Between the Public Good and Private Pursuits

An inscription on the Jefferson building at the U.S. Library of Congress.
An inscription on the Jefferson building at the U.S. Library of Congress.
This month the board of Elsevier’s owned Lingua resigned in protest over prices the company charges to university libraries. This resignation is indicative of a larger malaise surrounding public access to knowledge and the fruits of research.

The private education industry is estimated at $4.4 trillion worldwide. Academic publishers rely largely on the free labor offered by researchers and writers. This includes the academic reviewing of publishable research and the editing of journals. Academics receive nominal (if any) compensation. Meanwhile, many universities cannot afford to subscribe to the journals that their faculty generously donate their time and knowledge to.

Michelle L. Stack
Michelle L. Stack
Why would universities agree to participate in a business structure antithetical to commitments to making knowledge freely and publicly accessible?

To understand this paradox we need to more closely examine the intersecting interests within the privatized education sector. In particular we need more research that analyzes the relationship between university rankings, citation indexes, and academic publishers.

Major rankers, such as The Times Higher Education World University Ranking and QS, use Elsevier’s or Thomson Reuter’s citation indexes to determine the research productivity of universities. In turn, Elsevier is also the world’s biggest journal publisher – and publication in journals helps determine a university’s productivity. Rankings matter for government allocation of funds, student numbers and industry investments. Not surprisingly, cash-strapped universities frequently pressure their faculty to publish in journals most likely to assist with a high ranking.

It gets stranger, however. Universities provide free information for media generated rankings: Information collected by staff hired, often, with public dollars. Universities also buy what is sold back to them by these companies in the form of products and services aimed at assisting universities in improving their ranking. Benchmarking products are created based on data provided — for free — by universities.

Universities are platinum donors to private education industry who use the largesse to further erode the public role of universities. While Elsevier, Thomson Reuters, and connected ranking products increase profits, students are graduating with a lifetime of debt and many others can’t afford to attend university. If a university is merely a product like any other, why would the public be dedicated to contributing public budgets to support it? Universities might get short term gains in the form of a higher ranking or a building thrown in here or there. However, in the longer term the public loses the one place that is supported to challenge to promote a more equitable social, economic, and political order.

Hence, the struggle is not just a fight about the cost of knowledge. It is also about universities operating as part and parcel of the public good . There are alternatives that could be considered, however. Universities, for example, might look to the Netherlands who called for a boycott of Elsevier journals to protest the outrageous fees charged to libraries.

If we want universities to be something more than another business, we need to join efforts to build an alternative network that promotes and expands access and the sharing of knowledge and research outcomes in equitable and socially transformative ways.

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Michelle L. Stack

Michelle Stack is associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research centers on the role of media and market logics in the transformation of education; media education; and media-academic communication aimed at expanding public debate about what a good education is. Prior to becoming an academic Michelle was a communications director and policy consultant.

Michelle can also be found on twitter at @MichelleLStack

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