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Magazines > Information Today > July/August 2016

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Information Today
Vol. 33 No. 6 — Jul/Aug 2016
FEATURE
Elsevier Buys SSRN: What It Means for Scholarly Publication
By George H. Pike


In 1996, legal historian and University of Pittsburgh law professor Bernard J. Hibbitts wrote a groundbreaking article called “Last Writes? Reassessing the Law Review in the Age of Cyberspace” (law.pitt.edu/archive/ hibbitts/lastrev.htm). It took a historical look at the developments that led to the traditional method of academic publication—the scholarly journal, which Hibbitts dated to 1665. Hibbitts opined that cyberspace was a new avenue that allowed scholars to “escape the straightjacket” of the scholarly journal and publish their works directly online, for the benefit of both fellow scholars and the broader academic and research communities at large.

Hibbitts’ article provided a scholar’s view of the early stages of what has become the open access (OA) movement. The open source software movement was seen as a forerunner or inspiration to OA publishing. At the time Hibbitts’ article was released, some disciplines had made modest steps toward OA publication, particularly of “pre-prints”—a scholar’s drafts and manuscripts as they are being prepared for formal publication. Hibbitts cited File Transfer Protocol efforts in physics and early World Wide Web efforts in biomedical research as evidence of those steps, although the term “open access” was not yet in vogue.

Open Access Models

OA has certainly made great strides in the intervening 20 years—although perhaps not in a way that Hibbitts might have predicted—with the development of a number of different OA models. These models include self-publishing and archiving through institutional or other repositories. The author posts his or her scholarly works and any related materials for free public access on websites that may be sponsored by academic institutions, professional organizations, or government agencies. Publishing via this model is often free for the scholar, but may not provide any level of formal peer review or evaluation, although informal review often takes place as scholars read, comment on, and critique the publications of their colleagues. Another model is OA journals, for which the author pays a fee in return for a more formal level of publishing support, including peer reviews, a publishing infrastructure, and, most importantly, free access by users.

Neither of these models has yet replaced traditional publishing of scholarly journals in both print and online formats. Traditional publishing, undertaken by for-profit and nonprofit entities, has yet to shake off its 350 years of history and remains a significant, although often controversial, player in the dissemination of academic scholarship and research. The controversy is usually based on the pricing model. Publishers will often obtain content at no cost from scholars who are under pressure to “publish or perish.” They will deliver some level of support in finding peer reviewers (who are often unpaid) and will provide some editing. But with many publishers charging users hundreds to thousands of dollars per journal subscription or $20 to $50 (or more) to download an article, scholars and users are complaining that those costs are not justified in a world of OA alternatives.

One such alternative for law, economics, and the social sciences is the Social Science Research Network (SSRN; ssrn.com). SSRN, a for-profit company, provides a venue to publish pre-print and other editions of scholarly works for free and allows users to similarly access this content for free. (Full disclosure: I am an SSRN “author.” My content can be found at papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=338251.) SSRN has more than 2 million registered members and more than 670,000 paper abstracts from 300,000-plus authors. It earns revenue by selling subscriptions to pre-packaged journals containing current and back-issued articles on different topics or themes. Within law and many other disciplines, it has become a favorite venue for pre-print publication, and its download and citation counts are often used to measure the value of an author’s scholarship (at least by some tenure and promotion committees).

In what some are describing as a shocking, but not necessarily unexpected, move, in May 2016, Elsevier, the multinational publishing conglomerate based in the Netherlands, purchased SSRN for an undisclosed price. Compared to recent mergers and consolidations in the publishing industry, the scale of the transaction is small, but the impact could be considerable.

SSRN, Elsevier, and Mendeley

In a press release announcing the purchase, Elsevier indicates that it intends to strengthen the SSRN service by developing it alongside Mendeley (mendeley.com), which it acquired 3 years ago. Mendeley is a free reference manager and collaboration network that allows users to store, access, read, and annotate their research data—not just articles, but references, documents, and notes—all in one location and through multiple devices. Mendeley also allows users to collaborate with other users, share feedback, form working groups, and connect with colleagues throughout the world.

Elsevier’s stated goal with the purchase of SSRN is to enhance the capabilities of both platforms. According to the press release, for Mendeley, “adding SSRN accelerates its social community strategy, brings opportunities for enhanced author relationships, and provides access to a leading resource for content.” Gregg Gordon, president and CEO of SSRN, indicates that through Mendeley, SSRN “will be able to offer broader services that more deeply integrate into the workflows of all parties in the social network of science.” Gordon also goes on to assure SSRN’s authors and users that the service will continue its “core mission of providing researchers with free submissions and free downloads.”

In a blog post, Gordon outlines additional benefits expected from the Elsevier merger. SSRN anticipates being able to invest in a new and more efficient interface, featuring Mendeley’s drop-in reference manager; to obtain access to Scopus citation data from Elsevier; and to provide links from SSRN working papers to published versions. Mendeley and Elsevier will benefit from SSRN’s extensive author relationships and academic customer base. In the longer term, Gordon expects SSRN to migrate to Mendeley’s technology platform as a separate community and obtain other potential synergies through access to Elsevier’s “broader collection of metrics and data analytics.”

