Books and bombs

by John Q on September 9, 2005

Tom Stafford points to academic publisher Elsevier’s involvement in the international arms trade. Even the legal aspects of this trade are deplorable, given the excessive readiness of governments and would-be governments to resort to armed force, but the boundary between legal and illegal arms trade is pretty porous. For example, there’s evidence that the arms fairs organised by Elsevier subsidiary Spearhead are venues for the illegal trade in landmines. Tom has a number of suggestions for possible responses.

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09.09.05 at 9:26 am



Chris Sandvick 09.09.05 at 10:05 am

Ditto what he/she (anitaki) said. Or maybe not… Translation please on aisle six!


Kostis 09.09.05 at 10:30 am

Oops, sorry about that. CT uses wordpress, our greek blog (in greek) uses wordpress, and they trackback automatically.


talos 09.09.05 at 10:35 am

If I may be of service… its a quote from a Greek Bolg (spitaki) liking to this post. I really doubt that the owner of the blog posted this (trackback gone awry?), but anyway:

“… I was helping to write a paper researching academic journal demand and the effects that various hypothetical mergers would have on prices and more generally on the “social surplus” in the market. The whole issue was raised by many academic librarians who were complaining about evil Elsevier, buying off everyone and using all sorts of tricks the librarians deemed unfair, to make them purchase its journals.
Thus Elsevier was claimed to be evil by many. But this evil?

Where the final “this evil?” links to this post…


antirealist 09.09.05 at 6:14 pm

One would think that two obvious responses would be to stop submitting papers to Elsevier journals, and to refuse to review papers for them. But Tom Stafford and his commentators have rejected these actions because they might be injurious to one’s own career. Give me moral integrity Lord, but not yet.


andrew 09.09.05 at 8:29 pm

I think the complete objection was that it would harm one’s career without hurting Elsevier. An organized boycott is a different matter.


antirealist 09.09.05 at 9:20 pm

An organized boycott is a different matter.

No one on Stafford’s blog has suggested an organized boycott, and they’ve explicitly rejected personal boycotts.

Surely there are two intertwined moral concerns here – the desire to end an activity of which you disapprove, and the desire to remain untainted by involvement with the source of that activity. If you sincerely believe that

… the DSEi arms fairs are immoral, geopolitically reckless, sometimes illegal and improperly regulated… The arms fairs Spearhead organises … makes academics complicit in the deaths of civilians, in torture and in political repression around the world.

and that, through their involvement in the arms trade

Elsevier is putting profit above humanitarian values…

how can you give a justification for continued academic involvement with Elsevier which isn’t a mere self-interested rationalization?

The idea seems to be that ethically-driven activism can be carried out in the political sphere, but any implications for personal behaviour can be disregarded, particularly if they’re inconvenient. The trouble with this position is that it makes one’s political activities indistinguishable from posturing.


tom stafford 09.10.05 at 4:59 am

The feeling is against personal boycotts for a number of reasons. Maybe one is that we’re weak liberals with no moral backbone. Another, I think, is that they are not very radical. Boycotts just withdraw your involvement from something you object to, they can seem like a last resort that conceeds that you don’t have the power or right to do anything else. But we do have the power to affect DSEi in other ways. If you’re feeling militant you can come to London and try and physically stop the arms fair, for example:

Academics in particular have ways to directly affect how their work is published; the trouble is to work out which way(s) are best and will engage the largest number of others. Although a boycott might make me feel better, it isn’t a good strategy if other people (who don’t necessarily share all of my beliefs) won’t do it too.

We’ve already made some progress on directly affecting Elsevier, I’d like to try out more things like this before settling on a passive boycott:,,1566051,00.html


Kenneth Fair 09.11.05 at 8:13 am

A different approach is through the press. Reed Elsevier owns LexisNexis, the information system used by many lawyers and journalists. How many journalists do you think know that their searches for news stories on Nexis give money to an arms dealer? Do you think any of them might be interested in how exactly an academic publisher became an arms dealer?


antirealist 09.11.05 at 9:12 am

How many journalists do you think know that their searches for news stories on Nexis give money to an arms dealer?

Since “knowledge is a factive relation,” the answer is none, because Reed Elsevier isn’t an arms dealer.


antirealist 09.12.05 at 1:41 am

Boycotts just withdraw your involvement from something you object to, they can seem like a last resort that conceeds that you don’t have the power or right to do anything else.

But nothing prevents you from boycotting them while at the same time lobbying to change their corporate policies. I do admire your determination to make a difference in this matter but I’m rather intrigued by your apparent thoroughgoing moral consequentialism. After all, it would be a stretch to describe this as a “dirty hands” issue, because nothing other than self-interest obliges you to continue to deal with a corporation whose activities you seem to regard as morally repugnant.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that nothing you could do would make any difference to Elsevier’s behaviour – would virtue-based considerations then have no weight with you at all? Surely there’s something wrong with the idea that a boycott is worthwhile only to to the extent that it serves to achieve a political goal; and otherwise it has only feel-good value.

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