Elsevier’s increasing control over scholarly infrastructure, and how funders should fix this

May 22, 2016

In a recent blog-post, Kevin Smith tells it like it is: legacy publishers are tightening their grip in an attempt to control scholarly communications. “The same five or six major publishers who dominate the market for scholarly journals are engaged in a race to capture the terms of and platforms for scholarly sharing”, says Smith. “This is a serious threat to academic freedom.”

A fisted hand tightly gripping US Currency.People can legitimately have different ideas about precisely what it is that Elsevier intends to do with SSRN, now that it’s acquired it. But as we discuss the possible outcomes, we need to keep one principle in mind: it’s simply unrealistic to imagine that Elsevier, in controlling Mendeley and SSRN, will do anything other than what is best for Elsevier.

That’s not a criticism, or even a complaint. It’s a statement of what a for-profit corporation does. It’s in it’s nature. There’s no need for us to blame Elsevier for this, any more than we blame a fox when it eats a chicken. That’s what it does.

The appropriate response is simply to prevent any more of this kind of thing happening, by taking control of our own scholarly infrastructure.

The big problem with SSRN is the same as the big problem of Mendeley: being privately owned and for-profit, they owners were always going to be susceptible to a good enough offer. People starting private companies are looking to make money from them, and a corporation that comes along with a big offer is a difficult exit strategy to resist. When we entrusted preprints to SSRN, they were always vulnerable to being taken hostage, in a way that arXiv preprints are not.

Again: I am not blaming private companies’ owners for this. It’s in the nature of what a private company is. I recognise that and accept it. The thing is, I interpret it as damage and want to route around it.

So what is the solution?


It’s simple. We, the community, need to own our own infrastructure.

One one level, this is easy. We, the community, know how to do it. We have experience of good and bad infrastructure, we know the difference. We have excellent, clearly articulated principles for open scholarly infrastructure. We have top quality software engineers, interaction designers, UI experts and more.

What we don’t have is funding. And that is crippling.

We can’t build and maintain community-owned infrastructure; and (to a first approximation anyway) no-one is funding it. It’s truly disgraceful that even such a crucial piece of infrastructure of arXiv is constantly struggling for funding. arXiv serves about a million articles per week, and is the primary source of publications in many scientific subfields, yet every year it struggles to bring in the less then a million dollars it costs to run. It’s ridiculous the the Gates Foundation or someone hasn’t come along with a a few tens of millions dollar and set up a long-term endowment to make arXiv secure.

And when even something as proven as arXiv struggles for funding, what chance does anything else have?

The problem seems to be this: funders have a blind spot when it comes to funding infrastructure. That’s why we have no UK national repository; it’s why there is no longer an independent subject repository for social sciences; it’s why the two main preprint archives for bio-medicine (PeerJ Preprints and BioRxiv) are privately owned, and potentially vulnerable to the offer-you-can’t-refuse from Elsevier or one of the other legacy publishers in the oligopoly(*).


When you think about funders — RCUK, Wellcome, NIH, Gates, all of them — they are great at funding research; and terrible at funding the infrastructure that allows it to have actual benefit. Most funders even seem to have specific policies that they won’t fund infrastructure; those that don’t, simply lack a way to apply for infrastructure funding. It’s a horribly short-sighted approach, and we’re seeing its inevitable fruit in Elsevier’s accumulation of infrastructure.

We’ll look back at funding bodies in 10 or 20 years and say their single biggest mistake was failing to see the need to fund infrastructure.

Please, funders. Fix this. Make whatever changes you need to make, to ensure the the scholarly community owns and controls its own preprint archives, subject repositories, aggregators, text-mining tools, citation graphs, metrics tools and what have you. We’ve already seen what happens when we cede control of the scholarly record to corporations: spiralling prices, poor quality product, arbitrary barriers, and the retardation of all progress. Let’s not make the same mistake again with infrastructure.



(*) Actually, I don’t believe PeerJ’s owners would sell their preprint server to Elsevier for any amount of money — and the same may be true of the BioRxiv for all I know, I’ve never spoken with the owners. But who can tell what might happen?


30 Responses to “Elsevier’s increasing control over scholarly infrastructure, and how funders should fix this”

  1. nemobis Says:

    I’m confused… the EU did set up an archive, Zenodo. Are you saying it’s inadequate?

