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Reed Elsevier & the arms trade: profiting from both cause and cure

Medical Publishing is a noble calling. Brought to mind is the image of dedicated scholar-monks, labouring against ignorance and suffering. Not always agreeing – no, sometimes violently disagreeing, but always with silent acknowledgment of the common goal of a community dedicated to alleviating human suffering by sharing information.

The contrast is stark when you discover that the medical publisher Reed Elsevier has, via its subsidiaries Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, a sideline in organising international arms fairs. At these fairs manufacturers, governments and arms dealers meet, greet and discuss future contracts and collaborations. Reed Elsevier’s arms fairs allow weapon manufacturers to promote their products to buyer’s delegations from regimes in conflict, from regimes with appalling human rights records, and from some of the most impoverished regions in the world.

Medical publishing is more than a business, it is a vital activity that requires the goodwill of the medical and academic communities who conduct research, write articles, conduct peer review, edit journals and (to complete the cycle) buy back that research when it is published.

Reed Elsevier makes the argument that armed defence is a human right, and that governments have an obligation to seek it under article 51 of the UN Charter. Yet, no part of the UN Charter mandates countries to export arms. The imposition of UN arms embargoes on aggressor nations recognises that the pursuit of disarmament does not contradict the right to self-defence in Article 51. Reed Elsevier fails to mention Article 26 of the Charter which by contrast, positively enshrines the principle of spending the minimum possible on armaments, recognising that money spent on weapons diverts from vital human and economic resources – such as health and education. For the medical community, there is a painful contradiction between our ideals and those of the arms trade, especially the arms trade as it is currently conducted.

Elsevier hosts one of the largest arms fairs in the world, Defence Systems International (DSEi), held biennially in London and always the subject of controversy. DSEi is shrouded in secrecy, yet what does come to light allows us a glimpse of the kind of thing that is probably going on at similar arms fairs Reed Elsevier hosts around the world.

The list of those officially invited to the last DSEi, held in 2005, included buyer’s delegations from China (currently under an EU arms embargo), Indonesia (with a track-record of using UK-made military equipment on civilians), Colombia, Saudi Arabia and other countries on the UK Foreign Office list of the 20 most serious human rights-abusing regimes. Reed Elsevier has a second list of invitees which it keeps secret, and which no doubt includes countries with even less scruples than those on the official list.

The equipment being promoted at DSEi tells its own story. Anti-personal mines (land mines) are illegal under international convention, but cluster-bombs, which can be dropped from the air and create de-facto mine-fields are not. In 2005, 2003 and 2001 Reed Elsevier have insisted that cluster-bombs would not be displayed at DSEi. Each time journalists have uncovered exhibitors at DSEi offering for sale anti-personnel mines or cluster bombs. You can read about the effects of cluster bombs in `Disability and Rehabilitation’, an Elsevier journal. Remember, these weapons are designed to maim, usually by destroying the feet and legs, and not to kill, so that the enemy has to expend resources looking after an injured victim.

How should the readers and editors of `The Journal of Hazardous Materials’, another Elsevier Journal, feel about the depleted uranium shells that are on sale at DSEi? How would the reader and editors of `International Journal of Acute Pain Management’ feel about the torture equipment, the leg irons, stun guns and batons, that were illegally promoted at DSEi?

And most importantly, what about the small arms available from manufacturers and via dealers present at DSEi? Small arms – things like pistols and machine guns – which are responsible for up to half a million civilian deaths each year (according to a UN estimate). When you see a child soldier toting an AK-47, or militias in a war zones herding civilians, ask yourself where the weapons came from. The answer will involve the global arms trade, and, because of their involvement in it, Elsevier.

The prescribed reading for this is obviously `Crash Course: Ethics and Human Sciences’ (published by Elsevier, 2006). It can feel like a sick joke to connect each kind of weapon of death and injury displayed at an Reed Elsevier arms fair to a journal, book or article published by Reed Elsevier which describes how to treat it. But it is important to realise that it is not us making the joke. The sick joke – and it is sick – is being played on us by Reed Elsevier and the punchline is the unknowing complicity of medical professionals in the system of death and injury which they have dedicated their lives to opposing.

Now there is a danger to believing that everything is connected when you can’t see the connections, but it is wilful ignorance to ignore those connections when they are visible. Arms fairs are a tiny proportion of Elsevier’s business – around only 0.5% of total revenue. Most of their profit comes from medical publishing, for which they rely on our goodwill to continue. We cannot stand complacently by while profits from those who love life, health, freedom and community are used to assist those who work against all these things.

So, what to do?

Reed Elsevier are facing increasing pressure from its consumers and other stakeholders to justify their involvement in the arms trade. In the last year the company has been publicly embarrassed by an editorial in the Lancet which asked `Reed Elsevier to divest itself of all business interests that threaten human, and especially civilian, health and well-being’. Other academics are boycotting submitting papers to Elsevier journals, and reviewing for them.

An important first step for each of us is to make sure that Reed Elsevier know that the medical, academic and educational communities they serve are aware of their involvement in the arms trade, and keenly feel the contradiction that this small part of their business represents. You can write to the chairman of Reed Elsevier at:

Jan Hommen, Reed Elsevier PLC, 1-3 Strand, London WC2N 5JR, UK

I have set up an on-line petition for academics and health care professionals at:

If you are a member of a professional association, union or learned society you can check if you are involved with Elsevier through them, and see if other members might feel similarly uncomfortable with the position Elsevier puts them in. Reed Elsevier is a publishing company with an arms trade problem, and like all addicts, they need our support to help them recover.

Editor’s Note: An alternative to publishing in these comercial journals is to submit your papers to “Open Access” journals. One great initiative is the Public Library of Science (PLoS) which states it “…is a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world’s scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource. All our activities are guided by our core principles.” These principles can be found at Importantly, authors publishing in the PLoS journal retain the copyrights to their own articles. Author copyright is typically transferred to the parent corporation in commercial journals as a condition of their publishing an article.

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