Why I’m not writing a chapter about lifelong learning

I’ve just rejected an invitation to write an entry for the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The editors wanted me to write 5,000 words covering life course approaches to education and learning. It’s an easy enough task, and it is important to ensure that our field is well represented in multi-disciplinary collections like this, so normally I’d have been happy to get on with the job.

Earlier this year, I joined a growing group of academics who are taking action against commercial publishers who block public access to research. Elsevier, who are publishing this Encyclopedia, are a particular focus of attention because they have so actively lobbied governments, especially in the USA, to enact legislation blocking the free exchange of information. They also charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals, then offer discounts to libraries who buy ‘bundles’ of journals (many of which they do now want).

This is an enormously profitable business. In 2010, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 36% on revenues of $3.2 billion. Very little of this makes its way back to academics or their universities. Like most people, I never expected to make money from academic publishing, so let me be very clear that I am not boycotting Elsevier because I want a fatter slice of the pie.

The first edition of this Encyclopedia is still available, apparently, at the price of €7,360. Elsevier offered me a fee of $100 for my chapter – just 2 cents a word, or 1 cent after tax (and we could write pages about that as well).

There’s nothing wrong with making a living. But academic research is largely funded from the public purse – yet commercial publishers ensure that the public never get to see most of it, except in the garbled form of a press report. According to the specimen contract, Elsevier allow authors ‘the right to post the Contribution on a secure network (not accessible to the public) within your institution’.

Note that qualification – not accessible to the public. In short, those who have paid for my research. I find this abhorrent, and that is why I am a supporter of open access publishing, which makes academic research available online. It isn’t the answer to all our prayers, and it doesn’t resolve the problems of ensuring that our research is understood and accessible. That is another challenge. In the meantime, I’m supporting the Cost of Knowledge movement, and encourage others to do likewise.

For details of the Cost of Knowledge boycott, see: http://thecostofknowledge.com/

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