Thursday, December 19, 2013

Elsevier does not publish: it privatizes

If you were shocked that Elsevier has apparently issued a takedown notice to the University of Calgary, you should consider auditioning for Claude Rains' role in Casablanca.   Elsevier has never hidden the fact that its business model depends on restricting access to scholarly work.  Alicia Wise of Elsevier responds to the post linked above with this question:

the business model is based largely on paid access post-publication, and if freely accessible on a large scale what library will continue to subscribe?

The question may be sincerely intended, but its logic is straight from Alice in Wonderland:  if Elsevier cannot profit by making scholarship publicly available — that is, by publishing it — then it must privatize the information, and sell access only to clients who cede to Elsevier control over who may read the scholarly work.

The intellectual roots of western scholarship reach back to ancient Greece, and the radical idea that scholarly understanding is not determined by political or social power.  (This is exemplified in the famous story of Euclid telling his patron and monarch, Ptolemy, that "there is no royal road to geometry.")  In our modern academic institutions, publication exposes scholarly work to public scrutiny, and serves in part to ensure that scholarly claims are not based on power over information.

Elsevier and others subvert this fundamental scholarly activity when they privatize scholarship, a simple fact that we obfuscate  when, with an Orwellian twist of language, we call it "publication." It is true that scholars who freely hand over their work to privatizers make the system possible, but who can blame an untenured faculty member who will be rewarded for contributing to the dysfunction?

We should instead unambiguously reiterate that scholarly publication in a digital world means that a work is openly accessible for others to inspect, critique, and build upon, and we should insist that in reviews for tenure and promotion, only scholarly publications meeting this definition qualify as published work.

How quickly would Elsevier's pool of submissions dry up if enough universities adopted and enforced such a requirement for real scholarly publication?

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