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Academic Journals and Corporate Interests: Reed Elsevier and ALEC

By Peter Hogness and Jake Blumgart
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[UPDATE: On April 12, Reed Elsevier announced that it had resigned from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It joined a growing list of corporations that are quitting ALEC in response to increased public scrutiny.]

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What do prestigious scientific journals like Cell and The Lancet have to do with union-busting, cutting corporate taxes, or denial of global warming?

The publishing company that owns these journals, Reed Elsevier, has supported all of these goals through its contributions to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC is a corporate-funded, politically conservative “bill mill,” which develops legislative templates for state-level laws that serve its political goals. The group holds networking conferences for politically sympathetic state legislators – such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, when he was a State Assembly member – where ideas are shared and its model bills are circulated (see "How ALEC Operates").

Reed Elsevier is a leading member of ALEC – and also the parent company of Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishing companies in the world. It owns about 2,000 academic journals, primarily scientific and medical, and a diverse array of other information-related businesses, including LexisNexis.

ALEC has more than 250 corporate members (the exact number is uncertain, as the organization refuses to release a full list), but Reed Elsevier is one of just 23 that sit on ALEC’s national Private Enterprise Board. Reed-Elsevier lobbyist Teresa Jennings represents the company on this board, serving alongside better-known corporations such as Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil.

As its active membership in ALEC illustrates, Reed Elsevier’s interests are more similar to those of other corporations than many would assume. The company’s academic journal division, Elsevier, had an impressive 36% profit rate in 2010, on revenues of $3.2 billion. Reed Elsevier’s CEO, Erik Engstrom, was paid $2.93 million in total compensation in 2009, according to Forbes magazine.

Like other corporations, Reed Elsevier’s legislative interests are in the first place concerned with keeping those profit numbers high – even when this conflicts with the central purpose of academic journals, the dissemination of knowledge.

PROPERTY VS. SCIENCE?

For example, the company was a vocal supporter of the Research Works Act, despite sharp opposition from scientists and librarians. As The New York Times reported in February 2012, this bill was designed to “prohibit federal agencies from requiring open access to research, even if it is financed by taxpayers,” in order to protect the proprietary interests of publishing companies. Reed Elsevier also supported the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a pair of bills that ran into a firestorm of grassroots opposition for the limits they would have placed on Internet free speech.

ALEC’s members are strongly supportive of corporate ownership interests in such debates, and that, plus access to ALEC’s nationwide network of legislators in all 50 states, may be reason enough for Reed Elsevier’s participation. To what extent Reed Elsevier has used ALEC to push pet bills of its own is unknown, because ALEC does not routinely make text of its model legislation public (see "How ALEC Operates"). What is clear, however, is that Reed Elsevier’s participation in ALEC involves the company in a political project that sharply conflicts with academic values.

For example, many scientists who have published in Elsevier-owned journals would be surprised to know that profits from those journals are used to promote denial of climate change and block action against global warming.

CLIMATE CHANGE

On March 19, Tennessee became the fourth state to pass legislation closely modeled on ALEC’s model bill on environmental education. The vote created “a legal mandate to incorporate climate change denial as part of the science education curriculum,” reported Steve Horn on the environmental news site DeSmogBlog.

The new Tennessee law states that since “the teaching of some scientific subjects...can cause controversy," instruction on global warming and other topics must “create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to…respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.”

In other words, wrote Horn, in Tennessee “global warming will be taught as a ‘theory’ among other ‘credible theories,’” and not as a well-established scientific consensus. The language of the Tennessee bill closely mirrors ALEC’s model legislation, but ALEC’s model bill goes even farther: ALEC urges creation of a statewide “Environmental Education Council” to scrutinize curriculum content. “Any parent or citizen could bring biased environmental education materials to the attention of the Council with a written request for a ruling” on whether those materials comply with state law.

As DeSmogBlog reported, the Tennessee legislation was opposed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences, and many other scientific and professional organizations. It was not opposed by Elsevier: aside from its membership in ALEC, Reed Elsevier offered no public comment on the debate in Tennessee.

ALEC supports efforts to get states to withdraw from regional efforts to counter global warming, like the Western Climate Initiative, in which state, provincial and local authorities work together to reduce their carbon footprint. As the news website Grist reported, ALEC’s model legislation on climate change contends that “forcing business, industry, and food producers to reduce carbon emissions through government mandates and cap-and-trade policies under consideration for the regional climate initiative will increase the cost of doing business,” and calls for states to withdraw from regional climate initiatives.

WISCONSIN

Other ALEC model bills attack the rights of public employee unions, including faculty at public universities. When University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon published a blog post on ALEC’s role in anti-union efforts in his state, pro-ALEC activists immediately went on a legal fishing expedition into Cronon’s files and e-mail, in an unsuccessful search for something to use against him (see Clarion, May 2011).

ALEC’s model bills also include versions of David Horowitz’s so-called “Academic Bill of Rights,” which would enable state legislators to monitor the political views of public university faculty – a proposal that has been condemned by the American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Association of University Professors.

ALEC’s “140 Credit Hour Act” takes one of the most punitive approaches yet to the question of college graduation rates: Students who take more than that number of credits before graduating from a public university would get hit with 25% tuition hikes, and the university could “no longer count those students as enrolled.”

BOYCOTT

Reed Elsevier’s alliance, through ALEC, with such anti-academic legislative efforts, has received little public scrutiny. But the high prices of its journals, its high profits, and the company’s support for policies that restrict the flow of information have recently made Reed Elsevier the target of a scholars’ boycott. “The Research Works Act was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many people,” Ingrid Daubechies, president of that International Mathematical Union, told the Times. More broadly, she said, “we feel that the social compact is broken at present by some publishing houses, of which we feel Elsevier is the most extreme.” Daubechies added that Elsevier is “making much larger profits” than a few years ago, but delivering less to scholars in return.

When intense academic opposition to the Research Works Act put an unwelcome spotlight on Elsevier’s corporate practices, the company eventually dropped its support for the legislation. But it made clear that this was mainly a change in tactics: “While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area,” it said, “Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Works Act itself.”

“The bill wasn’t likely to pass anyway at this point, so withdrawing their support is mainly a PR move for Elsevier,” mathematician Henry Cohn told Inside Higher Ed. “I’m afraid the lesson Elsevier may have learned is that lobbying should be done behind closed doors.”

ALEC specializes in working behind closed doors. Membership in ALEC has been attractive to large corporations precisely because it allows them to wield influence quietly, outside of the public’s view (see “How ALEC Operates”).

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

Reed Elsevier’s membership in ALEC may be more of a symptom than a cause of the way its priorities diverge from those of working academics. But in the past, collective action by scholars and physicians has been able to force changes in the company’s conduct.

For example, Reed Elsevier has a division that runs trade shows, such as the London Book Fair. Until 2008, it also organized trade shows for the arms industry, inviting some of the world’s most repressive regimes. After British scholars organized a petition campaign demanding that the company stop making money from the arms trade, a former editor of British Medical Journal proposed a boycott of Elsevier by academics and medical professionals, arguing that making money from both the medical profession and the weapons industry represented a profound conflict of interest. Less than six months after the boycott was proposed, the company announced that it would no longer organize arms industry trade shows.

There has been no similar effort targeting Reed-Elsevier’s membership in ALEC – but its role in ALEC has not been widely known.

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[Editor's note: On April 12, Reed Elsevier announced its resignation from ALEC. The article above is a longer version of the story published in Clarion's April 2012 print edition.]

RELATED COVERAGE:
How ALEC Operates

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