Ilustración de Demián Morassi
Demián Morassi

Springer Publishing succumbs to legal bullying, and why this matters in the struggle for a sustainable and just world


In aliis linguis

The academic publisher Springer Publishing has recently canceled a contract to publish an important new book, Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala: The Violence, Corruption, and Impunity of Contemporary Predatory Mineral Exploitation, due to threats from “a third party” to sue the publisher.

Further details of this incident are related in a public letter of protest (appended below) by the book’s co-editors, Catherine Nolin, Chair of the Conference of Latin American Geography, and Grahame Russell, director and co-founder of Rights Action. The incident reflects a wider trend of powerful corporations seeking to intimidate and muzzle academics, journalists, publishers, etc. who would expose their wrongdoings, by waging costly legal warfare against them in the form of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs.

Image from 'Defensora' film
Image from ‘Defensora’ film
The legal threats by the unnamed “third party” come at a time when another legal battle, begun in Canadian courts some years ago, progresses towards potentially history-making conclusions: Guatemalan Q’eqch’i plaintiffs, supported in their efforts by Grahame Russell and Rights Action, are suing a Canadian mining company (in Canadian courts because they could not get justice in Guatemala) for the assassination, severe injury (paralyzation), and gang-rape of defenders who opposed a mining project in their community. If these lawsuits succeed, they could pave the way for other victims of violence and wrongdoings committed on behalf of mining interests around the world to also seek justice. The story of this community’s ordeal, and the origins of their lawsuits, is told in the 40-minute English-language documentary Defensora.

While this matter should concern all who believe in democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression, I believe it should especially concern those of us who have come to see the urgent necessity of implementing an agenda of Degrowth – that is, an agenda that seeks 1) dramatic reductions in the consumption of energy and materials in the affluent countries; 2) equitable access to resources by the world’s poor so as to increase their consumption in essential areas; and 3) the replacement of capitalism with democratic means of allocation in order to make the above two steps possible; in order to achieve comparable living standards and a dignified life for all of the world’s people.

I believe that the dispute with Springer bears upon the prospects of implementing Degrowth for the following reasons:

  1. The continuation of capitalist growth and the consumer society depends upon expanded mining, so that popular mobilization to oppose mining projects, and efforts to restrain and punish acts of corruption and violence that facilitate these projects, constitute a crucial and strategic battlefield in the struggle for a sustainable and just world.
  2. Through violence and corruption, mining companies are assaulting Indigenous peoples all over the world, evicting them from their ancestral lands, and contaminating their lands and water through their mining operations.
  3. We can scarcely expect for sustainable ways to prevail in the world if the most sustainably-living peoples, who have knowledge and traditions that can help point the way for the rest of us, are deprived of the lands and territories that support their sustainable ways.
  4. Successful efforts by Indigenous peoples to defend and/or recover their lands and territories could help to inspire a critical mass of the Earth’s inhabitants to reject capitalist and colonial indoctrination and to struggle to reclaim sustainable land-based ways.

    Image from 'Defensora' film
    Image from ‘Defensora’ film
    The majority of people on the planet today, unlike the descendants of white settlers in countries like the United States, are only one or two or at most a few generations removed from sustainable land-based ways, and so capitalist ideology is not as deeply rooted in them. While many often conform on the surface level to capitalist ideology in order to succeed in capitalist societies, there is often, at a deeper repressed level, a mourning of the loss of sustainable ways and a longing to recover them. Indigenous struggles to defend and reclaim lands and territories, as they build momentum and succeed, are therefore a vanguard phenomenon, a potential catalyst, that, working together with other factors, could inspire massively greater numbers of people to reconnect to non-capitalist values, bring repressed hopes to the surface, and lead ultimately to mass mobilizations to change the ways in which land and “resources” are allocated in the current dominant system and bring all of these under the management of sustainably-living communities.
  5. Raising widespread public awareness of the violence and corruption of mining projects is an important and compelling element in persuading the public to question, and ultimately seek to abandon and replace, the unsustainable and catastrophically dangerous system of capitalist endless growth and overconsumption.
  6. To raise public awareness about these matters, there must be a free and abundant flow of information.
  7. Springer canceled the contract to publish the book, has since refused to answer repeated inquiries into which passages “present unsubstantiated defamatory content” and who the “third party” is who is threatening to sue, and has maintained their decision in spite of the fact that a renowned legal expert in the field thoroughly reviewed the book’s manuscript and found no “unsubstantiated defamatory content” in it.
  8. Springer’s decision sets a dangerous precedent which, especially if imitated across the publishing industry, could further embolden powerful corporations to use their financial and legal clout to bully researchers and publishers, and so obstruct the free and abundant flow of information that the public critically needs in order to make informed democratic decisions in the pursuit of a sustainable and just world.

