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The Rise of Big Publishers in Development and What is at Stake



The Rise of Big Publishers in Development and What is at Stake
A Development Perspective

By: Denisse Albornoz, Research Associate at OCSDNet

Earlier this year, I attended Publishers for Development (PfD), a conference that gathers librarians, researchers, development officers and international scientific publishers to develop common understandings around the research challenges, needs, and priorities of the Global South. The conference was hosted by INASP, an international development charity working in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia to strengthen research capacity in support of national and global development. To advance this mission, Publishers for Development features the work of programs that aim to bridge the knowledge gap between Global North and Global South.

At the conference, I had the opportunity to learn about Research4Life (R4L), a public-private partnership that provides low and middle-income countries with free or low-cost access to international scientific journals through four programmes – HINARI, AGORA, OARE and ARDI. Institutions gain access to these programs based on their area of work; OARE provides access to environmental research, HINARI to health research, AGORA to food and agriculture research and ARDI to research on development and innovation. This free or low-cost access scheme is not to be confused with Open Access, a model that is not only free of price barriers but also of free of permission barriers that limit readers from sharing or reusing articles (which is not possible within Research4Life).

In order to provide this service, this program had to confront the fact that knowledge published by academic journals is inaccessible to the majority of researchers in low- and middle-income countries. However, rather than challenging their business model, Research4Life* has partnered up with more than 150 international scientific publishers in order to provide temporary free and low-cost access to their products. These partners include Taylor and Francis Group, Wiley, SAGE Publications, Springer Nature and Elsevier – the five firms that dominate the academic publishing industry. They have also been referred to as the “most ruthless capitalists in the western world”, and are currently being boycotted by some of the most prominent scientists in the world for their unethical business model. Their involvement thus raises serious concerns regarding the nature of corporate partnerships in development and what this means for equality in our scholarly communications system.

Paradigm of Modernization

One of the core tenets of the narrative of academic publishers at Publishers for Development was their desire to “give back” to the community through their Corporate Social Responsibility programs, and provide “universal access to knowledge to developing countries”:

“The vision is simple, yet powerful, and this is to build a world where everyone has access to high-quality scientific content. We are tenacious in moving to realize this goal, and are willing to use all publication models to achieve it.” (Elsevier website)

Their vision focuses on providing low-cost access to knowledge that has already been produced, processed and stored in scientific journals owned and managed by the same publishing companies. An assumption at the core of this vision is that providing access to “international research” to institutions in developing nations is a prerequisite to catalyze their local research production and thus their transition from underdevelopment to development. This model is reminiscent of now outdated, modernization paradigms of development introduced by President Truman in 1949 and popularized in the Cold War era that posit “less developed” countries need to transition to modernity by adopting the knowledge, technology, and services provided by higher-income countries; justifying a techno-centric and Western-centric approach to science and development in the years to come.

“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” President Truman, 1949

This rhetoric of modernization was evident time and time again in the conference. One of the programs presented by Sian Harris, Publications and Engagement Manager at INASP, focused on “improving the visibility and credibility of Southern Research” through publisher-led training on best practices for publishing. The speaker did not offer context on why Southern research “lacks credibility” in the North and did not address how this is a result of a history of colonialism and process of modernization in which Southern knowledge has been intentionally discredited, erased and marginalized in order to situate Northern knowledge and the Western experience as the only path to progress and development. It rather reaffirmed this lack of credibility as a need-to-be-solved, through the transfer of new skills, knowledge, and capacity from the program.

This assumption also denies the lack of diversity in international research. When researchers gain access to the international scientific journals, they are not gaining access to a repository of knowledge that is representative of the plurality and diversity of knowledge and science produced around the world. Rather, they are dealt with articles that do not include Global South perspectives, giving more visibility and thus legitimacy to knowledge from the Global North. This again reaffirms the idea that the Western-centric mode of producing science is the model local research needs to follow in order to reach its potential, a rationale that has strong cultural and social implications for what researchers and the general public understand as valid and legitimate knowledge.

Commodifying Legitimacy

Through the design and deployment of their products, big academic publishers also get to decide who gets to produce knowledge, how it is circulated and what forms of knowledge are deemed valuable in the current scholarly communications system. This was clear in the presentation of a librarian from Ghana, who elaborated on the importance of indigenous knowledge for rural development and the role publishers take in its dissemination:

“We went to the literature to find out if what indigenous people were telling us was actually true; because you can’t just go and put that information online for anybody. We have to go and validate that [in the literature, and] when we finish, it has to be published. That’s where publishers come in”. (emphasis added)

According to her rationale, in order for the knowledge to serve rural development and be a source of authority, “it must be published”, framing the academic publishing industry and high-impact journals as the only viable vehicles for the dissemination of objectively legitimate knowledge. It is important to note that if published, this knowledge would then become inaccessible for institutions and individuals that still do not have access to scientific journals, including the indigenous communities who produced and provided the knowledge themselves. The knowledge will then be re-packaged by commercial publishers, re-sold as a knowledge product, and academic publishers will profit from it -regardless of whether development outcomes were achieved or not and in spite of the highly extractive nature of this practice.

