On 17 May, SSRN the open access academic research repository, announced that it had ‘joined’ publishing giant Elsevier. Academics use the repository as a free means of disseminating their research, by uploading a work in progress or a pre-publication paper. This is good for academics who derive exposure for their work, but also for the public that can access scholarly publications for no cost.
The acquisition raises some serious questions for academics who are member of the SSRN community. Will Elsevier’s acquisition harm academics’ quest for true open access to research? And, it is right for a corporation to profit from the labour and metadata of academics and users of the otherwise free platform?
Together, SSRN and Mendeley [another formerly independent academic platform] can provide greater access to the growing base of user-generated content, build new informational and analytical tools and increase engagement with a broader set of researchers
In his post announcing the acquisition, Gregg Gordon spelled out the benefits of the union. It will, he says:
- enhance development resources
- remain free to submit and download
- enhance author relationships via Mendeley
- allow SSRN to migrate to the Mendeley platform
Note that the Mendeley platform ‘uses metadata from articles and usage on its site to develop a suite of analytic tools that directs researchers towards the best people to collaborate with and what to read.’ That is, it collects user data that can be transformed into a tool for sale.
A similar strategy is already underway with academic repository Academia.edu (described as a ‘social networking platform for researchers‘). Academics, encouraged by the free service and the promise of exposure for their research, upload their work (as they do with SSRN). The platform does not charge academics but it gains from their involvement through harvesting their data – giving valuable information about search terms, activity and connections. This data can be used to create software that can be sold to institutions that wish to track research engagement. Authors have been urged to ‘think seriously about its business model and consider other options.’
Interestingly, a couple of years ago Elsevier issued hundreds of take-down orders a day, for its publications that appeared on Academia.edu. Perhaps it is better to join them than try to beat them.
Paul Maharg has posted a comprehensive criticism of the Elsevier acquisition, urging members of the SSRN community to delete their accounts. He argues, convincingly, that this is predatory behaviour, and anathema to open access. Researchers, he says, should fight it by leaving. Comments on his post and on Gordon’s post seem to indicate that there is support for this course of action. Elsevier, it seems, is not a universally popular player in the academy.
I agree with Maharg’s philosophical position. In my view, publishers have not put a decent case for the exorbitant costs of their product. Student texts are so expensive as to inhibit access to information. The cost of proprietary journals is putting institutional libraries under huge strain. This is particularly egregious when you realise that universities fund the labour that produces the content and the profits go to the publishers.
And at this point, I vacillate… Maharg is correct to identify the neoliberal metricisation of academic work as a problem. He says
Elsevier is using the profits from the vast datasets granted to them at huge and ongoing cost by the academic community to construct tools, aka research intelligence, that will enable research managers to monitor the output and quality of academic research.
But it is the universities that buy these tools. Universities will drive the market for developing such tools – hand in glove with the corporations. I wonder if we can stem the tide simply through a boycott of SSRN in its new corporate livery, without engaging critically with the universities themselves.
In attempting to move beyond the disastrous ERA journal ‘quality’ ranking system, academics who are active online have been educating university management about online engagement as a valid alternative. Despite being conscious of the dangers of playing into the obsession with measurement, institutional temptation is too great and what we once saw as digital liberation from the strictures of the analogue publication metrics system will now track our every mouse click.
Pragmatically, can the contemporary academic afford to reject free online repositories? Now that universities are playing the online metrics game, many of us are obliged to upload to SSRN. Further, it is a genuinely free, public source of scholarship. I do not know if this free service will stop – certainly the comments on Gordon’s blog post indicate that it will not. He says that pre-prints will always be free because they are pre-prints.
In terms of the digital tracking that is one of Maharg’s objections, I don’t know how to avoid this. Our patterns of internet use are already tracked – by google, by our employers, by the government… Our blog traffic is monitored by WordPress. Our twitter feed is monitored. Facebook, LinkedIn, Fitbits, Apple – they all profit from our metadata. I do not think we can go online without leaving a digital footprint (unless you are very clever).
So we make choices each day to give up something of ourselves to capitalism for no return. That part of us is packaged and sold, and we buy it back. The SSRN scenario that Marharg identifies applies to almost everything we do every day. You can like or dislike Elsevier as a corporation, but it’s just one of many that use us as their product.
So if my data is already out there for someone else’s profit, and if my institution requires me to measure my research engagement, and if I can disseminate my research for no cost to a broad public audience, then do I have a basis for deleting my SSRN account? Is there a more effective way to fight for true open access?
It’s time to do some serious thinking. Should we stay? Or should we go?