Worlds of Education

Elsevier are placing the future of scholarly research at risk

published 11 November 2018 updated 11 November 2018

By Jon Tennant, @IGDOREinstitute and @OpenScienceMOOC

It is difficult to argue against the positions that research knowledge should be a public good, and can also be of incredible use in fighting against some of the larger problems that face our planet and society, such as energy, food and water security, climate change, and access to education.

In spite of this, most scholarly research still remains firmly in the hands of a few private corporations, and is not being used in the best interests of the public good. 

A recent report on behalf of Education International (EI) focused on this issue in the context of the practices of one of the largest scholarly publishers, Elsevier.

Their primary business model is based on exclusion and knowledge discrimination, to the detriment of all but the wealthiest or most academically privileged members of society. They are now becoming increasingly powerful in the political domain, while simultaneously commercialising many critical components of research infrastructure.

They are also infamous in consistently gaining profit margins in the region of 37%, much acquired from public expenditures, and also for vigorously fighting against progress in the global Open Science movement.

One consequence of the control that Elsevier has in the scholarly communication ecosystem, in particular through research evaluation processes, is the constraints on academic freedoms, especially over choice of publication venue.

As a direct impact of the ongoing ‘publish or perish’ culture, something perpetuated by Elsevier as well as research institutes, academics themselves, and research funders, academic working conditions have become competitively unhealthy.

Researchers now typically engage in a range of ‘questionable research practices’ in the hunt for the glory of publication, with such conditions leading to mental health issues in a higher proportion than any other industry. 

Democratising Knowledge

In a recent global survey among Education International’s affiliates in the further and higher education and research sector, a number of affiliates have pointed to the problematic situation currently created by Elsevier.

EI are not alone with these concerns, and at the present a range of initiatives around the world have been launched to combat the growing threat of Elsevier. 17,000 individual researchers are now boycotting Elsevier, and national consortia of higher education institutes are for the first time exercising collective negotiation strength against them. 

This is leading to the beginnings of a shift in power dynamics, where countries like Germany and Sweden are refusing to resubscribe to Elsevier content due to their regressive business strategies. The consequence of these changing power asymmetries is reducing the fiscal drain that Elsevier has imposed on research institutes for decades now, and the ability to reinvest those saved finances into a more sustainable scholarly communications future. 

There is an incredible scope for education unions to become involved within this changing landscape. For example, through direct support of these negotiation consortia by activating academic communities.

Unions are uniquely placed to challenge the democratic deficit and lack of transparency in Elsevier’s business practices, to fight for greater academic rights over intellectual property and copyright, combat the ongoing diversion of public funds into private shareholder pockets, and provide the support needed for a global shift towards a more fair and equitable global scholarly research ecosystem.

To access the study:

Democratising Knowledge: a report on the scholarly  publisher, Elsevier

, by Tennant, J. (2018),

please click here

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.