Elsevier, the Publishing Industry, and ‘Free Academic Labour’

I recently received a comment to my post calling for a new Political Geography reviews editor.  Simon B wrote, ‘Until this publisher changes its ways to improve accessibility, which means a reduction in profits and more open access, I suggest not donating free academic labour. http://thecostofknowledge.com/ now has 12,000 sigs. and growing.’  Because I’d like this comment to generate a discussion (and the original post was published several days ago), I’m posting my response to Simon B as a new thread on this blog.

First, a quick correction to Simon: Since the reviews editor post comes with a small stipend, it’s not technically ‘free academic labour.’  I wouldn’t call it well-compensated, but it’s not free.

Second, although I’m not usually an apologist for Elsevier, I actually think that within the constraints of the capitalist, for-profit publishing industry, they’re doing a pretty good job of equalizing access.  Over the past year or two, they’ve made considerable efforts to make archives of old journals open access, give free subscriptions to postgrads at under-resourced universities, and make portions of current journals open-access.  For Elsevier’s statement of how they’ve done this in Mathematics, see http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/P11.cws_home/lettertothecommunity.  My understanding is that a statement detailing similar efforts specifically in Geography will appear soon in Geoforum but, to the best of my knowledge, neither this statement nor the statement from Geoforum’s editors to which it is a response, are yet available online.

Of course, the bigger question is how an industry wades through the contradictions between, on the one hand, the need for the free flow of information and, on the other hand, the need to erect barriers to these flows so that one can make profits from the payments that customers pay to cross these barriers.  It so happens that this is one of my research interests (e.g. Managing the Infosphere, Temple UP, 2008), so it’s something I’ve thought much about.  Are the structural contradictions so extreme that the only option is to take publishing (and, more generally, scholarly information transfer) outside the for-profit sector?  Possibly.  These issues are taken up in a series of editorials that will be leading off the next issue of Political Geography and will very soon be on the open-access portion of the journal’s website.  For now, if you have subscription access through a university library, they can be found  in the “Articles in Press” portion of the journal’s full text website (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/aip/09626298 ; or link directly to the contributions by Steinberg, Kirby, Berg, and Petersen – I suggest reading them in this order, since Steinberg is an introduction and Berg and Petersen are direct responses to Kirby).

[I’ll post notices to this blog and elsewhere when the Geoforum editorial and response are placed online and also when the Political Geography exchange goes open-access.]

Of course, it’s interesting that these debates are themselves appearing in Elsevier journals, and, at least in the case of the Political Geography editorials, the open-access portions of those journals.  Is this a slick PR move by Elsevier, a sign of Elsevier’s genuine willingness to share information freely whenever possible, a recognition by Elsevier that it needs to maintain interest in its journals and that this involves making some content free to some users (even content that is critical of the corporation), or a sign of the structural contradictions within the publishing industry that I alluded to above?  Possibly it’s all of these, but Elsevier’s behaviour here is consistent with past practice by the company when, for instance, they published, and publicly responded to, calls in Political Geography for boycotts of the company because of its (now-severed) ties with the arms industry.

We’re encouraging a further round of commentaries on this topic in Political Geography.  I hope that if, after reading the editorials, you’d like to contribute to the discussion further, you’ll submit a commentary to the journal.  Of course, that itself would be a “donation” of “free academic labour,” but – in my opinion – that is the price that one sometimes has to pay to get heard.

Phil S.


