Harvard Business School Publishing crosses the ‘evil’ academic line

Screen Shot 2013-10-06 at 12.56.42 PMI am pretty sure that Harvard Business School spends some time teaching its students about Google’s “Don’t be evil” business statement. While I am also pretty sure that it doesn’t take it at face value, I would be very surprised if it challenged not being evil as a worthy goal. If their attempts to introduce MBA codes of ethics following the Global Financial Crisis are any indication, their students at least take these things seriously.

So how does that stack up for Harvard Business School’s commercial practices in its publication arm? In this post, I am going to suggest, ‘not well.’ That is probably an understatement. It’s ‘not well’ in the sense that the US Congress is ‘not well.’

HBSP publishes books and, importantly, case materials. Cases aren’t cheap to make and to get high quality ones requires making them an explicit part of HBS faculty’s job. For instance, they are part of the evaluation as to whether someone gets tenure — this is not at all common elsewhere where peer-reviewed research is paramount. But to each their own. Those cases fuel MBA classes across the world and their offer to the world has always been teaching-based: that is, like textbooks, HBS can charge what they want and restrict access on the basis of price.

But what of the next tier up from teaching to research — the Harvard Business Review? HBR is a practitioner magazine and possibly the best of these in the world. At their best, they take research and translate it for practitioners. Generally, they allow practitioners to present ideas to a broad audience. As with all high volume magazines, there is detailed editorial and presentation work that goes into the articles. Authors don’t get paid much — just like case-writers outside of HBS faculty — but they have other motives. In particular, academics find it a convenient way to disseminate their research to a wider audience. And for that same reason, they are used extensively in classrooms across the world and sometimes cited as research. (For instance, Michael Porter, has several HBR articles with 2,000 plus academic citations — an incredible record).

It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that HBR articles find their way into the MBA classroom. They are often easier to read and we tend to select the ones that are research-based for our course syllabi. Like all academic journals and magazines, libraries subscribe to them and so there are amongst the materials we expect our students will read. And it is the job of our courses to point our students in the right direction. Reading lists are a big driver of the currency of academia and the returns to producing knowledge.

Last Friday, we received an email from the Dean of the Rotman School asking us to think more carefully about HBR articles we put in our reading lists and asked students to read. Why? Because HBSP would now charge by the student for each of those articles that we use for ‘teaching purposes.’ And a teaching purpose arises when we require a student to read an article, we suggest a student reads an article or we describe a means by which students may come by an article. To be sure, HBSP will only be charging for 500 ‘classic’ articles — that is, articles that are most put in reading lists (including those by Professor Porter) — but it has the apparent right to charge for any of them.

How can this be? Well, it turns out that the libraries subscribe to articles through a bundle provided by EBSCO. However, unlike what appears to be every other article provided in that bundle, HBR articles are different. Here is the EBSCO clause from another school but my guess it is the same for the University of Toronto.

Harvard Business Review Notice of Use Restrictions, May 2009 Harvard Business Review and Harvard Business Publishing Newsletter content on EBSCOhost is licensed for the private individual use of authorized EBSCOhost users. It is not intended for use as assigned course material in academic institutions nor as corporate learning or training materials in businesses. Academic licensees may not use this content in electronic reserves, electronic course packs, persistent linking from syllabi or by any other means of incorporating the content into course resources. Business licensees may not host this content on learning management systems or use persistent linking or other means to incorporate the content into learning management systems. Harvard Business Publishing will be pleased to grant permission to make this content available through such means. For rates and permission, contact permissions@harvardbusiness.org.

“Not intended for use as assigned course material in academic institutions”! No “persistent linking”! For what purpose would a University library subscribe to this other than that?

Now you might think, contracts are contracts and copyright is copyright. HBSP can do what they please and they have seen that HBR articles are valuable in education and want to get their piece of the action. But it isn’t as simple of that. There is a broader set of norms in place that describe how academics use each others work in normal academic settings.

