By Brandon Butler - Ellen C. Ramsey

Elsevier is a massive, for-profit publisher headquartered in Amsterdam. They make a lot of money aggregating faculty work product for cheap and selling it back to universities at a huge markup. Their mission is to maximize shareholder value and profit.

Elsevier just bought SSRN, a widely used repository of social science research articles, especially preprints. A lot of smart people, including Kevin Smith on this blog, have weighed in on this development. SSRN users aware of Elsevier’s profits-first practices are nervous. The excellent Authors Alliance has put together a list of principles they believe SSRN must adhere to in order to maintain the trust of the authors who post work there. One of our favorite takes, Christopher Kelty’s blog post here, explains why Elsevier probably bought SSRN, and why we should be nervous. The acquisition is probably not so much about the individual papers as it is about possession of a trove of research for data mining about scholarship. Possession may be 9/10ths of the law, but it’s 10/10ths of data mining. If you don’t have the data, you can’t do the mining. Now Elsevier’s got the data, and the academy will get to use it only on Elsevier’s terms.

What’s the path forward, in the long run, if we take this concern seriously? If you’re an author with the ability to post your work freely in places like SSRN, and you’re thinking of jumping ship, where should you go?

The first step to recovery, as is so often the case, is to stop hurting ourselves.

Some of SSRN’s users are asking, not unreasonably, “What should we build now to replace SSRN?” This is a natural question, but we think it’s misconceived if it leads to a bespoke fix that might well repeat the weaknesses and limitations of SSRN.

Thankfully no one has suggested publicly that Academia.edu or ResearchGate are viable alternatives for the SSRN community. This points to the growing awareness by scholarly authors like Ian Mulvaney that these publicly listed concerns are likely next on the block for consolidation and purchase. He seems to agree with Kelty that the motivation behind this merger-mania is really to commoditize (data about) the researcher.

Many of us in the Library world have looked to discipline-specific repositories as a potential ally in mission-driven openness. When discipline-specific commons are supported by universities and disciplinary communities (like arXiv), they can be equal or superior to institution-specific commons, especially for early review and collaboration. When they aren’t (like SSRN, or BEPress), ownership and sharing rights to their contents can never be assured. However, the arXiv model only really works for content outside of the commodification stream. Physicists are quick to point out that no one is lining up to buy their pre-prints, so arXiv continues unhindered. In other disciplines, preprints have not gotten a strong toehold (biology’s nascent bioArXiv and ASAPBio efforts), or aggregation of scholarship only happens at the citation level (PubMed) or not at all.

If we want dependable access to papers and the promise of open access to a huge, aggregate trove of papers that could support powerful research about research, the better option is to look to existing, university-owned infrastructure. Institutional repositories are becoming ubiquitous in the US and are already supporting sustainable, mission-driven alternatives that can easily provide one of the core services SSRN provided – easy, open access to research. In time, they will also be able to provide its other core service: good aggregate data about access, re-use, “impact,” and much more. And, crucially, the academy, collectively, will have possession of this trove, and we can make it available for scholarly uses beyond one-at-a-time upload or download, including testing, refining, and forking tools to crawl the scholarly record and learn more about research.

We sometimes jokingly refer to our institution’s repository as a “repository of last resort” since the only criteria for deposit are 1) you have rights to share your work, and 2) you created the scholarly work as a member of our institutional community. It would be much better, though, if we and our users considered the IR the first place they put their papers. Even if you do deposit your work elsewhere, as long as the work is in an academic repository, rather than a proprietary vault like SSRN, we can harness the Internet and open linking to add your paper locally without a separate deposit. Libraries are pretty good at protecting stuff long term, too–the very first content at UVA to go into the Academic Preservation Trust long-term preservation environment was the entire Libra institutional repository.

Most importantly, the wide cross-section of institutions collaborating on the Association for Research Libraries’ SHARE initiative understand it is about the Data, Stupid, and not just research data, but data about research. Academic institutional and discipline-specific repositories are not competing with each other when they are the building blocks of a “free, open, data set about research and scholarly activities.”  When these players are connected and preserved through research library-driven efforts like SHARE and APTrust, conflicts of interest about who owns scholarship fade from view.

