elsevier politics

Academics and Elsevier

I’ve been corresponding with the publishers Reed Elsevier about their involvement in the arms trade. Reed Elsevier is an academic publisher, which also has a subsidary company, Spearhead Exhibitions, which hosts DSEi – the world’s largest arms fair. You can see what I’ve written to Reed Elsevier, and what they’ve written back, elsewhere on this blog (one, two, three, four).

I believe that the DSEi arms fairs are immoral, geopolitically reckless, sometimes illegal (e.g.) and improperly regulated (e.g.). Beyond this, I resent that a publisher which profits from the hard (and publicly funded) work of academics uses those profits to support the sale to undemocratic & repressive governments of such things as depleted uranium shells, cluster bombs, missile technology and small arms. The arms fairs Spearhead organises (yes, DSEi isn’t the only one) are a measly amount of Elsevier’s business, but it is a part that makes academics complicit in the deaths of civilians, in torture and in political repression around the world.

What can academics do to pressure Elsevier to drop this part of their business? What should we do? Here’s some possibilities. Feedback very welcome – which of these, if any, are reasonable, feasible and might be effective?

1. Write to the Chairman of Elsevier, Jan Hommen, and ask him to reconsider his position: Jan Hommen, Reed Elsevier PLC, 1-3 Strand, London WC2N 5JR.

2. Contact your union, and/or support any motions which express disaproval of Reed Elsevier.

3. If you are member of a scientific society which produces a journal, find out who the publisher is. If it is Elsevier, find out when the contract renewal date is, and the procedure for society members to influence the decision of who that contract goes to.

4. If you write journal papers, bear in the mind the publisher when submitting papers. Obviously you aren’t going to withhold submitting a paper just because the journal is Elsevier, but if you are faced with a choice of journals, one of which is Elsevier, you could cross that journal off your list first?

5. For your papers published in Elsevier journals, insert a line in the acknowledgements along the lines of “The author(s) note with disappointment the involvement of Elsevier with the international trade in arms”

6. When reviewing papers bear in mind the publisher of the journal. Put those for the Elsevier journals to the bottom of the pile.

Any more?

Update – Manual Trackback: Crooked Timber

13 replies on “Academics and Elsevier”

happy to spread the word… think you need to aim at content supply if you want to apply pressure (so raising awareness among academics would be the best strategy imo).

How about:

1. Getting a statement prepared (already done, pretty much) that gets all the points across, as well as perhaps some more general ones.

2. Sending it to a whole basketful of academics, asking them to be signatories.

3. Sending the result to the major national papers?

I guess it might be a bit late for this year’s Dsei, but still worth doing.

It would also test how cowardly academics actually are! (I bet you wouldn’t get many signatures from politics depts… ‘we study it, we don’t *do* it…’)

Good luck…

I’ll certainly be doing number 1.

A high profile petition might be a way forward. I don’t mean collecting signatures on the streets, but finding any author who has published in an elsevier journal in the last ten years and asking them to sign. Full page add in the Times listing the most famous. Headlines of the form ‘1000 eminent scientists…’ would surely worry them?

I’m in the hardcore of thinking that the journal system is pretty broken and should be radically reformed/replaced.
I accept that typically, authors turn over rights to their work in order to secure a publisher who shares profits with that author. However journals profit on the backs of product created by authors who do not directly share in that profit, but merely want to disseminate their work. There are now other ways to do this, and distributed decisionmaking/reviewing systems would appear fairer than peer review. The biggest journals attract non-scientist readership, broadly a good thing, but which creates a tension between their official role as a sorting system that promotes the strongest science, and their effective role in publishing the sexiest science. Successful scientists effectively become complicit in this by ‘working the system’ by skipping steps and publishing exploratory, novel, exciting sounding work well before the intermediate, labourious steps have been taken (this is something that social cognitive neuroscience is particularly guilty of). I know I’m not the only one to wish to move more work into open-access journals; the problem is that until larger names take up the call, young scientists will only be hurting (and possibly killing) their career by going down these avenues rather than publishing in established journals.