Academics around the world engage in course development in an open manner. We treat the ideas of academics at other competing institutions on their face value. Hence, we point our students to the best material impartially and we expect others to do the same. There is a belief in citing and giving students original sources. Often that is why we link to academic articles — not just because we want students to read them but because we want to acknowledge sources. That is as true of our published work as it is of what we present to students in classes.

No one ever charges people for the act of curating and directing attention. That is our job. It is our mantra. But that is precisely what HBSP are doing. To be sure, HBR looks like any other magazine and is already paid for under an institutional license by the UofT library. What HBSP are charging for are the links to those articles made by academics in the ordinary course of teaching. While our Dean was clear that he wanted us to continue to treat ideas as ideas and give the best to our students, he also wanted us now to be aware that it was costing money each time we did so. I don’t know how much it costs but my guess is that it is $5 or so per article per student. So if I have a class of 40 students and in the process of being thorough, add 10 HBR articles to my reading list or class webpage or, if the students do the same on bulletin boards for the class, we have to pay $2,000 for the privilege. I want to adhere to norms but that is enough to cause me to think twice.

I don’t know the extent of HBSP’s enforcement of this previously dormant EBSCO clause. But apparently, in 2009, they targeted few schools with enforcement as a ‘pilot’ (see herehereherehere and here). I wasn’t aware of that and I guess they tested the waters for a backlash and it didn’t come.

What HBSP are doing, however, is offering an open shot. At the same time as enforcing this clause, they have offered our school a bundling option that would take away the ‘think about what articles to assign’ dilemma in favour of a big subscription fee (based still on usage) that covers all HBSP materials including cases, HBR articles and perhaps other stuff. Yes, they don’t want to audit our reading lists and the like. It is hard to do. They would just like a higher price for an ‘all you can eat’ contract. Reminding us that they can take away HBR articles from our courses is just a demonstration effect.

One has to wonder where this might end. Would HBS require that HBS retain copyright in all of their faculty’s published works so that they can use similar clauses for all publications, not just HBR? Would they justify this on the basis that they pay for faculty salaries? What would the academic world start to look like?

Let me be clear, in my opinion, HBSP is crossing the ‘evil’ line not because it is exploiting earned market power (which it is) but because it is violating a norm in academia so obvious that I didn’t ever have to think much about it before this action by HBSP.

HBS relies on academic norms in its operations. Just this summer I spent two days reviewing the work of an HBS faculty member in my field up for tenure. It was a serious endeavour for which I was not, and did not expect, payment. In the process I was even asked to review that faculty member’s cases and teaching materials including an HBR article as it was instructed to me that this was a positive and important part of their tenure case. So HBS expected me to play the academic game and provide them with employee review services. Academics do that. But they also asked me to go beyond normal research and think about teaching. Fair enough, we are part of a community and I use these teaching materials so I am happy to consider that as part of a contribution as to why someone should keep their job and have it for life. But it was still work.

So where should the line be drawn? HBSP say they can no charge for apparently scholarly materials in teaching. This violates a neutrality norm. So how should we now treat HBS according to our own contributions that are part of norms? Of course, we could stop publishing in HBR or I could not publish my book with HBR Press. But that doesn’t quite sound right to me. The same is true for not engaging with HBS faculty on normal academic activities. I am sure they are not behind this even though I’d like them to be proactive in challenging these practices internally.

Instead, I have a better proposal. HBR is one of the 40 academic and practitioner journals that are used by the Financial Times to rank MBA programs globally. It is the inclusion of HBR with its HBS faculty bias that has meant that HBS has been No.1 ranked in research by that organisation even though we all know, it does not carry that rank in a peer-recognition sense. We should petition the Financial Times to remove HBR from its list. If HBR is considered a teaching material and not an academic or practitioner journal freely available for use by students — directed or otherwise — in the ordinary course of teaching, how could it be that HBS should get credit for providing that material as part of a research mission? The answer is that it should not get that credit. For the Financial Times to claim to students that they should go to HBS because it sources the research they can experience elsewhere is a false claim when academics elsewhere cannot treat that research in a neutral fashion due to a violation of academic norms.

Put simply, if it is research, there should be no cost to an academic for citing and directing students to it. Otherwise, it is not research.

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