This isn’t a zero-sum game. We agree with Mulvaney that all of the people we’ve met who work at Elsevier (like, um, Ellen’s husband!) are good people with researchers’ interests at heart. By all means, Elsevier should develop services that help researchers and institutions meet our missions. But something as crucial as collecting, preserving, and studying the scholarly record cannot be left to private interests alone. Research libraries are building a network of repositories owned by the academy, preserved for the academy, and accessible to the academy on terms consistent with the core values of scholarly inquiry. Depositing your papers with us is your best insurance policy against (another) for-profit monopoly on the scholarly record.

Comments (10)

  1. Thank you. We have planted a small flag at socarxiv.org (@socarxiv), and hope to build an eprint server that may also include post-publication peer review, as well as integration with Open Science Framework and SHARE.

    1. Thanks, Philip. Another flag is being planted by OSF for a pre-print structure: https://osf.io/preprints/

      1. Yes. I’m working with COS to link these up. Stay tuned!

  2. Institutional repositories might be a more viable option, as Stevan Harnad has long argued, if they would do a better job of making their contents easily discoverable. I have over 80 articles deposited at Penn State’s IR, but recently learned that it does not provide the kind of metadata that would get these articles included in Google Scholar. As I noted on the Scholcom list, my most recent article shows up on Google Scholar as available through the publisher, the University or Toronto Press, or through Project Muse, but not at the Penn State IR where the Green OA version resides.

    1. That’s absolutely fair, Sandy. IRs have got to step up and provide these services if they want to attract deposits. (But requiring deposit, as I think you mentioned in your comment on Kevin’s post, would be nice, too.)

      -Brandon

    2. True, Sandy, especially of the current crop of repositories. Improved discoverability is very top of the list for many of us building the next generation of IRs. SHARE, CrossRef, ORCID, etc are helping, but we haven’t made it as easy as it needs to be (yet).

  3. Good overview, ideas and links here. But there’s a critical point missing. Researchers don’t use their IRs unless they get something more out of it than preservation. At most institutions, it’s like pulling teeth to get faculty to self-deposit, because IRs don’t provide the tools that faculty care about. Researchers use ssrn because of the discipline-specific communication and other social aspects and because they get metrics — crappy ones like # of downloads, but still metrics they can use in their annual reviews and tenure processes.

    That’s why libraries need to participate in the building of a new public, non-profit, OA ssrn-like site — a new and improved ssrn if you will — one with the ease of upload, sharing and metrics that researchers want and need (the scholarly communication aspects), but that automatically deposits into a researcher’s IR via shibboleth or other Web authentication for long term preservation, description of scholarly output and access that libraries care about. There’s infrastructure out there to make this happen (e.g. the Share project (http://www.share-research.org) gets at the IR metadata aggregation piece), but it’s not enough.

    Where’s the venue for librarians and faculty to start that conversation? I feel like this new and improved “ssrn” needs to happen now while academia is all in a lather about it.

  4. Here at the MLA, we’re working on integrating our own still nascent repository (Humanities CORE, which is modeled on and in partnership with Columbia’s Academic Commons and guarantees the same robust commitment to digital preservation provided by that institution) with institutional repositories across the US and Canada. To this end, we have joined SHARE and are actively investigating ways to allow deposits made by an MLA member—whether to their IR or to CORE—to be automatically reflected in the other repository. We are very keen to be part of conversations with libraries and other scholarly organizations around preserving the scholarly record, improving the provision of metrics, and doing so in an open source, not-for-profit, and collaborative way.

  5. […] charged discussion around Elsevier’s purchase of SSRN continued in the past week, Elsevier and the University of Florida (UF) announced a pilot that […]

  6. […] conversation surrounding commercial services (i.e., ResearchGate, Academia.edu, Mendeley) and the companies that own them, managing the scholarly profiles and content of researchers. While ResearchGate promotes a mission […]

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