Ever heard of Elsevier? Unless you’re a scientist, probably not. It’s a scientific and medical publishing company, which takes science research — done by scientists it does not employ, often with public funds — and sells it at exorbitant prices to universities and libraries. The money they make at this, they keep; the original researchers never see a penny of it.
This business plan was understandable in the days before the Internet, when “getting published” meant getting into print. In a world freed from such limitations, it understandably irks the researchers that Elsevier is making their money off of.
Despite that, the company could probably have done very well for a long time to come — except that it got greedy. Wikipedia cites several instances of this: The universities and libraries that buy from it often only want certain publications, but Elsevier only makes those publications available as part of a huge bundle of others that those organizations don’t want, leading to several mass resignations of its boards and calls from universities to drop its publications. It produced half a dozen fake medical journals in Australia, which were really nothing but ads for a pharmaceutical company’s products disguised as peer-reviewed research. It tried to bribe people to give favorable reviews to textbooks it published. It is suspected of being the prime motivation behind a US bill to essentially make publicly-sponsored research illegal to distribute freely.
All together, it pissed off the scientists and researchers whose work it exploits. A couple months ago, one of them set a match to the whole volatile mess, and at the time of this writing, 8,600 of them have signed a petition to boycott Elsevier’s publications. Elseveir isn’t going down without a fight, but it looks like its greed has alienated too many of them.
You can only push people so far before they fight back, whether you’re an individual, a company, or an entire industry. And thanks to the Internet, those people can now organize in a way that was unheard of even twenty years ago, and in such a fight, their numbers will usually win.
In the Wild West era, the Colt 45 handgun was known as the Great Equalizer. Even the biggest bully in seven states would think twice before he took on a man armed with one. The Internet is today’s Great Equalizer (and I’m not the first to make that comparison): equipped with an Internet connection, a group of individual citizens can take on the biggest and meanest corporate bully and its tame lawmakers — and win.
In the 1980s, the inexorable rise of the mighty corporation led to the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, where unbelievably advanced technology was employed by huge multinationals to essentially do whatever they wanted. Even major governments couldn’t stand against them, and didn’t dare try. But today, even the mightiest corporation can be held accountable for its actions — by the people themselves. And the balance of power is tipping ever more toward the people, as more of us realize it.
Is it any surprise that I love technology? 🙂