Student Publishers: what are their responsibilities to authors?

Students Studying


Anyone who writes short stories, flash, or essays knows about the hunt for a market and the cycle of amendment and revision that goes on each time a piece comes back. Then eventually, (when the moon is blue, all the planets are aligned, and you remembered to bury a raw steak at the end of the garden), that wonderful, beautiful acceptance from the most discerning of editors (obviously) pops into the inbox. You landed one!


Selection of a market, in my experience, goes from aspirational to ‘that’ll do’, with ‘that’ll do’ becoming increasingly aspirational as the rejections mount up. Sooner or later, anything with a permalink starts to look acceptable but I like to think I’ve exercised considerable restraint in avoiding indiscriminate publishers for the sake of an entry on my cv. It’s easy enough to do that – read what’s already there and decide if the company you would be keeping is acceptable. If it isn’t, don’t submit, but then revisit your piece to be sure it exceeds that standard and you’re not just looking to ride on the collective glow (if there is one) of other work. That end of the integrity chain is in your own hands and you can control your public image to a reasonable extent by using a bit of strategic nous.


But what about the publishers? What about their integrity? Leaving aside the languishing in slush (and the disrespectful cognitive set the word itself generates), most publishers I have worked with have conducted themselves professionally. Two, though, have caused me concern either by ceasing to publish or becoming unresponsive and, to all intents and purposes, dead. Let’s be realistic, publications fold for all sorts of reasons and I’ve experienced these too. The editors made the reasons clear and they always included elements of overwhelming and unpaid work. But the two that bother me did not sink under that kind of weight. Both were MFA projects, which means that those of us who submitted there in good faith were actually unwitting subjects of a student experiment. That peeves me. Had I known, I may have chosen to submit elsewhere because transience would seem to be a major risk in such circumstances. I am also rather annoyed about becoming someone’s project – a part of something for which the primary goal is a qualification and not the publishing per se – without being told. That feels disrespectful; it also feels unethical. In science, whenever we invite participants to join a project, there is transparency – we have to disclose our status and the intent and duration of the project. Critically, participants must consent in full knowledge of the impact. MFA/MA students are writers themselves, how is it possible they and their tutors don’t seem to recognise the element of exploitation that underpins apparent current practice?


I have no problem with universities encouraging publishing  projects, but I would like to see them taking more responsibility for the ethics of disclosure, choice, and maybe even post-qualification continuity. At the very least, I would like to know that a market is a project, and to which university the students are affiliated. There, at least, would be a recourse to complaint in the event of poor practice – and wouldn’t that be important feedback?

I’d like to hear – what’s been your experience of publishers? Have you fallen foul of student publishers? What happened to your publication if the project ended?


8 thoughts on “Student Publishers: what are their responsibilities to authors?

  1. I haven’t got much experience with the student publishers. I had an experience of a publisher going into a couple of months hiatus, but at least he posted something about hectic days and health problems on his blog and the magazine is back to life now.
    I agree with you about the project thing — some of the magazines indeed state being MFA or MA project or trace their birth to such projects, but not all have this decency.

    1. I always check out the ‘About us’ page before I submit – really just to have an idea who I’m talking to – but sometimes there’s nothing much there so I go to ‘contact us’. Duotrope gives a decent guide as to activity on the site so I know if there’s life, but so far, I haven’t come across an MFA/MA that’s ‘outed’ itself to writers. I commend those that do 🙂

  2. I’ve never come across but have only literally just started submitting my work. I’m frankly incredulous that this sort of practice could be part of any form of academic project. I thought ethics was for all research work not just science. One has to wonder with what sort of rigour – if any – the tutors are monitoring their students’ work.

    1. I suppose the thing is, the MA/MFA may not be perceived as research. If there is no background in research (in literary circles, that means information gathering, not information generating) then there may be no introduction to the ethics of involving people who are not part of the course. There’s also a culture of gratitude, I think, in getting work published. Editors seem powerful and subject to all manner of whims – spacing, word count, genre, even the use of tense! This doesn’t really give writers much of a sense of self worth so why, as a student publisher, would you feel the need to tell them they are just a means to an end? I think the surprise is that so many – often unpaid and minimally staffed – do behave ethically and professionally. They are to be celebrated.

  3. I see your point about it not being classed as research however if this is a project being supervised (directly or indeed indirectly) by the university then you would expect some level of regulation/ethics/integrity. You’d hope it was an essential requirement of any project involving others.

    I think the very fact that these students are involved in some way in the world of writing makes this seem all the more abhorrent. Of all the people you’d hope would value the written word … but then I’m probably being ridiculously idealistic.

    Oh well, as you say, we must celebrate those publishers who do act ethically and professionally.

  4. Ah well could be lots of reasons: benefit of the doubt hoping that the original intention was a good one; or perhaps a sense that the ultimate naming and shaming belongs with the university dept in question not with the students? Only you can answer that one!

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