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.