Controlling Scholarship: Elsevier or Universities

Scholarship is the fuel on which modern universities rely. Without it, researchers cannot build upon the discoveries of their colleagues; students cannot learn from the expertise of others, and the progress of knowledge stagnates. Currently, that fuel is largely controlled by a small group of publishers, and with that control comes a great deal of power over how scholars distribute their work.

Recently, Elsevier ostensibly said they would like to help further the goal of sharing scholarship by “unleashing the power of academic sharing.” Yet, on closer review, Elsevier’s plan is really to do the exact opposite, and to increase their own revenues by inhibiting distribution. As a commercial company, it is hard to fault Elsevier for trying to make more money. Yet, there is a much larger issue at stake here.

On the surface, issues of network neutrality, rising costs in higher education, and growing income inequality seem unrelated to Elsevier’s policies on distributing academic articles. Yet, Prof. Lawrence Lessig, in a recent talk at the Association of College and Research Libraries suggested that many of these issues (including open access) are linked because they help to create a more equal society.

The question is: who is in the best position to create more equal access to scholarship? Is it companies like Elsevier? Or, is it the universities that rely on new research in order to continue functioning? According to 482 universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, the answer is resoundingly in favor of universities. Libraries, organizations, and individuals around the world are asking for a revision of this policy. More importantly, many of these organizations hope to find a better system for sharing scholarship.

So, what might seem to be an issue involving only institutional repositories, actually has much broader implications. Librarians may not be able to control debates on net neutrality, the spiraling costs of tuition or the growing inequality of income within society. We can, however, fight for equal access to research, and we can fight to ensure that universities, rather than for-profit corporations, control the fuel (i.e. scholarship) on which the academy relies.

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