should close ranks to ensure students are given books that a lecturer has claimed contain a large number of mistakes," he said.

In addition, the AUT said that selling books in class, as Mr Shaw did, is "unethical".

Mr Slack, who conducted seminars to accompany Mr Shaw's lectures on accountancy, said his action was originally prompted by students who told him they found the core text, the second edition of Finance in Organisations, difficult to follow. He then discovered that a second book, Strategic Financial Management, contained similar mistakes, he claims.

Mora Golding, who took the module as part of a BA in Business Economics and Finance, told the Independent on Sunday that students were confused by the book. "It was a very bad book to work from and a lot of us were getting stuck because some of the problems he was working through were completely wrong," she said.

Her comments were substantiated by several independent reviewers, one of whom, Hugh Mason, a lecturer in geography at the University of Portsmouth, called it "slipshod" and "misleading".

Indeed, Sheila Ritchie, the managing director of Elm Publications, which published the book, admitted there were inaccuracies in the second edition. She said these had been ironed out in the latest edition, a claim which Mr Slack disputes.

Ms Ritchie, whose Huntingdon company publishes textbooks in business, law and history, said Mr Shaw had been paid to write the book, which had then been proof-read by her colleagues.

A spokeswoman for the University of North London said she was unable to comment on the case in detail. "However, the university would like to state that it fully respects the right of academics to express their views, but feels entitled to take appropriate measures, should there be behaviour which threatens, victimises or harasses others," she added.

With academics under increasing pressure to get their work into print, more academic books than ever are being printed by small publishers and even by companies set up by the academics themselves.

Problems can arise when a text that has not been thoroughly reviewed by peers is recommended to students as core reading material.

Meanwhile, the consensus is that it is getting harder to publish with the major presses and journals and that it is taking longer to get something into print.

Stephen Bourne, director of Cambridge University Press, said the publisher was "stretched to the limit" and probably turned down about 90 per cent of manuscripts that it received. "It is certainly true that authors rejected by us will take their work to other presses, which tend to be progressively smaller," he said.

"The major presses wouldn't consider releasing any work without substantial peer review, which is why the established publishers have the reputation for reliability, accuracy and academic strength that they do."