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May 18 / scholarscooperative

Elsevier Acquires SSRN

It was announced yesterday that publishing giant Elsevier has purchased the popular open repository Social Science Research Network (SSRN) for an as-yet undisclosed sum, according to an article in Nature. SSRN is well-known as a leading repository for economics, law, the social sciences, and the humanities. Elsevier was quite to provide assurances that it still plans to offer free submissions and downloads through SSRN, though it is unclear if it will retain the policy of offering email subscriptions for a small fee. As reported in Nature, Elsevier is only one of several for-profit publishers that have tried (without much success) to start up their own preprint repositories in the past; it is not a huge surprise that they have now opted to acquire an established repository instead.

This move fits in with Elsevier’s recent attempts to develop interests in nontraditional markets related to scholarly communication and research. It was only a few short years ago that Elsevier purchased the citation management tool/academic social network Mendeley, likely in hopes of competing with sites like ResearchGate and Academia.edu. Joe Esposito, a publishing consultant who has long been critical of academic libraries’ attempts to move into the world of scholarly publishing, viewed the move favorably:

“Elsevier is now getting closer and closer to researchers with business models that don’t involve libraries. The positioning is well thought out: lock up revenues to the legacy publishing business, move into areas where piracy is not much of an issue, create deeper relationships with researchers and become more and more essential to researchers even as librarians become less so.”

This is, it would seem, a comment on the institutional repositories operated by many academic libraries. He also seems to be of the opinion that researchers should be more reliant on large, for-profit publishers instead of libraries and librarians. Never mind the fact that Elsevier has long been regarded as one of the worst offenders when it comes to restrictive publishing policies and price increases for its products. Should we not be worried, then, that they are seeking to control even more of the scholarly publishing market? Libraries in general have been working harder and harder to provide free and open access to scholarly materials, a policy taken up under the broad philosophy that:

  1. Free and open access to scholarship promotes further scholarship and is good for both academia and humanity as a whole
  2. Scholarly authors should have copyright control over their own works

We here at the WSU Library System are no exception to this. Elsevier’s actions are a bit concerning because they have no such philosophy and, in fact, many of their practices are antithetical to the philosophies underpinning free and open access. Their business model relies on acquiring the scholarship produced by researchers, primarily those working at academic institutions, securing the copyright to these works, and then reselling them back to the institutions that have, through their faculty, produced them. It’s not unreasonable to be wary of a large, for-profit publisher taking over an open repository like SSRN, especially when Elsevier has historically (it would seem) made it as hard as possible for authors to deposit to such repositories.

It will be interesting to see if and how the SSRN’s policies change under its new owner, especially with regards to any copyright arrangements that may be put in place. Other large repositories, like arXiv.org, do not require authors to sign over copyright and are dedicated to allowing authors to publish finished articles wherever they wish. According to Paul Ginsparg, one of arXiv’s co-founders:

“I always felt that it was an advantage that arXiv was not aligned with any particular publisher (or any academic ideology for that matter), making it more natural to ingest preprints that could simultaneously go to any publisher.”