Sinister Moves by Elsevier

I’ve been away at yet another Awayday today so only have time for a brief post before I go home and vegetate. I felt obliged, however, to draw the attention of my readership to the fact that there’s something sinister afoot in the world of academic publishing. It seems that the notoriously exploitative academic publishing company Elsevier has acquired the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), which is  the leading social science and humanities repository and online community. The SSRN currently allows readers free access more than 500,000 academic papers for free but that is highly likely to change under Elsevier whose previous practice has always been to squeeze the academic community for every penny it can get. In particular, Elsevier has a reputation for cracking down on academic papers for which it owns licences, so these recent acquisitions look like very bad news.

The Chairman of SSRN is  trying to present this as a positive move:

SSRN announced today that it has changed ownership. SSRN is joining Mendeley and Elsevier to coordinate our development and delivery of new products and services, and we look forward to our new access to data, products, and additional resources that this change facilitates.

Like SSRN, Mendeley and Elsevier are focused on creating tools that enhance researcher workflow and productivity. SSRN has been at the forefront of on-line sharing of working papers. We are committed to continue our innovation and this change will enable that to happen more quickly. SSRN will benefit from access to the vast new data and resources available, including Mendeley’s reference management and personal library management tools, their new researcher profile capabilities, and social networking features. Importantly, we will also have new access for SSRN members to authoritative performance measurement tools such as those powered by Scopus and Newsflo (a global media tracking tool). In addition, SSRN, Mendeley and Elsevier together can cooperatively build bridges to close the divide between the previously separate worlds and workflows of working papers and published papers.

We realize that this change may create some concerns about the intentions of a legacy publisher acquiring an open-access working paper repository. I shared this concern. But after much discussion about this matter and others in determining if Mendeley and Elsevier would be a good home for SSRN, I am convinced that they would be good stewards of our mission. And our copyright policies are not in conflict — our policy has always been to host only papers that do not infringe on copyrights. I expect we will have some conflicts as we align our interests, but I believe those will be surmountable.

Until recently I was convinced that the SSRN community was best served being a stand-alone entity. But in evaluating our future in the evolving landscape, I came to believe that SSRN would benefit from being more interconnected and with the resources available from a larger organization. For example, there is scale in systems administration and security, and SSRN can provide more value to users with access to more data and resources.

On a personal note, it has been an honor to be involved over the past 25 years in the founding and growth of the SSRN website and the incredible community of authors, researchers and institutions that has made this all possible. I consider it one of my great accomplishments in life. The community would not have been successful without the commitment of so many of you who have contributed in so many ways. I am proud of the community we have created, and I invite you to continue your involvement and support in this effort.

The staff at SSRN are all staying (including Gregg Gordon, CEO and myself), the Rochester office is still in place, it will still be free to upload and download papers, and we remain committed to “Tomorrow’s Research Today”. I look forward to and am committed to a successful transition and to another great 25 years for the SSRN community that rivals the first.

Michael C. Jensen
Founder & Chairman, SSRN

It sounds like they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse…

I don’t think Elsevier’s involvement in this is likely to prove beneficial to anything other than their own profits. Elsevier is one of the biggest problems in academic publishing and can  never be part of the solution.

My main concern, however,  is  that some day Elsevier might launch a hostile takeover bid for the arXiv, which would be a major setback to the physics community’s efforts to promote the free exchange of scientific papers. That must be resisted at all costs. How did the academic community allow its publishing culture to be hijacked by such companies?





18 Responses to “Sinister Moves by Elsevier”

  1. A take-over of arXiv would be disastrous because most of us have handed them our papers under the “arXiv license”, which is not liberal at all ( ).

    We should be uploading our papers under a license that would allow anyone to clone arXiv if it ever gets taken over (or runs into other trouble). This is easy because arXiv already supports Creative Commons licenses ( ), but I suspect nobody’s using them because it’s not the default option! How do we change that?

    • telescoper Says:

      Good point. We want people to do that when they submit to the Open Journal…

      • When can we expect to see something at the OJA?

      • “When can we expect to see something at the OJA?”

        Maybe it’s a bug, but there is an accepted paper visible. One accepted paper; I thought that you wanted to wait until there were a bunch of papers before making them visible. As such, and again assuming that it is not a software bug, I’m surprised that there was no announcement.

