Jens Kalaene / Reporters, 2012
Jens Kalaene / Reporters, 2012

Battle over academic knowledge ownership heats up

published 6 July 2017 updated 20 July 2017

International attention is increasingly focusing on the issues created by restricted access to knowledge, an issue also highlighted by Education International at a recent higher education conference.

Academic knowledge is being restricted by copyright rules on academic articles, mainly implemented by publishing corporations. Such practices were highlighted recently in international media featuring Elsevier, a Dutch company that owns a large part of the academic article publishing market.

The barriers to a collective and open access to academic knowledge in the form or scholarly articles are becoming more evident as court rulings favour publishing giants such as Elsevier.

In addition, the international media are now alert to such practices - two articles in the Times Higher Education supplement and in the Guardian published Elsevier’s business model – “perverse and needless” according to a Berkeley scholar quoted in the latter.

With “profit margins to rival Google”, according to the Guardian, the number of voices against Elsevier and in favour of not-for-profit platforms is growing. The main argument wielded by defenders of a more open access to academic articles, such as Education International (EI), is that knowledge is a product of a collective investment – whose fruits should benefit society and not for-profit mediating private actors.

Academic boycott

At the EI 10th International Further and Higher Education and Research Conference (IFHERC) that took place in Accra, Ghana, on 14-16 November 2016, attendees encouraged the promotion of open access and the targeting of commercial business practices that restrict the open and free exchange of scholarly material. They agreed that Elsevier is the largest (and most controversial) player in the field and is more akin to a ‘knowledge service industry’ than simply a scholarly publisher.

Already, Elsevier is the subject of an active yet unofficial academic boycott of its publications amid growing concerns in universities about spiralling and unjustified journal costs. German universities, for example, recently refused to sign a new institutional contract with Elsevier as they found that Elsevier's intention to charge higher fees did not comply with the principles of open access and fair pricing. In addition, a number of academics in the United Kingdom have recently submitted a complaint to the UK Competition and Markets Authority accusing Elsevier of its abuse of a dominant market position.