Elsevier: putting a price on knowledge

In its most recent publication, Education International examines the publishing giant Elsevier, whose success on the market is based on ethically questionable practices which endanger the transmission of knowledge and its condition as a public good.

Entitled “Democratizing Knowledge: A Report on the Academic Publisher Elsevier,” the report was drawn up for Education International (EI) by the researcher and teacher Dr Jonathan Tennant. It contains an analysis of the practices of publishing giant Elsevier, the market leader in the publication of articles and periodicals of academic research, and the consequences of its dominant position on the academic and research community. The study was presented at the EI conference on further and higher education and research which is taking place in Taipei, Taiwan.

Verging on monopoly

Elsevier is currently the leading academic publisher on the market in terms of size and influence. Its success is based on practices that verge on monopoly and exclude competitors at a time when they are converting an asset produced within the framework of public universities into a private commodity for pay by its subscribers. With the growing prestige of the academic publications, many researchers feel compelled to cede their publications and assign the copyright to Elsevier so that they can have their work published.

The ethically questionable market practices of Elsevier highlighted by the research study of EI include:

-          The use of confidentiality agreements to prevent its clients from knowing how much each of them pays for the services of Elsevier, thereby impeding competition;

-          Lobbying against progressive free access policies;

-          The generation of net annual profits of around 37% thanks to public funds, which account for 68% to 75% of its revenues;

-          The provision of data and analysis for the rest of the publishing industry, thereby entering in a major conflict of interest.

Democratizing knowledge

The study focuses also on a fundamental concern of EI and its member organizations: the democratization of knowledge and the barriers that this type of publication model for pay entails for institutions and individuals with more meagre resources. It also includes examples of the resistance that is being put up by universities and libraries in different countries, as well as recommendations for action by education trade unions.

David Edwards, General Secretary of EI, stressed the tension between the private and public interests unveiled by the study:  “Higher education and research are fundamental social rights, and as such must be exempt from commercialization by third parties which are interested only in making profit, not in promoting access to knowledge. We have to democratize knowledge if we want to achieve social justice through quality education for all. EI and its more than 32 million members are fighting to that end day in and day out.”

You can find the advocacy document related to the report on Elsevier here.

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