Similar to many large companies, Elsevier generates—rightly or wrongly—criticism and controversy over its practices as much as it generates praise for its products. Many criticisms are about its pricing policies, with subscriptions for some journals running several thousand dollars per year, based on research that is often publicly funded through grants from federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation (NSF). A recent NSF study says that more than $130 billion in federal money is spent annually on R&D, much of it in the form of grants that lead to published and peer-reviewed research. Elsevier has also received criticism for overly aggressive copyright enforcement, which is often targeted at Elsevier-published authors who post their papers on institutional or personal websites.

More broadly, Elsevier has been seen by its critics as an “enemy of open access” because of these and other practices. Consequently, its purchase of SSRN has raised concern about its intentions for the “freemium” OA platform. Law professor and blogger Paul Gowder notes a fair amount of wiggle room in the Elsevier press release, citing language that says, “SSRN content will be largely unaffected” and that Elsevier will help “researchers share post submission versions of their work responsibly” (emphasis is Gowder’s). In an article for BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow says the purchase is “like if Monsanto bought out your favorite organic farm co-op.” Nature describes the issue in more measured terms, indicating that legal and economics scholars have somewhat less concern about journal pricing and noting that past efforts by for-profits to establish pre-print servers have not been successful.

Morphing Business Strategy

An alternative view is that with the acquisition of SSRN, similar to its purchase of Mendeley, Elsevier is adapting to the shifting tides of academic and scholarly publishing, as well as recognizing that the value of such acquisitions may not be just in the content they provide, but also in the data they generate. The Nature article says that the purchase “exemplifies the morphing business strategy” of Elsevier to “attract more academics to its sites by providing services” beyond its legacy publications. Expanding on that point, Nature quoted industry consultant Joe Esposito, who describes the purchase as a “well thought out” strategy to “create deeper relationships with researchers and become more and more essential to researchers even as librarians become less so.”

Simba Information describes the deal as one that “portray[s] the underlying shifts that are changing the [scholarly publishing] industry.” Through the purchase, Elsevier gets access to SSRN’s membership and authors.

This access supports the other theory about what might be behind SSRN’s purchase and its value to Elsevier: data. With thousands of papers generating millions of downloads and likely billions of page views, SSRN is a data machine that has become a major force in the social science field. In the legal scholarship arena, with which I am most familiar, SSRN download and citation rates have become a significant, if not prominent, measure of scholarly impact. This data also offers the opportunity to go beyond an individual scholar’s impact to look more broadly at research and scholarly trends within the various disciplines.

Writing on the anthropology blog Savage Minds, University of California–Los Angeles information studies and anthropology professor Christopher Kelty goes so far as to say he doesn’t think Elsevier “cares about the papers” that SSRN published; its value is in the data. That data, which Kelty describes as “not terribly sophisticated stuff,” nonetheless represents the “world of social science scholarship reasonably well.” It’s valuable to Elsevier, he writes, because it’s valuable to the academic community and represents a wider data- set in the social sciences arena than “any single journal, or any publisher’s data, (even Elsevier …).”

SSRN is not the only OA freemium preprint server out there. arXiv (arxiv.org), a physics platform that Hibbitts wrote about 20 years ago, is still in existence and covers physics, math, computer sciences, and statistics. Other disciplines have made similar efforts—some more successful than others. However, 20 years after the arrival of the World Wide Web was supposed to have revolutionized scholarly publication, there remains a significant commercially driven scholarly journal publishing infrastructure for the dissemination of scholarship. It’s true that citation and download counts from SSRN and other preprint servers have become an important factor in judging the impact of a scholar’s work. They can play an even more prominent role in a scholar’s work by allowing working papers to be shared for critique and comment, and they can facilitate the underlying scholarly research through access to colleagues and their content. But in the end, it is peer-reviewed publication in a traditional scholarly journal that still reigns supreme.

Publish or Perish

This is mostly because the publish or perish model for academic tenure and promotion similarly reigns supreme. Peer review is a large part of the scholarly journal’s process in determining the publishable quality of paper submissions. The reputation and merit of the journal itself are significant factors in promotion and tenure reviews of a scholar’s publications. As Hibbitts observed, the scholarly journal has been around for more than 350 years, largely sustained by its critical role as the “publish” part of publish or perish.

Until that model breaks down, there will be a continuing role, however criticized or controversial, for scholarly journals published by Elsevier and others. But Elsevier’s purchase of SSRN shows that OA publishing platforms have gained more than a foothold in the universe of scholarly publication and will continue to play a role of growing importance. The next 350 years could be very interesting.

George H. Pike is the director of the Pritzker Legal Research Center at Northwestern University School of Law.
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