I think my reaction to this specific issue with Elsevier follows that mould – it’s something established players can get away with but junior researchers have to be very careful, unless they have a semi-permanent position or are hotshots who have made a name for themselves. So 6(if you’re senior) and 3 make a lot of sense – low risk possibilites. If you’re junior, you might only get 1 or 2 reviews a year, so either you throw them back in their face, or do them. 4 depends on how many journals elsevier have. 5 is an interesting one. Would they allow it? I think there is a danger there also of seeming militant and unduly politicising the scientific process. Of course, the whole point is that these things are interconnected, and if a scientific institution is involved in certain issues then we are already involved in the political murk. But, again, as a junior I can imagine these things being problematic (e.g., someone whose lab works with animal data might feel this is an alarm bell that this author has POLITICAL ISSUES, and so perhaps better not to work with them). 1 and 2 seems straightforward, and most people should be able to do that without putting themselves at ‘risk’.

So my answers take the form of appraising what would worry me (an unpublished researcher with only one toe in the system) and what wouldn’t; I suspect others might fall into the same territory.

Possibilities: write an article _about_ it. I think this is something open to researchers at any level (and of course non-scientists). By tackling it head on, rather than mixing concerns ‘in with the science’, this maintains a respectable distance between personal positions on politics and scientific concerns – at least, it does if said article was measured and expressed the tensions between ‘doing science for the science’ and ‘being an ethical + conscious scientist’. _Subsequent_ to such a consciousness-raising exercise, I think there would be much more liberty for people to follow e.g., Step 5 – and also steps 1-3 (4 and 6 are necessarily private issues, no?). So I think a formal declaration of the issue at stake is almost a prerequisite to sliding in statements in the acknowledgements; otherwise, you’re likely to make the issue sneak up on other readers and contributors to the journal and they might feel defensive. I’m a fan of grass-roots action, but I think a fair airing in the proper (i.e. more public, and not exclusively focused on scientific content) channels might be necessary beforehand, to avoid it feeling like a guerrilla assault on the scientific establishment more widely.

Hi. I’ve been following your correspondence with Elsevier with growing disappointment and distaste. In mathematics (particularly algebra, which I’m most familiar with) Elsevier is viewed as a monopolistic, gouging, necessary evil. Supporting arms fairs takes that to another level.

What sparked me to comment, though, is your list of 6 possible reactions. I’ll go through them in order, though the last is the one I’m most concerned about. (1) is obviously a good idea. (2) is fine for those of us who are unionized (I am not). (3) Excellent thought, though it’s my understanding that most large professional societies self-publish; this is true of the American Mathematical Society and London Mathematical Society, anyway. (4) Definitely, definitely, definitely. (5) I can see the appeal of this, but would be uncomfortable politicizing my academic work so overtly.

(6) is just a mistake. It penalizes your colleagues to the benefit of the journal. Elsevier couldn’t care less how long it takes you to referee their papers — longer lead times make them look more influential. Meanwhile your colleagues, who may be apolitical, clueless, pre-tenure (!), or for whom this journal really is the most appropriate one, are left ignorant, cranky, and potentially damaged professionally.

I’d add (7) speak to your librarian about your department’s journal subscriptions and push Elsevier journals toward the top of the cancellation pile (there is always such a pile). Hold out for paper versions of Elsevier journals — they cost more to produce and bring less income than electronic versions. (This involves some personal sacrifice, of course, since the electronic versions are so much more convenient.)

Graham: Yes – I think you’re right that not reviewing Elsevier papers is not feasible. Obviously no one wants to harm their own career or anyone elses. I was just thinking out load, and thinking about the effect on Elsevier is academics believed anyone might do this.

It seems Elsevier’s reputation is similar in mathematics as is in psychology

Alex: Re: putting a note in the acknowledgements. Publishers are not supposed to interfere with the content of the papers, and you can insert a line after acceptance and revisions, so yes, I think you could get away with it. But, I take the point Graham made that politicing academic work is an uncomfortable positions (as always, making a fuss [us] is political, business as normal [Elsevier and the arms industry] is fine.

Kev: Re: getting a letter signed by academics. Any thoughts on how to get in touch with many academics?

