Gavia Libraria

Why Elsevier?

Talk around the backwaters of academe has occasionally taken a why-Elsevier turn. This itches the Loon’s feathers something fierce. There are good and cogent reasons Elsevier is the current target; let us lay them out in the open.

Why just one publisher? ask some. There’s lots of big-pigs; why don’t we go after them all? It’s been tried. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. Part of the problem is the base human (and avian, for that matter) tendency to need an enemy with a name and a face (even if corporate). PROTEST ALL THE PUBLISHERS is too diffuse, too confused (PLoS included? really? and if you think that question wouldn’t come up, you have more faith in faculty’s understanding of these matters than the Loon does). “Protest Elsevier” has bite.

The other problem with PROTEST ALL THE PUBLISHERS, of course, is that faculty careers still depend on one big pig or another. There’s enough overlap in the journal market now that many, even most, can avoid one big pig without enormous sacrifice. All the big-pigs? No. Certainly not in 2001, and not even now, though we’ve come a good bit closer to that happy day since 2001. What happened in 2001—faculty ticked an online tickybox, then shuffled away to do what they do—was inevitable; relying on tickyboxen without considering the larger context is silly.

(Will current commitments on Cost of Knowledge hold? Not all of them, in all likelihood… but rather more, expressed either in numbers or percentages of signers, than held in 2001, the Loon believes!)

Why pick on Elsevier specifically, then? The Loon happily grants that nearly all characteristics of Elsevier as a publisher and as a business are replicated by other publishers. It’s not hard to find other publishers who buy legislation, publish fake ghostwritten journals, spread (and fund the spreading of) outright lies about open access, bamboozle faculty every chance they get, abuse librarians and library budgets, make obscene profit margins, et cetera.

It’s mildly difficult (though certainly not impossible), however, to find another publisher who’s done all these things, studiedly, repeatedly, and shamelessly. And, let us not forget, powerfully. Elsevier is the biggest of the big-pigs. Make a dent in Elsevier, and watch how fast the rest of the industry changes.

Besides, “divide and conquer” is a time-honored technique in war and diplomacy alike.

Pah, this is a flash in the pan, a repeat of 2007. What difference will it all make? The Loon has considerable sympathy with this point of view, having flown at a good many barriers herself and wound up with no more than a sore head to show for it.

Two things about previous protests, though, in addition to the reason adduced above that the 2001 protest was doomed in its nest. One, the 2007 protest was from a closely-related cluster of disciplines; today’s spans rather more of the academy, though (as yet) more thinly. Two, the 2007 protest concerned a practice peripheral to Elsevier’s business. The Loon is sure the divestment was painful, but Elsevier can survive painful. Today’s protest strikes at the core of Elsevier’s business; there’s not a whole lot they can do to appease both protesters and shareholders, and the pitiful bafflegab their PR branch has been emitting of late more or less admits as much.

Does that mean the current boycott will actually succeed in its nominal goals? No. The Loon wouldn’t bet her tiniest pinfeather on it. It does mean that more faculty have been made aware of the issues. It does mean that more faculty have been radicalized about them. Thanks in some part to Tim Gowers’s honesty (the Loon is enormously grateful to him for admitting outright that he held a longtime bias against e-journals; nobody ever believed the Loon when she said this was part of the problem!), it does mean that faculty are starting to confront some of the less-than-conscious, wholly irrational prejudices and practices that have historically hindered open access.

And this is all good and useful and hopeful. This analyst firm suggestion that Elsevier is currently undervalued may well be correct in terms of short-term arbitrage (and if you take investment advice from a loon you deserve what you get, incidentally). In the longer term, the Loon sides with Claudio Aspesi.