SSRN sells out to Elsevier

by Paul Maharg on 19/05/2016

I’ve been a member of SSRN for quite a while now, about a decade I think.  I remember when I first joined, the excitement of posting to an open access research site, and of being part of an application that contributed to Open Access.  Couple of days ago I woke up to the news on Twitter that Elsevier had acquired it.  After giving the matter some thought, around three seconds, I contacted SSRN to delete my account and all data, personal and uploaded work.[1]   Here’s why.

Research should be open.  Plain and simple.  No green access, no gold access, which are all devices to maximise publisher profit while making it look like they’re granting access.  Publishers don’t contribute at all financially to the massive effort of producing research: our universities, ultimately the public in a variety of ways, pay for that.  But Elsevier and others cream off grotesque profits through their journal publications divisions from already hard-pressed libraries, profit that goes straight into shareholders’ pockets.  They close down research from the general public who have paid for that research, in order to maximise shareholder profit — the public pay to have research produced, then have to pay again to read it.  And pay a third time if they want to read it for free.  The Dutch government put pressure on Elsevier to open access, but in the end settled for what’s really a highly compromised deal.  Back in 2013 the New Yorker summed up Elsevier’s general approach, and it’s only got worse since then:

Elsevier […] is infamous for restricting the flow of scientific information so it can sell research papers for as much as fifty dollars a piece, generating profit margins of thirty-six per cent and netting the company billions of dollars in revenue annually. The company has fought legislation designed to open up academic research, offered scholars money to file positive reviews, sued libraries for oversharing, and allegedly published fake journals on behalf of the pharmaceuticals industry.

Why does SSRN interest Elsevier?  Simple — it wants to increase its stranglehold on scholarly publishing, dominate the field, maximise profit.  It’s a predatory strategy.  There are no benign motives to what Elsevier does commercially.  And everything it does is commercial.  It wants to close down the free research resources of the web because such resources are an offence to its domination.  SSRN, for all its clunky interface and painful uploading processes, was a zone of free pre-publications and other research, an interchange of enormous potential for open access, had SSRN ever got its act together to improve the service on behalf of its community.  Elsevier similarly are trying it on with Wikipedia, in an ominous move last year, described as ‘Wikigate‘.

This is the face of the neoliberalist establishment, and to the shame of the academic community we allow it to flourish in our very midst.  Academics write on the corrosive effects of late capitalism, neoliberalism and then we give those writings over to publishing corporations who grow larger and more powerful on the back of our work.  This is beyond irony.  And while we turn away because we can’t be bothered really, the public purse is fleeced by these corporations, and our students, too, pay the price of ever-steepening costs of textbooks and other resources.  Academics pay that price also.  Have you checked out the price of storage recently on Mendeley, another Elsevier acquisition?  It’s risen substantially.  Elsevier will wring its hands — how else can we afford offices with basketball courts?  Even worse — 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.  So not content with harvesting your work in its journals, Elsevier now provides the tools to institutions, again at considerable cost to the institutions, to assess it and ensure that the metricisation of your work increases substantially, and league tables of research can be ever more narrowly calibrated. Over on the LSE Impact blog Thomas Leeper’s posting states the only conclusion we can come to:

The purchase of SSRN is also a vivid reminder that advocates of open science practices need to wrestle with whether the end goal of making science widely and freely available for the world can be achieved with the support of for-profit entities that have a substantial stake in the preservation of traditional closed access publishing.

But there’s another angle to this.  When I first read the news I felt a sense of betrayal.  SSRN states in its FAQ:

The 308,800+ authors who have contributed their research to SSRN have trusted us with their intellectual output. We are committed to fulfilling that trust. We are scholars, and we respect, above all, our authors’ rights in their material. We have never and will never behave opportunistically with our authors’ material.

‘Trust’, ‘respect’.  If that’s so, how come the first I heard of the acquisition of SSRN by Elsevier was on Twitter?  SSRN depends entirely on the many thousands of authors like me uploading stuff to its website.  I wasn’t asked what I wanted — I was told what would happen to my work, which was freely granted and posted with my own labour to SSRN, not Elsevier.  There was no respect over my right as a contributor.  Or – do I have no rights in this matter when I do something for no commercial gain, is that the metatext of the ToS?  Because it certainly feels to me like SSRN has behaved ‘opportunistically’ with my material.  And where are the details of the deal, even after it’s been done?  As always with Elsevier, no information.  How much was paid, for what purpose, what has SSRN agreed to do for it, who is getting the best out of this deal, what effect will this have on my work posted there, for the academic community at large.  Michael Jensen’s statement is full of future tenses and wishful thinking not borne out by an analysis of anything that Elsevier has done in the past.  And what is the SSRN Board of Trustees doing that it allows this to happen and gives us no information?  The situation is unacceptable, undemocratic, and we all collude in it if we continue to support SSRN.