4 thoughts on “Elsevier, the Publishing Industry, and ‘Free Academic Labour’

  1. “Are the structural contradictions so extreme that the only option is to take publishing (and, more generally, scholarly information transfer) outside the for-profit sector? Possibly.”
    Yes indeed, they are. As the article on the front page of The UK’s Guardian newspaper says, Open Access will by 2014 (barring any political changes) be mandated for all outputs from UK research council funded projects. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jul/15/free-access-british-scientific-research). And from Nov 1 2012, this also applies to all outputs from research funded by DfID, which is a move that caught many by surprise (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jul/25/uk-government-open-access-development-research).
    There have already been complaints from publishers and universities about these UK decisions, and universities rightly feel the government has promised little or nothing in additional research grant $$ to pay researchers or their employers for open access publishing fees (which are high for good journals, especially many Elsevier ones).
    Critical social scientists operate double standards at present- as Dick Peet reminded us when setting up an independent conventional journal outside the corporate sector, Human Geography (http://www.hugeog.com/free/079_Peet_I1N1.pdf). Publishing in good conventional journals brings prestige but goes against supporting the underdog and doesn’t deny cheap labor to big corporations. Publishing in most full open access outlets has less prestige but (depending on the journal) more social conscience – especially outlets like Acme (http://www.acme-journal.org) in human geography that are not profit driven and subsidized by grants and universities. Still we are sucked in, and I was for a decade, to the idea that there is little ethics for authors to consider when they are publishing, and getting a spot in a good journal is a legitimate aim without engaging your conscience at all. A radical position (perhaps denied early career scholars) is to leave behind some of the big publishers entirely, at least until they reduce their Gold open access fees, and don’t charge libraries as much. Or to ignore publisher’s copyright to the material (which is of course how the world works these days, with Google Scholar, personal web pages, Twitter and the like) and get it out there via othe rmeans.

    This was brought home to me at a Board meeting for a major journal in London recently where the publisher’s rep ruled out of court any questions from the Board (who do all the work to make the journal operate) about the journal’s finances and profits. We concluded after he had left the meeting that the company is running scared, faced with the real threat of government decisions like those mentioned above reducing probabl;y substantial profits. The company (not Elsevier) did later reveal that they were starting a rival journal to ours, using an Open Access mode, with an article fee 1,700 pounds. I know, as an Open Access journal editor myself, that this fee is completely above what authors can bear, or what a publisher needs to tick over financially. That journal will fail. The question for our Board is whether to move to Open Access and charge authors a fair fee, while reamining with the publisher if possible. This could work but the blogosphere is pretty confident that the big five publishers do not like Open Access, author pays models. It is because they lose copyright, and thus recurrent income, as well as library subscriptions to online versions (no need to buy them anymore). Hence the ridiculous 1,700 fee that nobody in that sector of academia could afford.
    In the UK I predict a scramble by 2014. An author submits a paper to a regular style journal. S/he says it is funded by ESRC and must therefore be open access. Journal writes back and says this will cost her/him a grand or more to publish. Author is too poor or has not grant to cover costs,sends paper to a cheaper Open Access equivalent, and many of these will spring up. Their prestige will increase with the quality of submissions. Alternative future is for the big five to cave in in the near future, lose some of their indecent profits, and reduce author fees to sa 200-400 pounds, (with discounts for those unable) as industry observers are suggesting.
    Either way the present model operated by all the top journals in geography and other disciplines will be dead in the water in 5 years, possibly 10. The scramble is already on in the corporate pubblisher’s world to design new models – meanwhile authors can hasten the new geopolitics of publishing by sending their best work to outlets that charge ethically and make your work instantly available to anybody with an internet connection. I feel sure tenure committees will look favorably on this in North America – in time!
    On the commentaries soon to be published in ‘Political Geography’ – Laurence Berg is absolutely right, and Andrew Kirby’s comments are sadly outdated by the recent UK announcements and other decisions in the US.

    • Good points, especially regarding future scenarios. Personally, I think a lot more could be done by professional societies (AAG, RGS, etc.) in re-claiming journals from corporate publishers when contracts expire and in starting new, more specialized journals (this is, in part, the Mathematics model discussed by Petersen). This would be an easy way to signal legitimacy and prestige for upstart journals amidst the scramble that’s likely to ensue if there’s a decline of commercial publishers as you envision.

  2. Pingback: The Politics of Academic Publishing « rhulgeopolitics

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