On Elsevier and the academic project

The Cambridge Mathematician, Tim Gower, has highlighted a campaign against the publisher Reed Elsevier for the tripartite crimes of: high pricing; bundling, which pushes what Gower hints are inappropriate or poor quality journals with those that are good; “ruthless” behaviour in cutting off access to all their journals where libraries attempt to negotiate better deals; and their support for SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act. Whilst Gower mentions earlier criticism of business practices, the main thrust of his argument is outrage over the pricing of and access to publically-funded research. In fact, Gower accepts the commercial logic of publishing’s current stranglehold over higher education as a business. He argues:

Returning to the subject of morality, I don’t think it is helpful to accuse Elsevier of immoral behaviour: they are a big business and they want to maximize their profits, as businesses do.

However, in an earlier set of criticisms about Elsevier, Tom Stafford reminds us of that Company’s involvement in arms fairs and the subsequent academic campaign against them. This was very much an ethical campaign of academic groups working in association with organisations like Campaign Against The Arms Trade. For Stafford, unlike Gower, the ethics of business were central:

I felt that Elsevier were making academics complicit in the arms trade and that this was something we, collectively, could take a stand on and where I, personally, could effect a difference.

In part the success of the campaign outlined by Stafford was based on de-legitimisation of Elsevier’s engagement in the arms trade through its involvement in arms shows, and linking this to pre-existing, global networks and associations, in order to hit the company’s economic value(s).

The pre-existing global networks that academics define offer more than a limited, horizon for their activism, beyond perceptions of academic freedom, or open access, or monetisation, or the alleged needs of developing countries. However, the case against Elsevier’s engagement in the arms trade for profit throws the limited and limiting scope of much academic argument for/against methods of production/distribution of content into sharp relief. Too often the only language that we have is money. Money as value is almost the only form of academic cohesion that we are able to articulate. Thus, David Wiley opines that “Open education currently has no response to the coming wave of diagnostic, adaptive products coming from the publishers” and calls for more(state?) funding “Because this stuff costs so much to do, if no one steps up to the funding plate the entire field is at serious risk.”

And yet the State and its institutions (at least in the global north) have demonstrated a willingness to enclose and discipline academic practice in multiple ways, from physically kettling students to psychologically kettling academics through the REF. Moreover, the landscape of higher education is riven with State-encouraged public/private partnerships, outsourced technologies/services, knowledge transfer/exchange partnerships, engagements with closed services for the production/distribution of content/learning. This historic enclosure of academic work, reinforced through governmental regulation, then enables rent to be extracted by corporations, in the form of subscriptions or licenses.

The key here is that the value of our work, or our labour, forms part of the productive/distributive relations of capitalism. This is not a debate that stops at the simple production of reified content or open educational practices. In short academic labour or immaterial labour or cognitive capitalism has value, in-part through its production of immaterial things in the form of content, and profit can be squeezed from it. In a time of austerity, rents provide a more sure form of income; so why should we see any respite for those who are forced to license or rent spaces that have been regulated away from open/enclosed? In fact, as the rate of production of surplus value from riskier, financialised, private ventures is reduced, a migration towards enclosing public spaces and extracting value from them is natural. As I have argued elsewhere

This amounts to a form of what Christopher Newfield calls “subsidy capitalism”, which “means that the public, directly or indirectly, does not participate in the investment, research, and development decisions that remake society year in and year out. It hands over resources and all decision rights at the same time.”

And so there are two issues interconnected here, and they are linked to the value of academic work as labour. The first is the reality of academic work inside capitalism, which means a reduction of the debate about open education to the addition of value and the subsumption of open under dominant labour processes. As Joss Winn and Mike Neary point out hacking, hacktivism and open source cultures have had some impact here, but the discussion of open educational resources has tended to reduce to commodification and an inability to critique academic labour inside cognitive capitalism.

The second issue is the reality of academic practices compromised inside the logic of profit maximisation. In this reality we find, for instance, mathematician’s railing about Elsevier’s business model (whilst at the same time recognising the logic of these business practices) but we hear silence on the issue of Blackboard’ engagement with the Pentagon, our re-selling of Apple as an educational technology in spite of its human/labour rights’ record (although we might comment on its foreclosure on developers), or the enclosure issues I raised previously in this post on the war on public education.

Yet, as Tony Hirst reminds us here, we have a history of examining and re-examining our complicity or otherwise in State-sponsored narratives of privatisation/enclosure/injustice. Hirst argues this point for data, but it applies for the politics of any academic field:

1) there may be stories to be told about the way other people have sourced and used their data. Were one report quotes data from another, treat it with as much suspicion as you would hearsay… Check with the source [sic.].

2) when developing your own data stories, keep really good tabs on where the data’s come from and be suspicious about it. If you can be, be open with republishing the data, or links to it.

This view is amplified through connection to the “hopes” of World Bank insider, Michael Trucano, when speaking of mobile learning, that:

in 2012 practical insights into what this mobility might mean for both educators and learners based on real life experiences will emerge in greater volume and depth, so that policymakers and planners can make more informed decisions about how to direct increasingly scarce resources in ways that are cost-effective and impactful.

And the point may then be that in our re-examination of our academic labour practices we need to be explicitly political. It is not good enough to accept the polyarchal limits of our work, as they are defined by money, marketisation and impact, but to fight for some other form of value that defines our social relationships. Stafford argued

that the institutional rational that defines the modern corporation is pathological, creating them so that they fundamentally cannot take account of any humane values, being motivated solely by the pursuit of profit.

This moves us beyond the disempowerment of special pleading or cries for different funding models. It is the recognition of the responsibility of academics to extend the terrain for struggle, so that we might reassess the production and distribution of our work, our cultures and our academic society, for something more humane. This might be in fighting for open access, or in taking part in the struggle for alternatives, or in publically debating University governance and financialisation, or in critquing the spaces for occupation. But it has to be about more than the poverty of efficiency, subsidy and impact.


One Response to On Elsevier and the academic project

  1. To be fair, you elided Gower’s later statement “That is not to say that morality doesn’t come into it, but the moral issues are between mathematicians and other mathematicians rather than between mathematicians and Elsevier.” I get what you are saying (I think) but I think pointing to Gower as THE case of simply arguing for economic efficiency is to pick a not particularly strong straw man – much of what he is suggesting in terms of response is about restructuring our relations with each other. I think the quote you pulled from Wiley is a fairer target. That said, I think a lot of us trying to create change struggle with the “pragmatics” of having to work within and collaborate with people and a system that doesn’t even want to acknowledge our frame of reference, e.g. do the ends justify the means, especially when trying to shift from a system that only measures value IN ends?

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