Grahame Russell in 'Defensora' film
Grahame Russell in ‘Defensora’ film
I would encourage sympathetic readers to contact Grahame Russell of Rights Action, to express support for these vital efforts to oppose mining industry impunity and ask to be kept in the loop about the book and the Guatemalan struggles it addresses, via their emailing list.

Open letter by Catherine Nolin & Grahame Russell

(Read source version of the letter for the book’s table of contents and authors’ biographies.)

Addressed to: Springer Nature, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Gewerbestr. 11 6330 Cham, Switzerland, att.:

  • Dr. Robert K. Doe, Executive Publishing Editor, Earth Sciences, Geography and Environment.
  • Juliana Pitanguy, Publishing Editor, Latin American Studies, Springer Dordrecht.
  • Dr. Andrew Sluyter, Conference of Latin American Geography, Springer Books Series Editorial Board, Chair.
  • Dr. Michael Steinberg, Conference of Latin American Geography, Executive Director.

Why did a Swiss publisher abruptly refuse to publish Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala?

Why did a Swiss academic publisher, after an initial very positive response, abruptly refuse to publish Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala: The Violence, Corruption, and Impunity of Contemporary Predatory Mineral Exploitation? The publisher ultimately said it was the threat of a third party suing for defamation but then refused to specify what it alleged was defamatory or identify the third party. Was it corporate intimidation that caused Springer to make unsubstantiated accusations, and impede the authors’ freedom of expression?

We write this public letter to raise questions as to why an international academic publisher suddenly refused to proceed with the publication of Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala, a book we co-edited that addresses serious situations of (mainly) Canadian mining company-linked human rights violations, forced evictions, repression, health and environmental harms, and mining-linked corruption and impunity in Guatemala.

In summary

Back in April 2017, Springer accepted our book proposal, signed a publishing agreement with us in May 2017, and encouraged us – in discussions with Catherine Nolin – to submit a book manuscript related to these themes and issues.

Leaping ahead, on 20 February 2020, we submitted our final manuscript after three years of field work, collaborations, and hard work of putting the book together with multiple contributors, reviewing and editing the materials, and maintaining full communication with Springer.

Shortly thereafter, Springer’s Publishing Editor for the Latin American Studies book series Juliana Pitanguy wrote to us (21 February 2020) with this initial assessment:

I just had a look at the manuscript. The topic is very interesting and it is very well written. It will be a successful title. I will send this to Andrew [Sluyter, Springer-CLAG Latin American Studies Book Series Editorial Board Chair] for feedback and get back to you.

As the Editorial Board Chair, Dr. Sluyter reviewed the proposal and recommended the external reviewers for Springer. Dr. Sluyter also reviewed the final, revised manuscript and recommended that it was of high quality, a great fit with Springer’s Latin American Studies book series, and conveyed to Juliana Pitanguy that he looked forward to seeing it go to print.

After completion of all preparatory work, signing author agreements for all contributors, and awaiting the final page proofs, we experienced approximately five months of silence from Springer, even as we wrote regularly asking for feedback and timelines for publication.

Finally, on 17 July 2020, Juliana Pitanguy wrote us to convey that Springer would not be publishing the book and planned to terminate the contract, because:

it presents unsubstantiated defamatory content. Changes in language are not sufficient to take away the legal risk and therefore we think it is not publishable. We wish you all the best of luck and will send you a termination contract so that you can publish the work elsewhere.
(email from Juliana Pitanguy, 17 July 2020)

Despite a series of respectful, professional follow-up emails sent immediately on our part, asking for clarification as to what information in the manuscript was “unsubstantiated” and what information was “defamatory,” we received no answers to our legitimate questions.

