8 May 2021

Fall by Andrew Preston

Robert Maxwell is not a person that is well known these days but readers of a certain age will remember his relentless presence in the media until his death in 1991. This is a fascinating and compelling insight into the man. You would be hard-pressed to describe him as likeable. He is now best remembered as the owner of the Daily Mirror who was a criminal, stealing the pension fund as he tried to prop up his failing empire, and condemning many people to financial hardship and despair. As a media mogul he makes Rupert Murdoch look like a pillar of moral rectitude.

Maxwell was born into grinding poverty, fought in the Second World War, was a Labour MP, a spy, a billionaire entrepreneur, a raging egomaniac, and destined to die in mysterious circumstances on the brink of the collapse of his business. His youngest daughter, his unabashed favourite, is Ghislaine Maxwell. You may have heard of her.

I hadn’t known Maxwell had been an MP and been awarded a Military Cross. I certainly didn’t know he was alleged to have been involved in the extra-judicial execution of a German civilian. Preston also describes an episode where Maxwell, who was by then an officer, machine-gunned German soldiers after they surrendered, describing how the British soldiers grumbled it wasn’t fair.

Maxwell had a major role in the post-war development of scientific publishing. According to this biography he recognised the potential to monetise what was essentially free — knowledge. Many would argue that is still going on with large corporations profiting from the work of academics while restricting access to that same research with paywalls. Maxwell became the UK and US distributor for Springer-Verlag and his fortune was built on the company Pergamon Press (which had started life as Butterworth-Springer). In 1991 Elsevier bought Pergamon and it continues as an imprint.

Elsevier is incredibly profitable with annual operating profits approaching £1 billion in recent years. And much of those profits, though not all, are built on publicly-funded research. This Guardian Long Read covers in some detail the background to Maxwell’s publishing business, his recognition of the opportunities, and the ongoing challenges faced by scientific publishing. Meanwhile, Elsevier continues to print money science.

Scribbles Books

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May 2021 Reading List I have already written about Maxwell in Fall’s book and it is a highlight of this month. There’s not a dud here and I’d happily recommend them all.