Regular commenter and tireless gadfly Bill Hooker asks what my take is on the movement afoot to get academics to put pressure on (and perhaps completely boycott) scientific/technical/medical publisher and information portal Reed-Elsevier.
What's wrong with Reed-Elsevier? Among other things, they host "arms fairs" -- like book fairs, but with munitions and torture equipment (which means it's unlikely Scholastic will be hosting an arms fair at the local primary school).
But hey, are we expecting a company to be able to stay afloat on revenues from academic and technical publishing alone?
I'm not going to look at this as an economic question, simply because I'm not a trained economist, and I'm at best an indifferent capitalist. (I don't much care for capitalism, but I have no great ideas for what to put in its place.) Instead, I'm going to stick to the ethical issues, and those from the point of view of the academics rather than the captains of industry at Reed-Elsevier making the business decisions. There are a number of connected questions here, and I'm just going to pull out a few:
- Upon becoming aware that a company with which you do business has another business that you find morally objectionable, do you have a duty to do something about it? (If so, what is your duty?)
- If you are part of a limited slice of the population that does business with this company, does this put extra obligations on you in this situation?
- Might certain of your professional duties (e.g., working out treatments for radiation poisoning) require you to take a stand against a company that does business with members of your profession (e.g., because it features depleted uranium munitions at its arms fairs)?
- Are there circumstances in which some members of a profession might not be bound by the duties other members of that profession have toward a business with a morally objectionable cash stream?
- Do general "duties to the taxpayers" or "duties to ensure the public good" impose particular obligations upon academics to make sure the businesses with which they interact are "clean" businesses?
I think some of these questions are tough ones, and I'm far from fully "thought out" on any of them. I'll give you my sense of things, and I welcome your feedback.
What kind of business does an academic do with a company like Reed-Elsevier? Most of it will revolve around submitting manuscripts for publication, refereeing submitted manuscripts, and reading (and citing) the manuscripts that are eventually published. There may also be some lobbying of academic libraries to subscribe to Reed-Elsevier journals or information products (at significant cost), paying fees to reprint articles in anthologies, etc. Publishing companies needn't have any involvement at all in arms trading -- generally, the gripe academics have with a publisher is that it enlists free labor from academics and tries to make a profit from it, but last time I checked, this was a pretty common capitalist strategy. (See, I'm a crummy capitalist.)
So, if you find the arms trade problematic (and I do), and you're an academic, what are your options?
You could drop all dealings with Reed-Elsevier -- don't send them manuscripts, don't referee manuscripts for them, don't anthologize articles they've published, don't even read what they've published -- and just deal with other academic publishers who aren't involved in the arms fairs. If your goal is not just to keep your own hands clean, but to get Reed-Elsevier to get out of the nasty business, you could notify the company that you're taking this action for this reason, and you could organize other academics to join in.
But, there might be some challenges in pursuing this course of action. In some subfields, there are very few journals. If Reed-Elsevier published 50% of the journals in your subfield, joining a boycott might mean decreasing the chances that your reserach will get published at all. Possibly, if a significant number of people in your subfield join the boycott, this will result in a significant increase in the turnaround time between submitting a manuscript and getting the referee reports on it. Of course, if people stop refereeing for the Reed-Elsevier journals in that area, that might enlarge the referee pool for the non-Reed-Elsevier journals. And, indeed, the size of the shift toward the non-Reed-Elsevier journals sufficient to really slow down publication in that subfield might also be big enough to get Reed-Elsevier to respond to the boycott and stop the arms fairs.
Another problem Bill mentions is that in some cases one's collaborators may not want to go along with the boycott, whether because they find the arms fairs unproblematic, or because they find arms fairs problematic but value the chance at getting a high impact publication more. I suppose this becomes one more thing one needs to work out to make a collaboration successful. There's already some amount of negotiation between collaborators over the "best" place to submit a manuscript. Now, in addition to weighing impact factor, turnaround time, "fit" to desired audience, and perceived curmudgeonliness of referees, "cleanness" may be one more factor collaborators must weigh in deciding where to report their joint work. (Having this conversation at the start of a proposed collaboration probably makes more sense than first broaching the subject when the manuscript is written and ready to send out.)
Related to this is the fact that publications are essential to stay in the community. Scientists need to publish to get tenure, to get promotions, and to get grant money to keep their research going. Moreover, one of the "strings" that comes with accepting grant money to conduct your research is that the results will be published. If there are enough choices in one's subfield, one may be able to completely avoid Reed-Elsevier journals and still get published; if there aren't, one may have to choose between standing behind one's principles and staying in the scientific community.
Do academic scientists (the main consumers of Reed-Elsevier products) have a special obligation to put pressure on Reed-Elsevier to get out of the arms trade? Academic scientists may have the best economic angle from which to put pressure on the company -- but that only works if a large enough portion of them gets involved. I suppose it's possible to mount an argument that, since academic scientists get a lot of their support (by way of education, grants, etc.) from public monies, they have a duty to defend the public good by getting Reed-Elsevier out of the arms trade. However, I suspect that lots of members of "the public" might view the arms trade as a good thing.
If you see something you think is wrong, it's natural to want to stop it. As a practical matter, though, one may need to ask, is it something I can stop (either on my own, or by enlisting the help of others)? Will the foreseeable outcome of my trying to stop it be worse than my not trying to stop it? Is it enough that I take steps not to aid the thing I object to, even if I may not be able to stop it without substantial risk to myself, if at all?
To my knowledge, no one has ever died from not getting a manuscript published in a particular journal. At the same time, I can imagine circumstances in a subfield (e.g., a single scholarly journal, published by Reed-Elsevier) that could kill the career of a junior scientist of conscience. So, I wouldn't want to say that anyone who objects to Reed-Elsevier's arm fairs and still submits or referees manuscripts for Reed-Elsevier journals is a hypocritical scumbag.
At the same time, it strikes me that the best way to create an atmosphere for scientific publishing where one doesn't have to worry about the moral baggage associated with dealing with a particular publisher is to make it a policy to avoid dealing with publishers that partake in morally questionable activities. Shape the marketplace with your manuscript submission patterns. When it becomes unprofitable to try to maintain academic publishing and arms fairs, companies like Reed-Elsevier will have to choose between the two.