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Publishers need to decide what they stand for and should not be afraid to offend, The Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton told delegates at the session on Sustainability and Publishing.  “I want to see publishers as being advocates for truth,” he said in one of the most powerful addresses of the book fair.  “Choose your truth,” he urged them.  “Decide what you will stand-up for.”

In a wide-ranging keynote speech, he spoke of the importance of words and how books and publishing are “the best early-warning system we have – whether it’s the pandemic or war, time and time again the threats that turn out to be real have been foretold in books”.  He gave numerous examples, among them Putin’s War Against Ukraine by Taras Kuzio, and spoke also about the failure to heed the science coming out of China on the eve of the pandemic.  “A little more listening may have helped.”

He believes words and publishing have a role to play in planetary health, and he had some fascinating views on global development over the next century.  “Many see China as a future source of productivity and wealth, and a science superpower.  But how sustainable is China’s rise?  By 2024 China’s population will peak and then start to an inexorable decline.  It’s not sustainable, the population is getting older and by 2100 its population will have halved, from 1.4bn to 700-800m.  And this may prompt a political crisis.

“On the other hand there’s Nigeria.  Its population is now 200m but by the end of the century it will be 790m, making it the second most populous nation on the planet after India.  Commentators often paint it as a failed state which is to ignore its energy, innovation and creativity.  The demographic dividend makes it a potential global superpower.  Nigeria and Africa are a huge, untapped potential.”

These words were warmly received by International Publishers Association (IPA) president Sheikha Bodour who has spearheaded various African initiatives and is a firm believer in the talent that lies in the huge continent.

Horton also spoke about freedom of speech and the freedom to publish, noting how the pandemic had led to the spread of fake news and had made it difficult for accurate information to reach the public.   “Freedom of speech is in peril by authoritarian governments who believe that a marketplace approach to ideas is the way forward.  That does not work.  It needs publishers to intervene and stand up for truth.”

Finally, Horton noted that if the tradition of peer-reviewed content was to continue – and it is a cornerstone of scientific, technical and medical publishing – then “reward and recognition” needs to be explored.