10 Jan 2019

Commercial conglomerate publishers and the irksome question of trust (and the chronic lack thereof)

I thought it opportune to follow up on the “Challenges in the Scholarly Publishing Cycle (CISPC-2018) event in London, which I attended. In particular, I’d like to take a closer look at the state of trust between particular for-profit publishers and librarians, as well as the professed commitment by the former to regain the same. A little blood was spilled on the carpet in the lovey environs of the London Art House (the majority of delegates were publishers), but lighthearted laughter and an overall jovial atmosphere prevailed.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, [trust] denotes the belief “that someone is good and honest and will not harm you, or that something is safe and reliable”.

It’s no secret that particular commercial publishers have long been under increased scrutiny from various quarters in academe (librarians first and foremost). In particular, commercials’ actual business practices - as opposed to their professed ones - in their dealings with librarians beg for vigilance and ever closer scrutiny. This should also apply when tuning into the usual commentariat publicising, I argue, ideologically charged rationales and half-truths, or certain publishers’ arguments in defence of open access deals, or, indeed, when reading about universities trying to resist the pull of coercive forces.

The brute force of commercialism in scholarly publishing came into being with Robert ‘Cheaply-Bought-And-Profitably-Sold’ Maxwell; that’s nothing new of course, but merely a reminder as to what libraries, their users and funders are dealing with to this day.

There are, of course, subtle and substantial differences between the politics and practices of particular traditional publishers, and that needs to be categorically stated and qualified. For one, Learned Societies’ motivations and arguments around the need to generate revenues through publishing activities are understandable but not justifiable anymore. It’s a fact that the publishing landscape is shifting rapidly at this stage of the game (see the push of Plan S for instance). Hitherto trialled and tested revenue models are becoming obsolete, and Learned Societies ought to adapt and up their game in the ideas department for the generation of stable future revenue streams.

But let's return to CISPC-2018. What struck me on the day (and others too) was the obfuscation created by some publishers, in particular by No 2 of the world's 54 largest publishers. I’m under no illusion that its representative had any genuine interest to reflect constructively on the elephant in the room, its sheer size, which by definition subverts the very ontology of scholarly communications. Instead of addressing the contemporary conditions of knowledge production and scholarly publishing, RELX and its representative on the day continue to make a mockery of the research lifecycle as whole. Elsevier is effectively and actively acquiring integrated research workflow data and analytics, infrastructure, and support solutions, thereby further undermining transparency and creating a 'locked in' monoculture for researchers (p 9).

The point of my commentary here is about pointing out hard facts and practices that have irrevocably obliterated the path to re-establishing trust from my perspective.

Below are 5 facts, randomly taken from Jon Tennant's report on Elsevier published in October 2018 (can be accessed here).
  1. Between 2000 and 2005, Elsevier published 6 fake journals that had to be removed from the market (p. 35)
  2. Elsevier enticed people using $25 Amazon gift cards to anyone who would leave a five-star review on one of their published titles (p. 36)
  3. Elsevier impinge upon the rights of peer reviewers, by violating their copyright and ownership through ineffective communications (p. 37)
  4. Lobbying in Europe: The Horizon 2020 expert group on the Future of Scholarly Publishing and Scholarly Communication has a member of RELX group (Anne Kitson) as an organisational representative (p. 30)
  5. The primary business model that Elsevier operates is access prevention. It achieves this through a combination of anti-open tactics including long embargo periods, high and increasing subscriptions fees, and high charges for OA. Virtually all of these practices contradict the general principles of scholarly communication in that knowledge should be shared as widely and as rapidly as possible. (p. 62)
I'll leave you with that and Snidely Whiplash...
Posted on Thursday, January 10, 2019 | Categories: