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Academic publishers continue “business as usual” in Russia

Academic publishers continue “business as usual” in Russia
Article by: George Frynas, Professor of Strategic Management
Academic publishers around the world have condemned Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. However, only one of big publishers, Wolters Kluwer (Netherlands) reduced business in Russia. Others, including John Wiley & Sons, Reed Elsevier, Thomson Reuters continue to operate in Russia as usual. Significantly, “free flow of ideas” that publishers allegedly support often means close cooperation with government agencies and institutions that eagerly support Putin and publish open statements in favor of invasion. Besides, publishing is big and profitable business in Russia, giving a lot in taxes.

The Ukrainian government has said that continued access for Russian researchers helps the Russian war effort. Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science, supported by Ukrainian universities, issued a detailed list of desired research sanctions. Some of these demands are not controversial at all, for example, suspending EU grants for Russian institutions. Others are more controversial and are rejected by many in the Western academic community, for example, barring Russian authors from publishing in journals.

The Ukrainian government makes one crucial demand: to block access to all scientometric databases and materials of scientific publishers for Russian institutions and individuals.

The counter-argument by publishers is that the “free flow of ideas must continue, even through geopolitical crises”, as John Wiley & Sons have stated. Similarly, Springer Nature has said that “we want to continue to build bridges of understanding”.

However these statements sound hollow when you take a look at the publishers’ business partners in Russia. For example, almost exactly one year ago, Elsevier and the Russian Rectors’ Union jointly hosted the 2021 Research Excellence Awards Russia (held since 2005). On 4 March 2022 the same Russian Rectors’ Union published a statement, in which the university rectors firmly supported Putin and his “forced decision to conduct a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine”.

Similarly, Thomson Reuters has a major collaborative agreement with the Association of Lawyers of Russia, which firmly supports Putin and stated that “the legality of the decisions taken by the President of the Russian Federation follows from the applicable international law”.

How did academic publishers respond to Russia’s invasion?

One major Dutch academic publisher Wolters Kluwer declared they would ‘discontinue doing business in Russia and Belarus except for certain of our health products where there are compelling humanitarian reasons’. It pledged financial donations to the Red Cross and other “aid organizations supporting refugees and others impacted by the Russia’s invasion”. Wolters Kluwer also made some resources available to help Ukrainian refugees.

At the other extreme, Thomson Reuters is in denial about Russia’s invasion. It offered no support for Ukrainians. A statement by the Thomson Reuters Foundation even avoided using the word ‘invasion’, did not condemn Russia and offered no support.

The response to Russia’s invasion by the other academic publishers was weak and strikingly similar. Essentially, publishers have taken three steps (see Table below):

  • a verbal condemnation of the invasion;
  • financial donations to humanitarian aid organisations;
  • making some academic content freely available to Ukrainian researchers.

The value of the last pledge – to provide free content to Ukrainians – is questionable, given that scientific research is currently all but impossible in Ukraine, as academic researchers are hiding in shelters to avoid being bombed, while 1 in 4 Ukrainians have been displaced by the invasion.

Beyond lofty verbal condemnations, Reed Elsevier and Wiley pledged to donate one million dollars each for humanitarian aid organisations, and to match individual donations by their employees. Springer Nature pledged the largest amount of 1.5 million Euros.

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Leading Scientific, Technical and Professional Publishers (alphabetical order) and their response to Russia’s invasion

Academic publishers make large profits in Russia

We do not know how much academic publishers earn in Russia. However scientific and technical publishing is big business and it is exceedingly profitable around the world. According to the Global 50 ranking of publishing companies in 2020, among the Top 10 publishing companies, the five companies focusing on scientific, technical and professional publishing – RELX (Reed Elsevier), Thomson Reuters, Wolters Kluwer, Springer Nature and John Wiley & Sons – account for 55 percent of its turnover.

In 2021, Reed Elsevier made over GBP 7.2 billion in revenues – or nearly US$ 10 billion, while the smallest of the five companies – John Wiley & Sons – made nearly US$ 2 billion in revenues.

We know that Russia is an important market for these academic publishers:

  • John Wiley & Sons annual report 2021 acknowledged Russia as the company’s 6th largest market (after the US, UK, Sri Lanka, Germany and India). In addition to selling products including databases, they have a technology development centre in Russia where Wiley develops their software and other products.
  • Elsevier (i.e. RELX group) annual report 2021 lists ownership stakes in five registered companies in Russia. In addition to selling products including databases such as LexisNexis, they are also involved in events organisation (Real Estate Events Direct) and 3D medical education platform (3D4Medical).
  • Springer Nature sold many of its Russian assets in 2015 to comply with a new Russian media law, but continues to be part of profitable collaborations in Russia, including with the Russian publisher Pleiades and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research, providing access to its products including databases in Russia.
  • Thomson Reuters has a Moscow office and offers its fullest range of products and services in Russia – including e.g. huge legal database WestLaw – and has a collaborative agreement with the Association of Lawyers of Russia for ‘exchanging experience in the field of law, legislative activity and law enforcement practice in Russia’.

Why should academic publishers withdraw from Russia?

We should call for a withdrawal of academic publishers from Russia for several reasons:

  • First, companies in general should stop doing business in Russia because their tax payments to the Russian government fuel the war effort. Academic publishers make millions out of their business deals in Russia, and this generates substantial revenues.
  • Second, universities and other academic institutions provide legitimacy to Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. By withdrawing our support for these institutions and blocking their access to information, we reduce their legitimacy as serious academic organisations.
  • Third, scientific information can be used to bring harm, including by helping Russia’s military and intelligence services. ‘Just as the EU and the US have imposed tough technological sanctions to block Russia’s imports of technological goods, Russian users need to be denied access to scientific information products, which in the long run will weaken Russia’s military capabilities’, Serhii Nazarovets, a scientometrics researcher at Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University, was quoted saying.

What can you do?

  • Write to the senior management teams or representatives in your country of Reed Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons, Thomson Reuters and Springer Nature.
  • Ask them to stop all of their business in Russia with immediate effect.
George Frynas is a Polish university professor based in the UK who has researched Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for over 25 years.
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