By Kevin Smith

In the last couple of weeks, there have been several developments in the scholarly communication world that all point in the same direction – the move by the major commercial publishers to tighten their grip on access to and share of academic work, as well as a concern to capture data about how scholarship is shared.  Call this last part the commodification of the professoriate.

My attention was first drawn to these developments by a tweet that pointed to Wiley’s “Article Sharing Policy” site — with its handy-dandy sharing guidelines chart — and asked if Wiley really was asserting control over the pre-peer review copy of scholarly manuscripts.  Before I proceed, I think it is important to explain why the answer to that question is yes.

When copyright is transferred to a publisher, that copyright is in the content of the work, not in any particular version.  Minor changes between versions, and even some changes that are more extensive, do not change the fact; the publisher gains the rights over any versions of the work that are “substantially similar” (which is the standard courts use to determine when one work infringes on another).  So, after the transfer of copyright, the publisher can, and most do, tell authors what they can and cannot do even with the “pre-print” version of an article.  In that regard, Wiley’s chart is not much different from many other publication contracts, which often parse the rights that are given back to authors in terms of the different versions.  They can do this because they control the copyright in the content, and hence in all the different versions of that content.

Even before copyright is transferred, in fact, Wiley still has some level of control, since they could, if they wished, assert that putting an article in a pre-print repository was a prior publication.  By long tradition, publishers insist that they will not publish previously published work, and authors warrant that the articles they submit have not previously appeared.  So Wiley could, if they chose, use a pre-print version in a repository to decline publication; thus their assertion of control even before submission has, unfortunately, some justification under the present system.

In some ways, Wiley strikes me as the worst actor in this rush to tighten the publishing stranglehold on scholarly collaboration, but they are not alone.  Their policy references these STM Publishers Association “Principles for article sharing on scholarly collaboration networks,” which show a strong movement to coordinate publisher policy on how articles can be made available to students, colleagues, and the general public.  Call this the co-opting of open access.

These principles are introduced in a blog post on the Scholarly Kitchen site called “Content Sharing Made Simple.”  The title is somewhat ironic to me, because scholarly sharing should be simple.  It is only complicated by the various restrictions imposed on authors by publishers who are desperate to make ever-greater profits from the free labor of academics.  They have created the mishmash of different and often contradictory rules about open access, classroom use, and collaboration that have plagued us for years.  Now that they are beginning to discover “the burgeoning Internet” as a new source of revenue, these so-called “collaborative approach[es]” are really about tightening their grip over every possible purpose an author could have for her work, and making sure that they serve that revenue stream.  After years of simply denying the role of the Internet, publishers now desperately want to control it.

The news that Elsevier has acquired the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) is another wrinkle in this ongoing quest for control.  The same five or six major publishers who dominate the market for scholarly journals are engaged in a race to capture the terms of and platforms for scholarly sharing.  This is a serious threat to academic freedom, which has largely gone unnoticed by the champions of that important value.  Where does the AAUP stand on these principles and acquisitions?  How can we help our scholarly authors maintain freedom of inquiry in the light of this tightening grip over their rights and venues?  It is interesting, I think, that there appears to have been no scholarly authors involved in the development of the STM principles, and certainly none were consulted when Elsevier was buying SSRN.  These moves are threats to the foundational values of the academy and should be addressed as such by institutions and academic organizations.

With the purchase of SSRN, about which there will be more commentary on this site shortly, one other trend is noteworthy.  This acquisition offers Elsevier access to a commodity even more valuable, perhaps, than scholarly articles – data about the behavior of scholars.  There is an old saying about Google that users are not their customers, they are Google’s product.  The data that Google gathers about search patterns and interests is the real value of the company.  Now Elsevier seems to be planning to cash in on that same type of data about how academics behave.  Many of us have been concerned about the commodification of higher education in the so-called neoliberal university.  It is also time to raise the alarm about the commodification of our faculty in this potential dystopia where publishing giants control every aspect of research, collaboration, and sharing.


Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith is a librarian, a lawyer focusing on copyright issues, a scholarly communications advocate, and the Dean of Libraries at the University of Kansas.

Comments (7)

  1. Moving to a system where more revenue is generated from providing services improves author choice and helps build a healthier scholarly ecosystem, because services have to compete for users. That’s different from the situation where you sell content that’s unavailable elsewhere. Different economics are in play and that’s very good news for researchers as well as publishers, which almost every other take on this new direction for Elsevier has realized. See the coverage in Nature News, the Chronicle, etc and this from Ian Mulvany, formerly of Mendeley:

  2. These trends have been observable for some time, but it has taken some more visible developments like the SSRN purchase to wake more people up to what has been going on. The people running Elsevier, Wiley, etc. are very smart and have been planning for the day when copyright control no longer is the key wedge into the scholarly communication system. Because these big publishers have far more capital to spend than any university does, they are always going to be ahead of the curve in developing new technologies and the services based on them. So, those who once dreamed of “taking back the copyrights” now have to seriously consider how they will cope with “taking back the services.” My guess is that the large commercial firms will always be one step ahead of where academe is. Not surprising in a capitalist society that rewards innovation.

    1. Sandy, the point I’m trying to get out there is that when it comes to services, there can be a much more competitive market and “taking back the services” is simply a case of building a competing service. This is not the case with content – it’s exclusive – so those of us devoted to moving scholarly communication forward need to learn a whole new vocabulary to discuss this. The same arguments and rhetoric that apply to content don’t apply when it comes to services. Cameron Neylon has a few posts up about this, but perhaps a good place to start is by defining what we mean by infrastructure. I would argue, contra Mike Taylor, that neither Mendeley nor SSRN are infrastructure. They are the shops off the exits, not the roads themselves. Another type of infrastructure is plumbing, but no one is up in arms about the huge Coca-Cola Corp filtering, distributing, bottling, and selling the stuff that flows through those pipes for massive markups. To put a fine point on it, the Internet is infrastructure. Neither Facebook, nor Google, nor Mendeley, nor SSRN are infrastructure. Neither are IRs. We need to develop the vocabulary to discuss the real issues in a service economy and not try to apply content industry concepts to a service economy. If just doesn’t work.

      As a starting point, how acceptable do you find my conceptualization of infrastructure?

      1. If you are talking about infrastructure at the basic computing level, you have a problem in “taking back the services” because universities use different computing systems and there is not a lot of uniformity across them that could provide a basis for services, broadly speaking. And even within universities there are problems of mismatch. Just to give one example, at Penn State Press we needed to run an order-fulfillment operation online, but the University’s IT department was not equipped to support it, and we had to do it on our own, even being compelled to use a different domain name than the university’s own (“org” instead of “edu”). If universities can’t even get their services on the same page internally, imagine the challenges of doing it across university infrastructures?

        1. “If universities can’t even get their services on the same page internally, imagine the challenges of doing it across university infrastructures?”

          If universities can’t even get their services on the same page internally, can we realistically expect them to provide a functional service nationwide? How many millions have been sunk into VIVO, for example?

  3. Thank you, Kevin. That was very necessary, and extremely well said. It’s made me realise that one of the great failings of our research funding bodies is that they have systematically failed to fund the development of community-owned infrastructure. Now we’re seeing the fruits of that policy, in the acquisition of independently created infrastructure elements such as Mendeley and SSRN. If Elsevier and co. can control the whole of scholarly publishing, they will; it’s in their nature.

  4. […] post earlier in the week on an Elsevier IR pilot at the University of Florida; and Kevin Smith’s post on the SSRN sale) and calling it out exactly for what it is—an attempt to broaden the control […]

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