Earlier this year, The Guardian ran a powerful article exposing the ties of Elsevier, one of the world’s largest academic publishing companies, to the fossil fuel industry. The article caught my attention because I’d never considered the ways in which an academic publisher might be perpetuating and enabling a fossil fuel economy. Publicly, Elsevier claims to be committed to a clean energy future. But its ongoing practices tell a very different story. At UCS, we think Elsevier can do better.
Together with Scientists for Global Responsibility, we’ve launched a petition demanding that Elsevier and its parent company, RELX, detail their plans to align their business practices with their public commitments to address climate change. If you’re a member of the scientific community, we encourage you to sign on. If you are not a scientist, I hope this piece inspires you to look under the hood when companies make claims about their commitment to climate change that seem too good to be true.
Greenwashing: It’s not just for big oil companies
When I think of greenwashing—the practice of making a product, policy, or activity appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is—the biggies come to mind first: the ExxonMobils, the Shells, and the Chevrons of the world. When fossil fuel production and deception form twin cores of a company’s business model, greenwashing is easy to spot and to call out. But the thing about fossil fuels is that they’re insidiously woven into the financial fabric of countless other companies ranging from the cosmetics industry to cloud computing in ways that can be surprising.
With so many companies racing to signal to their stakeholders that they’re doing “the right thing” environmentally, it can be difficult to distinguish which companies are truly decarbonizing their business practices and which are blowing sunshine.
Who or what is Elsevier?
Elsevier is a publishing company—one of the biggest in academic publishing, in fact. Elsevier operates more than 2,700 scientific, technical, and medical journals in which scientific research is peer reviewed and published. According to the 2021 report of Elsevier’s parent company, RELX, roughly 2.5 million articles were submitted for review to Elsevier last year, and the company published more than 600,000 articles in 2021 alone. Elsevier’s journals include everything from The Lancet, which many outside of academia may be familiar with, to journals with obscure (and intriguing) titles like Pedobiologia and Zoologischer Anzeiger.
Elsevier has long been criticized within the scientific community for the way it does business. Let’s say you’re a scientist at Harvard and you want to publish an article about your research in one of Elsevier’s journals. To do so, you pay Elsevier a hefty fee (currently $6,500 for articles in The Lancet). You would think everyone at Harvard would simply be able to access that article now, right? Wrong. Institutions and libraries must pay to subscribe to the journal and its archives. So essentially, companies like Elsevier are getting paid to publish academic research, then paid again when people want to access that research.
For this reason, and because Elsevier has been reluctant to shift to an open-access model, institutions like the MIT have been cutting ties with Elsevier.
Elsevier/RELX aids the fossil fuel industry
Until this past spring, I’d always thought of Elsevier as nothing more than a publishing company, albeit one whose profit model I didn’t care for. But The Guardian’s article earlier this year revealed the many ways in which Elsevier and RELX enable fossil fuel development—and not just through publishing. By engaging in such activities while making vocal pledges to climate-friendly compacts like the UN Race to Zero program and the UN Global Compact, it’s clear that Elsevier is engaged in greenwashing.
Here are five practices Elsevier/RELX must pledge to cease to better align its business practices with its publicly stated values and pledges:
- Providing fossil fuel industry research and development and data services to oil, gas, and coal companies.
A fall 2021 archive of Elsevier’s Geofacets website claims that it has served “thousands of researchers and other oil and gas R&D professionals working in exploration, production, refining, and petrochemicals,” and has advertised that they provide oil and gas companies access to maps, seismic profiles, and other data. After the publication of The Guardian article in February, the company updated its website, claiming that their R&D solutions are aimed at building a “sustainable environment.”
Despite changes in messaging, the company clearly has not stopped serving the interests of an expanding fossil fuel industry. In fact, as The Guardian reported, a spokesperson for the company said, “they are not prepared to draw a line between the transition away from fossil fuels and the expansion of oil and gas extraction.”
- Lobbying and financially supporting US politicians who block climate action
In the 2019-2020 U.S. election cycle, RELX, Elsevier’s parent company, contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of political candidates who obstruct action on climate change. For example, the company supported politicians who opposed President Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement and defended big oil companies’ roles in spreading disinformation.
- Disseminating information intended to help companies produce more fossil fuels
Publishing companies are in the business of disseminating information. But reining in climate change requires us to quickly transition away from fossil fuel use. While publicly proclaiming that it is supporting a clean energy transition, Elsevier provides the oil and gas industry with information about exploration areas and techniques, legal resources for expansion, and research and development for new technologies needed for fossil fuel development in non-conventional areas such as Arctic and tar sands environments. Enabling non-traditional fossil fuel production is particularly egregious given that the IPCC found in its latest report that the continued installation of fossil fuel-based infrastructure would “lock in” future emissions.
Some of Elsevier’s latest book titles informing and promoting oil and gas exploration include Seismic Imaging Methods and Applications for Oil and Gas Exploration; Gas Injection Methods; Elements of Petroleum Geology; and Reservoir Characterization of Tight Gas Sandstone. Those were all published this year.
Perhaps Elsevier’s role here is unsurprising given that the editorial staff of some its journals includes employees of big oil companies.
- Removing barriers to exploring and operating in emerging markets
Through its LexisNexis Risk Solutions products for the oil and gas industry, RELX provides guidance for interacting with local, regional, and state entities around the world and doing due diligence while operating in and exploring emerging markets. In a white paper, the company focuses on how the oil and gas industry can manage public perceptions and navigate risks that come along with working with third-party contractors.
- Hosting fossil fuel industry exhibitions
RX, RELX’s exhibitions business, hosts conferences and exhibitions that expressly serve the fossil fuel industry. For example, RELX hosts the Queensland Mining and Engineering Exhibition and Asia Pacific’s Mining and Engineering Exhibition, both of which feature seminars, demonstrations, and exhibits about coal mining. They also host an exhibition called Brazil Offshore, which is “designed to grow your brand or business in Brazil’s oil and gas market.”
These practices are incompatible with the claims Elsevier makes about its commitment to climate action. In fact, this is what inaction on climate change looks like. It’s what greenwashing looks like.
If you agree and are a member of scientific community, please sign on to our petition demanding that Elsevier detail its plans to cease such activities as part of its commitment to climate action.