“The Third Party”

On 30 July 30 2020, we received a short email from our Publishing Editor, Ms. Pitanguy, explaining that Springer could not provide any more information about why they were terminating the agreement, would not communicate with us on the telephone or conference call. Rather, her email message simply conveyed that:

…there is a risk we [Springer] could be sued for defamation if the third party files a case.

As co-editors, we sent follow-up, respectful, professional emails requesting that Springer identify “the third party” and explain why and how “the third party” obtained access to the book manuscript. Additionally, we requested that Springer clarify which specific information in our manuscript was “unsubstantiated” and “defamatory.” Again, to no avail.

Since this time, we received significant support from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). On 20 August 2020, David Robinson, CAUT’s executive director, contacted Springer with a formal letter requesting further information as to why, just as the book was to be published, Springer terminated the contact. Springer has yet to respond to his letter.

CAUT also devoted significant resources to subject the content of our manuscript – the exact version submitted to Springer on 20 February 2020 – to a full ‘libel review’ by Canadian lawyer Peter Jacobsen, a lawyer with over 40 years of experience and who was named Named “Lawyer of the Year” by Best Lawyers for Defamation and Media Law in 2017.

Peter Jacobsen concluded that the manuscript did not contain a single instance of unsubstantiated, defamatory content that should prevent publication. Other than a few minor tweaks of sentences, out of an abundance of caution, Mr. Jacobsen did not recommend any changes.

And that was that.

We have no financial or legal capacity to challenge Springer’s forced termination of the contract. Furthermore, co-editing and publishing this book was never about money.

We recently signed their forced termination agreement, and are now seeking alternative publishers.

We personally have no demands or asks of Springer. Our business is done with them. However, we have a responsibility to publicize what happened.

Re-enforcing impunity and immunity from accountability

Look at it this way. A major theme addressed in the articles, testimonies and analysis that comprise our book is the endemic corruption and impunity with which the mining companies addressed in the book have, variously, been able to operate in Guatemala, with their Guatemalan economic and political partners.

Instead of providing the public with more information about serious situations of mining company-linked human rights violations, forced evictions, repression, health and environmental harms in Guatemala, Springer Nature, we believe, made unsubstantiated accusations about our work being irredeemably defamatory, inhibited our freedom of expression, and directly re-enforced the corruption and impunity with which mining companies often times operate around the world, as set out in the book manuscript.

“The third party” questions

Might it be one of the companies addressed in the manuscript is the “the third party” and threatened the Swiss academic publisher to quash publication of a book documenting mining company harms, violence and destruction, corruption and impunity?

We believe there are many questions of public interests, but for us the key questions are:

  • Who is “the third party” that Springer referred to? Was “the third party” a mining company addressed in the book?
  • How and why did “the third party” receive the manuscript to read?
  • At minimum, as is customary in the publishing industry, we should have been told what portions of the book Springer alleged contained “unsubstantiated defamatory content” and we should have been given the opportunity to address Springer’s concerns.
  • What sections of the book did Springer consider contained “unsubstantiated defamatory content”? And why does Springer refuse to tell us?


Catherine Nolin & Grahame Russell

Dr. Catherine Nolin, Professor and Chair
Geography Program
Conference of Latin American Geography (CLAG), Chair
University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC)
Prince George, British Columbia, Canada

Grahame Russell, Rights Action, Director
Adjunct Professor, Geography Program, UNBC
Rights Action
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Illustration by Demián Morassi
Demián Morassi

Update [2021-08-14]: The book will be available for purchase from another publisher, Between the Lines, on October 25, 2021.

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Steven Johnson has been a teacher of English as a second language, and dreams of the formation of an international network of substantially self-sufficient egalitarian communities which would model materially simple living and support teams of researchers and journalists so that these would not depend on corporations, states, or foundations for their sustenance.

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