Institutionalizing Dependency

Research4life also produces a reliance on services provided by partner publishers by offering capacity building and training programs for librarians:

“In order for librarians and researchers to make the best use of the resources provided, we understand the importance of training and effective promotion of the services.  The  partners  are  committed  to  providing appropriate long-term training on the use of online resources and more” (Research For Life Factbook)

These services are indeed appreciated by consortia members. As Sian Harris pointed out in her presentation, researchers are only able to publish in high-impact journals after receiving standards and protocol training from the publishers themselves. Librarians from West Africa also led a panel about the benefits of working with publishers, and expressed their appreciation for “training and resources [that ensure] their survival” and for the experiences that help them make a stronger argument for the inclusion of “subscriptions to journals into the university budgets” – two statements that already hint at the dependency created around their products.

Furthermore, this technical training is not intended to develop autonomous, context-specific methodologies and practices, but are rather aimed at developing proficiency and dependency on the services provided by the publishers; or as put by a Ghanaian librarian, to make sure local research isup to the standard of the research that is produced in other places of the world” , wherein standards and benchmarks of quality are once again defined by the service providers, in this case highly powerful Northern academic journals. These practices do not enable users to define the terms of use, nor create spaces for discussion around the local relevance of the protocols of publishing. If anything, they cement the notion that there is one way to do “modern” science, as well as one model of knowledge-led development the developing world must follow in order to thrive.

Gaining Access to Markets

It is important to note that Research4Life is only temporary for eligible institutions. The librarians and researchers will lose access to the infrastructure they have been trained on once national economic conditions improve, at which point, as mentioned above, publishers expect former users to lobby their institutions to include their products and services into their institutional budget. Elsevier will go as far as to point out the limitations of the Research4Life program on their website and offer a broader range of services for countries who have “the ambition to develop their science” – or in other words, the capital to afford them:

“We see the benefits of Research4Life but also some limitations too. We have found that when countries have the ambition and maturity to further develop their scientific ecosystems, they often find it more beneficial to work with us directly. By becoming customers, institutions are able to access a much broader range of services. We are able to support the development of an institution’s research capacity, over and above what is available through Research4Life” (Elsevier website; emphasis added)

A librarian from Kenya, also alluded to this when describing the nature of the partnerships between consortia and publishers:

“Consortia make it easier for publishers to do business with academics in Kenya, developing a resource framework and partnerships for continuous communication […] Publishers [also] go through consortia to interact with information managers, who [happen to] have most access to policy-makers”

Through this program publishers are nurturing networks to establish future business with former beneficiaries ( a business which has been long-time criticized for its unethical model and unfair pricing) and to gain access and influence with policy-makers, ensuring their continued access to the market. At this point, the publisher has been present at all stages of the research cycle, has provided librarians and students with training, and created a need for a service the market is fit to meet – all in all favorable conditions for publisher-friendly policies that exempt the state from providing these resources to its citizens.

Breaking from Dependency

Even though scientists have been demanding a fundamental shift in the business operations of big publishers for decades, pushing them to develop new strategies to preserve their current model of operations and influence over the industry. As the Publishers for Development conference made evident, public-private partnerships with development initiatives such as Research4Life, are providing them with a window to implement new profit-seeking strategies under the guise of development assistance. 

By acting as funders, partners and service providers of Research4Life, academic publishers can gain access to institutions across the globe, learn where the demands are and deploy their products and services accordingly. While public institutions will undoubtedly benefit from their short-term access to international scientific journals, these gains are marginal compared to the much larger economic gains acquired by publishers -be it in the form of access to markets, increased profits and influence in policy-making. Not to mention the intellectual and social costs of restricting autonomous production and dissemination of knowledge in historically marginalized institutions.

This case raises a fundamental question about the extent to which corporations should be the financial and service providers of development programs that give individuals access to their fundamental rights. Development programs are usually highly dependent on their funders, yet they must strive to preserve a degree of autonomy that prevents funders from setting the development agenda, especially when these are highly powerful market players. They must also strive to protect the interests and needs of the beneficiaries by working towards a development that is context-sensitive, cognisant of existing power structures and focused on developing community capabilities. We otherwise risk market players co-opting the language of social justice and development programs in order to capitalize and profit from public goods at the expense of the needs of the communities.

Given the current momentum of the Open Science and Open Access movements, we must also stay cautious of the rhetoric used to promote “open knowledge” and challenge the growing popularity of techno-centric and modernization approaches to science that neglect the socio-political dimensions of knowledge production. The over-emphasis in technology leads to a dependence on the services and products developed by companies monopolizing the market, and the continuation of economic orthodoxy in the planning and design of science and development policies. While academic publishers have indeed developed effective infrastructures for knowledge sharing, they continue to function on the basis of social exclusion and the enclosure of knowledge, working against the notion of a knowledge commons in which every individual has the ability to manage, access and produce knowledge that concerns them.

In response, we must build an Open Science that constantly questions who is setting the rules for knowledge production and sharing, the incentives to follow these rules, and what this means for knowledge equality and development. As open science advocates, we must also stay alert to the ways in which norm-setting and market-led agendas can lead to power abuse at the expense of communities in need. In practical terms, it is also imperative to work towards the development of open science tools, products, and practices independent from the services provided by big academic publishers and enable communities and individuals to access, produce and share knowledge in their own terms and in service of their well-being.

*Edited on 01-10-17: A previous version stated Research4Life was an access initiative under INASP. It has been revised to reflect Resarch4Life is not an INASP initiative, and as such, works under a different partnership scheme to that of INASP. E.g. INASP currently does not receive funding for their initiatives from publishers and works with a different group of approx. 50 publishers that do not include Elsevier. 



Featured image source: Twitter handle @Pubs4Dev