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Elsevier Boycott – Academics, Get a Grip! February 25, 2012

Posted by Andre Vellino in Open Access.

At the risk of being shunned by the now 7,000+ prestigious colleagues who are actively boycotting Elsevier, I’d like to appeal to the better angels of their nature and ask them to stop whipping up a frenzy of outrage and indignation that pits Elsevier (“axis of evil”) against Us (“freedom of thought”). I worry that this polarization of the issues is clouding our individual and collective judgement about what the fundamental problems are and what can and should be done about them.

It is undeniable that there are real and serious problems with academic publishing (as pointed out very cogently by Fields Medalist Tim Gowers here,  John Dupuis (Head of York’s Science’s Library), here and Barbara Fister in the Library Journal here). And the Open Access movement is one I support. The concentration of control over journals by one for-profit publisher is clearly one of the core problems and the questionable practices (e.g. “bundling”) that they can consequently employ is another.

But who (or rather what) exactly is to “blame” (if that’s the right thing to do) for this situation? Elsevier is behaving rationally – from a market-forces point of view anyway. Maximizing profits is what any private enterprise does, particularly one that is publicly traded on stock exchanges. Elsevier (the publisher) is owned by Reed Elsevier which also owns Lexis Nexis (which offers law information and services) and Reed Elsevier Business (which provides data services, information and marketing solutions to businesses). Is this a portfolio mix that should be permitted by law? After all there are anti-trust laws that prohibit monopoly ownership in other domains.

One fundamental problem is that a public good (knowledge) has been comoditized, marketed and sold by a private, for profit enterprise. The officials within Elsevier who are in charge of the company don’t have a lot of room to manoeuvre if they are to comply with the stock-market forces that urge them to forever greater profitability.

Here’s a suggestion to the signatories of the Elsevier boycott: go to your pension-fund manager (university or government) and find out if any of the mutual funds, exchange-traded funds or stock portfolios they own have stock in Elsevier-Reed. I’m willing to bet they do. Preasure them to boycott those investments – I’m willing to bet that will have more influence.

Of course, the academic boycott has been heard, as evidenced by Elsevier’s open-letter reply of February 6th. That is one way to precipitate some kind of change towards greater openness of intellectual output. But lets not delude ourselves into thinking that this is going to address the root problem: the inadequate funding of publicly-owned channels of knowledge dissemination.

Instead, could we harness this desire for change towards lobying governments for more funding for university and independant open-access publishers (and tone down the rhetoric against Elsevier a little)?

P.S. I think it’s pretty important, for this post especially, to make it clear that these are my personal opinions (as are all my blog posts here) and in no way reflect the views of my employer.


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