Boycott Elsevier? Yes, But the Real Solution Lies Elsewhere

One does not become an academic to get rich. Even the most successful, those who end up owning a patent or writing a best-selling book, earn paltry amounts when set against any real standard of wealth. The reasons one does become an academic are myriad, from passion for teaching and/or research to desire for a safe and predictable haven in a chaotic world.

No one, though, goes into academia with the desire to make others rich. We may want to help others succeed, but we do not expect them to use what we have done to reach high levels of profit, profit that comes, in part, through charging us to use “our” work in further scholarship.

What we are seeing in the growing Elsevier boycott is a cultural clash. On one side are the academics who are both philosophically and culturally attached to the idea of the commons. Our work depends on the work that has gone on before us. For us to work effectively and efficiently, we need access to as much of that as we can possibly have–quickly and cheaply. With access to the commons, we can contribute to the commons, allowing all of us to rise on the generated tide.

On the other side are those who believe that profit is the single most important motivating factor, and that it is production through desire for profit that propels the world forward. Elsevier, in a “Message to the Research Community,” says that:

While some of the facts about Elsevier are being misrepresented, the depth of feeling among some in the research community is real and something we take very seriously. We’re listening to all the concerns expressed and redoubling our substantial efforts to make our contributions to that community better, more transparent, and more valuable to all our partners and friends in the research community.

All of which may be true–but it does not address the problem: No matter what it does, Elsevier will always come to scholarly publishing from a perspective different from that of the scholars, one that constrains and limits necessary resources.

The real solution to the problem that the boycott is trying to address, then, will never lie in Elsevier. The company (and all the others like it) saw an opportunity for profit and took it.

As academics, our real aim beyond the boycott itself must be reform of our own institutions and culture, reform that will close the window of opportunity that the Elseviers have responded to so profitably. There are a number of ways we can do this, as institutions, departments, and individuals.

Colleges and universities expect scholarly work from their faculties, but provide only minimal possibilities for publication of that work, letting it be ‘outsourced’ to the likes of Elsevier instead of using their own considerable power to take advantage of the scholarship they have, after all, paid for.

Departments still rely on un-examined and outmoded concepts of peer review for re-appointment, tenure, and promotion. “Name” journals (often owned by for-profit enterprises) are accepted as legitimate venues for publication uncritically–the work itself rarely even being considered, as long as its place of publication is top-tier. If we can start moving towards a model that examines the scholarship itself, allowing something published in an open-access journal (or even on a blog) equal standing if the work proves equally valuable, there will be less and less reason for publication in the commercial academic journals.

As individuals, especially once we have achieved tenure and promotion, we can add to the legitimacy of alternative venues by offering them our scholarship first, and by serving on their boards and review panels. This will help give younger scholars a little more confidence when they look to publish, confidence in seeing their work appear elsewhere than in the journals of companies like Elsevier.

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