Veruscript: the academic publisher built for academics or Putin?
A week ago, the Financial Times ran the story, Intelligence experts accuse Cambridge forum of Kremlin links. It raised the possibility that a new publisher Veruscript is set up to promote Russian interests:
Sir Richard [the ex-chief of MI6] and his colleagues suspect that Veruscript — a newly established digital publishing house that has provided funding to set up a new journal of intelligence and to cover some of the seminar’s costs — may be acting as a front for the Russian intelligence services. They fear that Russia may be seeking to use the seminar as an impeccably-credentialed platform to covertly steer debate and opinion on high-level sensitive defence and security topics, two people familiar with their thinking said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
I shared the above story via Twitter and forgot about it. A day later, the publisher tagged me in their outraged response to the article. One paragraph in their statement rang alarm bells in my mind, as it mentioned the father of Veruscript's co-founder:
The funding of Veruscript was provided by Andrey Cheglakov, Gleb Cheglakov’s father. He was the initial investor and the company has not required any further rounds of investment to date. Andrey Cheglakov is not involved in running any part of the Veruscript business.
Andrey Cheglakov is a Russian billionaire. According to the follow-up article in Financial Times, "Andrei Cheglakov is a senior executive at Russian national telecoms company Rostelecom and owns companies that design computer software for the Russian government."
From everything that I know, billionaires in Russia tend to be close friends of Putin. Of course, there is a non-zero chance that Andrey Cheglakov financed the creation of Veruscript because of a deep personal passion for open access publishing. However, the financial foundation of Veruscript made it harder for me to swallow the founder's claim, "Veruscript was set up to help the research community by providing a fair publishing platform for researchers across academic disciplines."
So I decided to take a closer look. Veruscript's new journal at the center of this controversy is the Journal of Intelligence and Terrorism. It has published a total of 12 articles so far, with the inaugural article being a propaganda piece that blames the West and Ukraine for Putin's incursion into Crimea:
The main conclusion of this paper is that the West’s complacency and ignorance were some of the principal causes of the Ukraine crisis... Growing frustration of the West with the incompetence and corruption of the Ukrainian ruling elite and the failure of the Ukrainian democratic process to fulfil many of its original expectations are further aggravating the situation. Furthermore, the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian economy has been hampered by the blockade maintained not by Ukrainian government forces, but by Ukrainian paramilitaries, a visible minority of which share a neo-Nazi ideology.
That's not just any article in this journal. This article is co-authored by the journal's Editor-in-Chief, Professor Neil Kent of Cambridge University. Apparently Dr. Kent spent a decade, 2002-2012, as a professor in Russia's St Petersburg State Academic Institute. That must have been a cozy decade for Professor Kent as he became a big fan of Russia and its ruler Putin. Here is Professor Kent, after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, in an interview on RT.com, Kremlin's chief propaganda vehicle. In this interview, Dr. Kent sounds more like Donald Trump than a Cambridge University professor, blaming the biased Western media with an agenda, questioning the US State Department and military intelligence.
So with the financial backing of Veruscript by a Russian oligarch, with the Editor-in-Chief a huge fan of Putin and Russia, and with pro-Russian content in their journal, Veruscript's founders will have to do a lot more than write angry letters in order to convince people that they are a legitimate and independent publisher.