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From the 2021 update report

Continuing Challenges: Conflicts of Interest

Commercial publishers are pursuing interests that put them at odds with the interests of the academic community and tolerate internal conflicts of interest. Unfortunately, the responsibility for highlighting and resolving conflicts of interest falls squarely onto the academic community.

4 mins read

1. Conflicts of Interest

The first of these trends was the strategic shift of some companies, including Elsevier (the leading scholarly publisher), continuing to build up their roles in research assessment. In the case of Elsevier, this is in addition to its traditional role in research dissemination. The academic community is just beginning to express concern about the conflict of interest inherent in being in these two businesses. The University of California Academic Senate passed a set of recommendations that addressed this issue in March 2019, when the university system prepared a comprehensive report on the use of research information management services (RIMS).1 However, this scrutiny is the exception, rather than the rule. This issue is compounded by the fact that, while Elsevier claims to operate with the interests of researchers at heart, its actions collide with this narrative.

Public interactions with Elsevier’s management during the first part of 2021 suggest that Elsevier itself continues to publicly downplay the conflicts of interest among its portfolio of activities. More broadly, little attention seems to be given to the conflicts that arise when Elsevier collects data from researchers and then sells research assessments to academic institutions, funding bodies, and governments.

For example, in September 2020, Brad Allen, chief architect at Elsevier, held a webinar organized by the Harvard Data Science Initiative. During the Q&A, which was open to the public, questions were asked about the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) and about possible conflicts of interest that the use of AI could present.2 Though the answers indicated that Elsevier is aware of the ethical issues affecting data science, the presenters offered no concrete steps the company has taken to address them, and this void has not stopped them from selling their products. When asked about conflict of interest when serving both researchers, funders, and governments, Mr. Allen allowed that his answer had not been on point and admitted he had not thought much about it.

Conflicts of interest are not limited to both publishing research and assessing it or to collecting individual researchers’ data through productivity tools and selling those data to universities, funding bodies, and governments. Leslie Chan and George Chen have recently written extensively on the conflict of interest inherent in publishing research and contributing to university rankings.3 Conversations with senior administrators of academic institutions often reveal the frustration engendered by university rankings, yet it is very difficult to find administrators who feel they are in a position to advocate for breaking the reliance on a system that negatively affects their own institutions.

Similarly, college bookstores are historically perceived as aligned with the interests of academic institutions and their communities. However, many campuses have outsourced their bookstore operations to Barnes & Noble and Follett, who are increasingly coordinating with publishers to promote the adoption of “inclusive access” programs that automatically bill students for digital course materials. These companies have an economic incentive to promote this model on campus, even if the prices and terms of service conflict with the interests of students and faculty.

The fact that Elsevier (and, potentially, other companies) would pursue interests that put them at odds with the interests of the academic community and tolerate internal conflicts of interest should not come as a surprise. The business of publishers is to make money; the “business” of academic institutions is to advance knowledge, not to enable publishers to achieve their commercial goals. Unfortunately, the responsibility for highlighting and resolving conflicts of interest falls squarely onto the academic community.


  2. – the Q&A starts at 1:01:15 

  3. Chen, George, & Chan, Leslie. (2021). University Rankings and Governance by Metrics and Algorithms. Draft chapter available at The final version will be available in the Research Handbook on University Rankings: Theory, Methodology, Influence and Impact, edited by Ellen Hazelkorn and Georgiana Mihut, forthcoming 2021, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd. 

About the authors

Portrait of Claudio Aspesi

Claudio Aspesi

A respected market analyst with over a decade of experience covering the academic publishing market, and leadership roles at Sanford C. Bernstein, and McKinsey.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition

SPARC is a coalition of academic and research libraries that work to enable the open sharing of research outputs and educational materials in order to democratize access to knowledge, accelerate discovery, and increase the return on our investment in research and education.