Academia, capitalism, and conscience.

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.

Comments are off for this post

  • Do these arms fairs come with live demonstrations?

  • Bill Hooker says:

    tireless gadfly
    Bzzzz! I hope no tenure committee ever reads that! Bzzz!
    But seriously, thanks for two reminders: 1. I want to write Elsevier -- there's not much point in a boycott of which the target has never heard; and 2. I'm going to be looking for collaborations on a couple of projects over the next few months, I hope, and I mustmustmust remember to say upfront that I won't deal with Elsevier.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Hell with the arms trade.
    Elsevier should be under pressure because of how they deal with the academic publishing trade! I've been on the science library committee for a few years, and "Elsevier" seems to be the name that gets mentioned most when they are grumbling about the escalating price of journals.
    I'm a long-haired long-time free software type, so I'm very interested in the whole "open publishing" model. In astronomy, it's less of a big deal, because (a) the main journals (except for rags like Nature and Science, to which I will probably never submit) make their text available after a couple of years, and (b) most people upload preprints of their published papers right away, so that you can get the text of new papers even if you don't have a subscription.
    Still, I'd love to see a journal created that had only editorial oversight. I'm not even convinced we need typesetting any more, as preprints are at least readable. Copy editing and editing; it should be supported by the NSF or what-not, who would (if they think about it) save a lot of money doing that, once they no longer had to put money for page charges in every single grant they fund. Refereeing is already done by all of us on a volunteer basis, so that wouldn't need to change. No page charges-- except for perhaps a truly nominal (say $100) "submission fee" to help keep the spam out. No charges for electronic access to the journal.
    Of course, to get this kind of thing off the ground, it would take a lot of high-profile astronomers (or people in whatever field you talk about) to commit to publishing in those kinds of journals-- people who can afford the prestige hit it will cost them if they go down a notch by no longer publishing in the "traditional" journals. But, in the long run, it would help make the communication of scientific research be done the way it should be done.
    Of course, I know that I dream.
    -Rob

  • Rebecca says:

    I don't really have anything to offer to this discussion. I was just wondering if anyone else finds it the least bit mind boggling that one company would be involved with such wildly different enterprises. Academic publishing and arms dealing? That's a new one to me, and I found it pretty jaw dropping.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I don't know if this is still true, but for a while there was a very prevalent paradigm in the business world -- starting, I believe, at the Harvard Business School -- that "business is business," and that you don't need to know anything about what it is that you're selling.
    I saw this ruin a great sheet music store in San Francisco-- they got taken over by some HBS (or some such) grads, who figured out how to run the thing more efficiently and generally ruined it.
    Now, yes, a love for your material-- whether it be something you are selling, or some service you are providing-- is not as sufficient condition for running a succesful business in it. But the notion that business doesn't benefit from some knowledge and caring about what it is that you're doing seems silly to me.
    On the other hand, that notion is popular. A company sees an opportunity to go into something completely random, and there they go.
    -Rob

  • Neutral Observer says:

    Academic publishing and arms dealing? That's a new one to me, and I found it pretty jaw dropping.

    Not arms dealing as in selling arms. Reed-Elsevier comprises four divisions: Science & Medical, Education, Legal (e.g. Lexis) and Business.
    One of the Business division activities is organizing exhibitions, including the "Defence Systems and Equipment Exhibition" in London (every other year). They acquired this when they bought the previous company Spearhead who staged DSEI. They only sell the exhibition, which is just as bad in my mind as selling the arms themselves.
    Corporate Watch article on this

  • Bill Hooker says:

    Rob, if you're not already reading it, Peter Suber's Open Access News might be of interest to you. His front page links to good overviews of open access and a bunch of other resources.

  • David Harmon says:

    This sort of conglomeration is in fact a corporate defense strategy against exactly that sort of "pushback" by customers. Remember how 20, 30 years ago, there were all those boycotts being organized against various companies for assorted misbehaviors? Well, they responded by merging and buying each other up into amorphous conglomerates. Now, if you want to boycott, say, Nestle (for their infant-formula related abuses in Africa) -- well, "Nestle" also owns a dozen other brand names scattered all over the supermarket. Good luck keeping them all straight, much less boycotting all of them.
    Likewise, this Reed-Elsevier can let its Business division do whatever it wants, knowing that if any customers of other divisions dare to object, they can say "oh, well have fun trying to get published". If the idea of open journaling takes off, look for them to try to lock down their own archives somehow.

  • Rebecca says:

    OK, I will agree to it being as bad, morally - I mean they could organize exhibitions of other stuff and still make money. However, one business being involved in both exhibition organizing and academic publishing is not quite as mind-boggling as if they were actually taking orders and delivering ammunition. Thank you for clearing that up.

  • bsci says:

    I think part of the weakness of this boycott is that the arms sales will not stop. The most sucessful change would be they spin off the arms sales so that Elsevier publishes and another company sells weapons.
    The journal publishing (copyright/cost) protests and boycotts do have meaning since they the potential to hit the bottom line of the publishing division.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    If you want to impact Elseivier, or any other abusive publisher, you need to take away the incentive for people to publish there. Currently, people publish so as to not perish. If you, and your department colleagues are serious about weakening Elseiver, simply create the following policy:
    For the purposes of hiring and promotion, publications in Elseiver journals will be ignored.
    This gives researchers a strong motivation to publish elsewhere- anywhere else. And if enough universities adopt this policy, it will actually give those institutions leverage against publishers- something that they currently do not have.
    -LL

  • Unlearned Hand says:

    I always had the notion of evil doings behind the veil with Lexis, but I thought that was more about giving free crack to law students to get them hooked before charging them when they are out in practice.
    SSRN.com is spreading into Law pretty heavily these days. It's the Social Science Research Network, but there's a separate Legal Scholarship Network, among others. Maybe they can give you a plain old SRN and leave the Social part for conferences.

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