Re: Learned societies changing publisher. Although some do, many learned societies do not self publish. As well as societies there are independent journals which sign to a publisher (eg The Lancet, which is signed to Elsevier). These seem a good point of leverage for those not unionised in the traditional sense.

Point to note: DSEi the world’s largest arms fair, hosted in London by Elsevier’s subsidary, is next week.

I’m as antiwar as the next guy, but I’m not sure that this is a good idea. (And I should admit that I work for an academic publisher who would doubtless benefit from journals’ severing their ties with RE.)

Laying aside for now the question of whether academic journals are subsidizing arms fair organization or vice versa, there is a larger issue here, and that is that this is ultimately a debate about globalization.

We might like to be able to separate ourselves, our money, and our work, from organizations and activities we can’t approve of. But the world is too connected anymore; it’s just not possible.

It is possible, however, to use this connectedness to make systemic improvement in the world.

On a practical level, what does this mean? It means, yes, spreading awareness, and shining a light into dark corners. We might not want to look under these rocks, but we’re brought along, and we have to bring the flashlights and bleach with us.

Would you rather have arms fairs run by a large and well-respected business with a reputation to preserve or someone who has nothing to lose in reputation or other business? (perhaps a “notoriously unscrupulous compan[y] from [some] unstable region”) If Reed Elsevier were not running this show, would you be able to put any pressure at all on the organizers? Short answer: No.

Responding to Tim at September 9, 2005 06:01 PM, I would much rather not have arms fairs run by large and well-respected businesses with reputations to preserve. The veneer of legitimacy has to be cleared away before the activity itself can be effectively targeted. All the reservations raised by the commenters reflect this. Elsevier’s unfortunately legitimate arms dealing activity is likely to remain legitimate and centrally located, regardless of who profits by it, but targeting it gets easier, not harder, as the profiteer is seen to be less reputable.

Thanks for drawing this to my attention (via John Quiggan). There is something else that can be done, at least by some people.

I write for a popular science magazine, and one of the roles we serve is to publicise work to people who would not read the originals. We’re a very niche popular science journal so our influence is small, but obviously others are much larger.

As a result of being made aware of this I intend to find out which journals I might use are published by Elsevier and implement a boycott on giving them beneficial publicity.

Given our size I doubt this will bother Elsevier much, but if more influential magazines did the same it could seriously hurt their prestige and eventually their profits.

I firmly believe said depleted uranium shells, cluster bombs and guided missiles are exactly what allows scientists to work freely in the West, so I welcome Elsevier. Instead of writing to the Elsevier chairman, you should consider relocating to Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Syria or one of a bunch of other moral countries.

Tim, good points, well made. Here’s some positive end-positions that are made more feasible by campaigning against Elsevier running DSEi:

– Elsevier forced to be part of better regulation of the arms fair

– DSEi run by a different, weaker company: it is easier to directly apply pressure to the companies and individuals involved in the arms fair

– DSEi run by a different, crapper company: DSEi a less professional and enjoyable experience for the delegates. The business of selling killing technology is made less efficient. Hell, it would be kind of poetic if the delegates were forced to convene in one of the trouble spots which fester because of their business activities. I wonder how moral they’d feel about their actions if they were stuck with diarrhoea in a bullet-marked and crumbling hotel surrounded by the child soldiers of some rebel army.

– DSEi run by a different, smaller (but equally professional) company: corporate involvement in the arms fair is more ammeanable to both legal and democratic pressure

– DSEi (and the arms trade as a whole maybe?) not run for profit

– Awarenss raised: individuals better positioned to decide how to respond to a company that sells medical research with one part of the business, and arranges the sale of killing technology with the other

But yes, I take your point that it is good that Elsevier have a reputation to preserve. And i’m happy to threaten that reputation (indeed, i think it is rightly threatened by the two contradictory elements of their business). We shouldn’t allow ourselves to expect and accept hypocrisy and profiteering from companies that pretend to serve the public good; if we do then companies won’t have the kind of reputations that can be threatened by their immoral actions.

A large source of Reed Elsevier’s income is from lawyers and journalists, as they own LexisNexis. As a lawyer, I’ll certainly be using Westlaw and other alternatives to Lexis.

Comments are closed.