Democratising Knowledge: a report on the scholarly publisher, Elsevier

By Dr. Jonathan Tennant

Elsevier are the largest and most powerful scholarly publisher, a status achieved through a long history of mergers and acquisitions and rigorously capitalistic business practices. The core issues surrounding Elsevier are that it operates its business primarily through charging for what should be public knowledge and education, with aggressive pricing strategies and marketing tactics that are anti-competitive and a drain on the higher and further education sectors. It has a long history of fighting against public access to knowledge, through a combination of political lobbying, public campaigns against openness, and regressive business models and strategies.

In recent years, Elsevier have undertaken a shift in business model and are transforming into a data and analytics service provider, while continuing to leverage its publishing capacity to support this. The principle risk here is that Elsevier continues to exert unprecedented control over the future of higher education and academic research, while impinging upon basic concepts of intellectual property, academic freedom, and infringing the principles of scholarly communication.

Now, there are the beginnings of a paradigm shift in scholarly communication occurring, with researchers, libraries, and national consortia beginning to fight back against Elsevier’s business practices. These are taking the form of boycotts and strengthened negotiation tactics that take advantage of collective bargaining power over licensing agreements to reverse the power asymmetries that had previously created a fiscal drain on research institutes and library budgets.

This report discusses Elsevier’s business practices in detail, provides a number of national resistance case studies, and finishes with a series of key recommendations for stakeholders engaged in scholarly communication. There is an incredible amount of scope for education unions to become engaged in aspects such as:

  • Increasing attention and support of basic academic freedoms in scholarly publishing, which Elsevier currently constrain in numerous ways;
  • Retention of intellectual property rights for researchers, which Elsevier otherwise acquire through unconventional copyright acquisition tactics;
  • Fighting against the business strategies of Elsevier as a commercial publisher, especially regarding Open Access;
  • Diverting public funds into high profit margins (36%+) for Elsevier during a time of decreasing research and library budgets;
  • Challenging the democratic deficit and lack of transparency in Elsevier’s business practices, including their political influence;
  • Forming and strengthening coalitions for negotiating against Elsevier, including supporting ongoing boycotts;
  • Helping to provide more sustainable alternatives for researchers, research institutes, and the future of scholarly communication.

Here, the ultimate solution is to reduce the constraints on scholarly communication imposed by Elsevier and return control and governance of research from private interests to the public.

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