Data is gold dust to Elsevier.  To all SSRN authors I would say: the corporation now profits from your papers on SSRN, from your search patterns, from your citations, from your very personal data.  Everything you do in and around SSRN contributes to their profits.  If you’re an SSRN contributor reading this post I urge you to delete your account and protest.

  1. [1]Though this is still ongoing, with webmail messages to staff asking for total deletion, only to find my account is still there on the site.  It’s as difficult to extract yourself from SSRN, it seems, as to delete your Facebook account.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kristoffer Greaves May 19, 2016 at 19:02

Thanks for this post, Paul. I felt that sense of betrayal you describe. My first impulse was to delete my SSRN account, but I’ve been wavering about it since. I think your argument is very persuasive, and it is likely I will go ahead and delete my account.

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2 Paul Maharg May 19, 2016 at 19:12

I know how you feel, Kris. Actually I still feel twinges of nostalgia for it. I always cited SSRN as a great example of an OA initiative for Law, even though it turned out more about the US than anywhere else; and in Law, the law/economics domain in particular. Had it been anyone except a Big Four journals publisher and Elsevier especially I would have grumbled and just stayed. Because of course the interface will improve. SSRN has said that for the past 12 years or so cashflow has been ‘positive’ whatever that means, but we’ve seen very little of it in the way of UX. But the moral cost is way too high. We have to act where we can against such behaviour or else we become part of the problem.

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3 Karen Counsell May 19, 2016 at 21:46

I’ve pointed my own undergraduate students to SSRN as a valuable resource. No more.
Too many opportunists out there commoditising the academic experience.

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4 Sonia Lawrence May 20, 2016 at 06:04

Thanks for this excellent breakdown of the problem and the strategy of academic publishers in the BigFour. The loss of SSRN is enormous. The other open access repository in fairly wide use for law schools (as far as I know), digital commons by bepress for instance isn’t free to institutions and is also owned by a for profit company. US law/poli sci prof Paul Gowder has thoughts and suggestions here re coming together over this. https://medium.com/@PaulGowder/ssrn-has-been-captured-by-the-enemy-of-open-knowledge-b3e5bca6751d#.evbuj4z57

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5 Paul Maharg May 20, 2016 at 12:34

Hi Sonia — yes you’re right about Bepress being proprietary. On the other hand it’s a lot more elegant than SSRN was. I like Osgoode’s version of it. Maybe it’s just me getting jumpy now, but I’m thinking of a similar takeover of Academia and wondering whether to leave that too. I’ve never been comfortable with ResearchGate — too focused on STEM citation metrics that don’t really apply to my fields of arts, education and legal studies, and doesn’t really take account of those of us who try to publish OA. What I liked about the original SSRN was that it was clustered around social sciences and was host to a whole bunch of sister disciplines. As for starting de novo, when I read Paul Gowden’s piece originally I was daunted by the task. But I’m much encouraged by the responses to it which I liked (and thanks BTW for sending me back to it). If something like that can be constructed I’d love to be part of it. And even better if it could crawl the web like ReadCube (Macmillan’s proprietary research manager), RG or Google Scholar, so no more manual uploading labour as in SSRN. I’ve worked with library staff here at ANU to put up my stuff in the university’s Digital Collections, so if there were a tool to export that it would brilliant.

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6 Pieter Kleve August 4, 2016 at 00:45

Hi Paul, nice reading there are others that deleted their ssrn account as well. Upon receiving Michaels message on June 17th, I immediately asked for a further explanation. The response I received made me to remove my account completely by June 2nd. The only issue I still need to solve is to make ssrn to understand that I do not need permission from any co-author to delete a publication of me. On the contrary. Copyright is about granting permission to publish or to copy. Without this permission (from me or any co-author) ssrn is breaching copyright.

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7 Paul Maharg September 9, 2016 at 01:50

Entirely agree Pieter, and sorry for the delay in replying. It would be interesting to know how many other SSRN authors responded in the same way. Of course we couldn’t expect to get that information from Elsevier, could we.

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