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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lustig

Sensitive adaptation or ruthless censorship?

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Recently it has been reported that UK universities have been adapting their course content in order to adhere to Chinese restrictions on Internet content. The universities say that this initiative is meant to help students in China, who are studying for degrees in the UK, to access the course content overseas.

However, the Higher Education Policy Institute has accused the universities of ‘self-censorship’.

Adapting for an international market

This got me thinking about the work I do and have done on international curricula products. The international market can be very challenging for UK-based publishers, because values and practices are different in different countries and regions. Accepted topics of discussion in the UK can be considered off-limits in other regions.

More and more publishers who create international curricula materials carry out a cultural review. This review will look for potentially sensitive material in the text and suggestions will be made about either removing or adapting any examples found.

Most of the work of adapting a text for an international market involves what some would think of as simple and innocuous changes. For example, in some regions the soles of the feet are considered impolite and an adaptation might involve removing any photos that depict them.

Other amendments can cause more complications. Some Muslim nations may not find it acceptable to mention alcohol in textbooks. This could pose a problem if the textbook discusses the health impacts of drinking. Contested territories can also be tricky to handle. The United Nations might recognise a specified area as a country. Whereas a country in the target market might not and may ban books that refer to it as a country or represent it as a country on a map.

A cultural review would attempt to solve all of these problems. Often the result is that material has to be removed.

When does adaptation become censorship?

Is that censorship? Those criticising UK universities might say that it is and I can see their reasoning. What happens if a medical textbook cannot include biological depictions of the female reproductive system for fear of censorship in the target market? To most of us in the UK, this would be considered vital teaching material that should not be removed.

On the other hand, a book that does not meet local regulations and restrictions can be hand censored in the region or banned altogether. Local education ministries have been known to sticker over content they find offensive.

Either way, the ‘sensitive’ material does not make it into the market.

A capitalist conundrum

There is an argument to be made that publishers are only doing what is necessary to sell their books into a wide range of markets. They have to remove sensitive material to sell their books, therefore they either remove sensitive material or they don’t bother publishing for these regions at all.

Here the argument becomes a capitalist one. The only way for businesses to profit from the potential sales in these regions is to cater for those markets’ ethics and values.

If publishers don’t publish into these markets, are the markets being denied access to materials by Western publishers attempting to force their own values on other cultures?

Finding a solution

One solution might be not to publish for these markets. The publishing could be carried out in the region. Local publishers would decide what was appropriate and any change would come about as a result of local values. Local publishers would benefit from the potential revenue in the region and profits and power would not be so centralised in a few Western conglomerates.

But UK publishers are not showing any signs of withdrawing from these markets. If anything, the news from UK universities suggests the trend of adapting resources for international markets is growing. With many international markets growing at a faster rate than domestic ones, there is little incentive for publishers to retreat.

Another solution might be for UK publishers to make more case-specific choices regarding the changes to their resources. Is a book teaching medicine useful if it doesn’t include reference to female reproductive organs? Should such a book be attempted?

Publishers could make these decisions before commissioning new works. The possible sensitivities could be mapped and any conflicts with the subject matter resolved early on. A high-level strategic decision could be made – not about whether such a book is possible to create or how to do it – but about whether this publication in this market really reflects the company’s mission statement and ethics.

Ultimately, it is for each company to decide whether publishing fits in with their ethics. Customers have increasingly shown that they will judge publishers on those choices.


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