Friday, September 09, 2005

Another complication for those wanting to do research ethically

Tom Stafford at the University of Sheffield has been conducting an exchange with the people of Reed Elsevier about the academic publisher's involvement in hosting arms trade shows (though a subsidiary, Spearhead Exhibitions). If, like me, you hadn't heard about this before, you can read his exchange with the company here and here and here and here. He also has two other posts about the situation (here and here). Stafford's argument (quoted from his Sept. 8 post) is as follows:
I believe that the DSEi arms fairs are immoral, geopolitically reckless, sometimes illegal (e.g.) and improperly regulated (e.g.). Beyond this, I resent that a publisher which profits from the hard (and publicly funded) work of academics uses those profits to support the sale to undemocratic & repressive governments of such things as depleted uranium shells, cluster bombs, missile technology and small arms. The arms fairs Spearhead organises (yes, DSEi isn't the only one) are a measly amount of Elsevier's business, but it is a part that makes academics complicit in the deaths of civilians, in torture and in political repression around the world.
Reed Elsevier's response to his letters basically claimed that arms trade is "legitimate business" and that "it is your democratic right" to disagree with RE's involvement in arms trading (though it won't affect their business).

When teaching Research Methods, I talk a lot about research ethics in terms of using sources properly--accurating citing sources, not taking the source's ideas or arguments out of context, using sources that are reliable, ... But this is sure a new twist on research ethics: what do we do when our school's library subscribes to journals and databases whose publishers are involved in business that many of us would consider immoral? And what should we teach our students about this?

(via Crooked Timber)


senioritis said...

I hate these kinds of quandaries. Part of my problem, I think, comes from a deep-seated cynicism: I think so few corporations are actually conducting business ethically. At the same time, I hate doing business with one that I know is unethical. So I hate these quandaries.

Jonathan Benda said...

I have to say I share your cynicism. I'm not eager to try to find out what other publishers are doing. I recall your writing earlier about McGraw-Hill, I think? Seems every company with its hands in academia also has a skeleton in or out of the closet...

Michael Turton said...

Does Sheffield really make money off publishing academic books and journals? I doubt there's a fortune in that. It seems that ethically the situation is even worse: the profitable arms trade subsidizes the loser publishing business.

What should you teach your students about this? I'd raise it as a a possible moral issue, but you are not the keeper of their consciences, and need not "teach" them anything. The arms trade may be immoral, but it has very high economic multipliers and no doubt you benefit from it in many ways.

In any case I note that they hold exhibitions here in Taiwan, and arms is one thing our crazy island does need, pressed as it is by the Chinese over there, whom the EU is frothing to sell weapons to. If Mr. Stafford wants to work on an urgent arms issue, he's trying to kill the wrong target.


Jonathan Benda said...

Err.. yeah, maybe we could use a few land mines scattered around Taiwan...

Seriously, though, I think an interesting way of approaching this would be to devote some time in class to this issue. Something along the lines of an exploration of how knowledge is produced and disseminated, and by whom, for what purposes, to what effects. And added on to that now, who owns the means of production and what else are they involved in? And does it make a difference? (Yikes. That sounds like a whole course topic.)