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Jul 19 / Clayton Hayes

SSRN Begins Removing Papers Over “Copyright Concerns”

In May of this year, academic publishing giant Elsevier acquired the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN), an extremely popular Open Access (OA) repository for the social sciences, economics, law, and the humanities. I wrote then about some concerns I had with Elsevier, historically a profit-oriented and anti-OA company, operating a popular OA platform. It seems that, almost exactly two months in, we have caught our first glimpses of just how well-founded these concerns were:

Howard Wasserman, a professor of law at Florida International University, posted on the site Prawfs Blawg about an email that had gone out to a ListServ for law professors. In it, Stephen Henderson (a law professor at the University of Oklahoma) detailed a recent experience he had had with SSRN in which the site had, completely unannounced, taken down the PDF of a paper he and his co-author had posted to the site. Despite the fact that the authors had retained copyright to the article, and that their contract included explicit permission to post the article to SSRN, they received this message as a comment on SSRN’s back end:

It appears that you do not retain copyright to the paper, and the PDF has been removed from public view. Please provide us with the copyright holder’s written permission to post. Alternatively, you may replace this version with a working paper or preprint version, if you so desire.

From the rest of Henderson’s discussion with SSRN, and from comments on the blog post linked above, we can gather the following pieces of information:

SSRN has begun taking down full-text postprint or published versions of articles if they were not provided with explicit proof of permission from the copyright holder. This is being done more or less without warning to the authors. When attorney and academic Andrew Selbst asked about the policy, SSRN stated that they had not previously (i.e., pre-Elsevier) been enforcing their copyright policy correctly. This is in stark contrast to how almost all other academic repositories function, relying on submitting authors to do their due diligence in determining which version of their article they may archive, if any.

This isn’t exactly surprising coming from Elsevier, though. It famously served Academia.edu with thousands of takedown notices and adjusted the sharing policies of its journals to specifically prevent authors from posting the published versions of their articles to sites like Academia.edu and ResearchGate. Those social/academic sites have their own issues, of course, which I’ve talked about on this blog before, but it still establishes a pattern of behavior on the part of Elsevier: it does not seem to trust academics to be responsible for their own work. Everything they have done, in fact, indicates that it does not seem to think that academics should be responsible for their own work.

In the case of SSRN, we see the ideology of Elsevier (a commercial entity and chiefly concerned with its profit) clashing with the ideology of an OA repository (which exists to serve the needs of authors and of scholarship as a whole). Securing copyright permissions for all of the articles on SSRN is so essential in the eyes of Elsevier because it is a commercial concern: if there is no copyright agreement for an article, then the article’s publisher may not be getting its money’s worth for that article as a result. This is so important in their eyes that, without any warning, they have opted to remove the full-text version of any article for which no agreement was provided. Even if the authors provide a copyright agreement in the future, any download counts for those articles will have been eliminated, a fact which is of genuine concern for faculty (especially non-tenured faculty) members working in subject areas which view SSRN as a primary space for tracking scholarly output.

Perhaps this is just a bump in the road, so to speak, and the relationship between SSRN, Elsevier, and scholars will smooth as time goes on. It has only been a few months, after all. Some scholars are not so patient, however, and (perhaps prophetically) it was announced two weeks ago that SocArXiv, a new open platform for social science research, is in development and will soon be providing the kind of author-focused service that scholars had seen in SSRN before the Elsevier takeover.