        I don’t see a way to comment on the article there, so I’ll do so here: it would be nice if things which are merely labels, and not variables or symbols like G, were set in Roman type. 🙂

        It would be nice to have a link to the paper at arXiv (the identifier is visible, but there is no direct link, at least not in the two browsers I have tried so far) and also an indication as to which archive version was accepted by the OJA. (It says “v2”, but it is not clear that the accepted version, and not the highest version, is displayed, nor whether there is a way to toggle at the OJA (as opposed to at arXiv).) Similarly, a link from the arXiv “abstract” back to the OJA would be nice.

        It’s nice that the first paper (if, indeed, this is the first paper) is on one of my favourite topics: the dynamical-systems approach to cosmology. Many of the big names have worked on this, and the literature is readily available, but it is rarely covered in introductory courses or books, which is perhaps one reason why even many cosmologists are not much aware of it.

      • No info on the OJA? Stealth marketing?

    • On the other hand, some of the creative-commons licenses (as opposed to creative common licenses) allow commercial use, which might not be what one wants if a commercial outfit takes over arXiv.

      On the other hand, arXiv has a tradition of bypassing the journals (in some cases, too strongly, in my view), so I doubt that there could be interest on the part of arXiv to be taken over, and I can’t imagine any realistic situation in which Cornell would be forced to allow a takeover.

      • My objection to some of the Creative Commons licenses (the restrictive flavors) would be that they are not liberal enough. Shouldn’t works that were paid for with public money be in the public domain, period, without any restrictions?

        We don’t have to prevent companies from finding commercial uses for public resources — I’d say we merely have to stop them from getting the exclusive ownership. Getting arXiv to adopt a default license that is more liberal would help us there.

      • “Shouldn’t works that were paid for with public money be in the public domain, period, without any restrictions?”

        First, not all scientific articles are paid for with public money. Many are at least partially paid for with private money.

        “We don’t have to prevent companies from finding commercial uses for public resources — I’d say we merely have to stop them from getting the exclusive ownership.”

        I’m not so sure. Consider the Google-Groups interface to usenet. (However, most usenet articles are not technically in the public domain—this is something legally quite distinct from being publicly and/or freely available.) While it might have some advantages, it has some disadvantages as well. Also, it seems intentionally designed to make it look like every newsgroups is a “Google Group”, i.e. it’s not really completely honest. It also seems to be intentionally crippled to force people into using Google as an interface, rather than a proper newsreader.

        To get back to Robert Plant, it’s sort of like the old blues players discovering that Led Zeppelin made millions of pounds (not to mention thousands of groupies) essentially by ripping them off. (In cases where copyright had expired, it might not even be illegal, though it is still not a nice thing to do.) In both cases, one can talk about added value, but one can also talk about doing the right thing.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’ve long been concerned that the ArXiv appears to be a single entity located in one place and with ownership that is not fully clear to me.

    In the old days, printed journals were distributed and stored across libraries worldwide. The information held in them, being widely distributed, was not particularly vulnerable to natural or man-made disasters. Some libraries could be lost to fires or wars, but most others would survive. The data within the Astrophysics Data System exists in a number of mirror sites, and is consequently invulnerable to the loss of individual sites. I do not know how vulnerable the ArXiv data are to accidents, or whether there are mirror sites.

    The ArXiv appears to be owned by Cornell University Library. The ArXiv has member organisations, but it is not clear whether any of these members could veto any sale.

    • There are mirror sites, but far fewer than there used to be. They say they are closing them down because they are hard to maintain.

      They apparently also store all arxiv content on Amazon S3, though you have to pay the bandwidth cost if you want to download anything from there.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Thanks for that. So there are some mirror sites still: I wasn’t aware of them. So the ArXiv data are distributed geographically with multiple copies, a very good thing.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    The physics/maths community needs to set up, in cooperation with the arXiv, several mirror sites which are legally separate entities. Then if a scientific publisher makes an offer that one site doesn’t (it’s not ‘can’t’) refuse, another can just become the arXiv. This will cost money, but should be thought of as insurance. Another way is for scientists to have their preprints on their own university websites, with a central linking service if google is deemed inadequate or likely to cooperate with publishers.

    Regardless of one’s opinion of social sciences, this must never happen to arXiv.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think Geert made a good point, which is that if arXiv changed its copyright arrangements it would be far less attractive to buy out. The default arXiv-only licence is not good.

    • “Another way is for scientists to have their preprints on their own university websites”

      For what it’s worth, my publications are accessible via where there are links to various other sites but also local copies.

      Ideally, the author should retain copyright. This is the case with MNRAS. A& transfers copyright to ESO (or rather requires authors to do so), which is probably OK. One should at least retain a non-exclusive license to distribute one’s own work. I believe that A& allows this, as does The Observatory.

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