    Zenodo seems unlikely to run out of funds, especially if people start using it: it’s integrated with OpenAIRE and CERN. Also, the EC just picked the “European Open Science Cloud” as one of their major multi-billion goals for the next decade https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/open-science and, despite buzzwords, they seem unlikely to reduce rather than increase funds for a website like Zenodo that mentions “cloud” in its features. https://zenodo.org/features

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    nemobis, that sounds promising. When I’ve heard of Zenodo, it’s been a piece of software rather than a running piece of infrastructure — but you’re saying it’s also the latter? If so, then it may be exactly what we need (though they evidently need to do a much better job of getting the word out). Who can use it? And for what kinds of material?

  3. nemobis Says:

    Opposite here; I only knew about Zenodo as a platform, never knew the software was (really) reusable. According to the FAQ and the looks of the website, anyone can use it for anything except they curate the main page. Peter Suber also recommends it: https://cyber.law.harvard.edu/hoap/How_to_make_your_own_work_open_access#Deposit_in_an_OA_repository_.28.22green.22_OA.29

    I just signed up with ORCID and checked https://zenodo.org/deposit/ , it looks really easy. Some people are also looking into a “wrapper website” to add some sugarcoating as needed. https://github.com/paultopia/scholaw/issues/1

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hmm. Simple search for “sauropod” takes 20 seconds, to find one result. Not a promising start.

  5. Boris Barbour Says:

    CSHL is a not-for-profit organisation, which I think means that the typical financial motives should be attenuated. Any potential sale might also be subject to additional rules and regulations.


    “bioRxiv (pronounced “bio-archive”) is a free online archive and distribution service for unpublished preprints in the life sciences. It is operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a not-for-profit research and educational institution. By posting preprints on bioRxiv, authors are able to make their findings immediately available to the scientific community and receive feedback on draft manuscripts before they are submitted to journals.”

  6. Jeroen Bosman Says:

    Anyone can use it, for almost any kind of data/text. In that sense it’s comparable to FigShare, but just not commercial. It’s easy and very realiable in my experience, built by CERN. You can for instance use it to share a dataset with results of 20,663 respondents from a survey on innovations in scholarly communication: http://dx.doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.8414.1 ;-)

  7. Jeroen Bosman Says:

    But yes, it”s currently quite slow. Will ask them to look into it.

  8. Jeroen Bosman Says:

    And of course I included an incorrect link as example ;-( Should have been this one: http://dx.doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.49583

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Boris — that is encouraging about Cold Spring Harbor Labs.

    Zenodo also looks promising, other that the atrociously slow responses. But it’s disappointing that it doesn’t (as far as I can see) include basic facilities like the ability to comment. To me, that seems like an indispensable component in 2016.

  10. nemobis Says:

    Probably some ElasticSearch guru is welcome at https://pythonhosted.org/invenio-search/

    The website itself seems decently fast to me, mostly it’s slowed down by third party resources (I didn’t notice because I block them with NoScript).

    Of course Zenodo has just started growing, so I expect scalability improvements to come in the near future.

  11. Jeroen Bosman Says:

    Regarding commenting possibilities: that is something most subject/generic/institutional repositories lack. But why not just use platform independent commenting tools such as Hypothes.is? https://hypothes.is/

  12. Daniela Says:

    Just for a short explanation: Zenodo has been developped as a part of FP7 OpenAIRE project (it was formerly known as OpenAIRE Orphan Repository), hosted by CERN, based on Invenio software, intended as a repository for FP7-funded articles, now also H2020-funded articles, as a “last resort” for researchers without any institutional or subject repository. Now it can be used not only for EC or ERC projects participants and not only for articles, but also for depositing data, see more: http://www.zenodo.org/faq.

  13. brembs Says:

    I think it depends on which organizations you call ‘funders’. The ones you list only fund projects, not infrastructure. That is a distinction by design and unlikely to change any time soon, for a whole host of reasons. In other words: none of the funders you list here *can* pay for infrastructure, even if that ever got onto their agenda, somehow.

    In fact, a large part of the current backlog of problems are ultimately caused by “project money” (funders) having increased over the past 30 years at the expense of “infrastructure money”. For example, “infrastructure money” pays tenured positions, while “project money” pays, well, projects, e.g., students, postdocs, etc. (i.e., increasing competition for positions and leading to the academic precariat). Another example is subscriptions: “infrastructure money” pays for subscriptions, while “project money” pays for, e.g., project-related APCs (leading to double and triple dipping). “Project money” is doled out via competitions (i.e., grants), “infrastructure money” is what institutions get to cover their running costs. I think you can now easily picture the slew of collateral damage you’d get if you were to put yet more money into the competitive “project pot”, rather than in the cost-oriented “infrastructure pot”.

    Knowing you a little, I would tend to speculate that in essence what you are saying with this post is more like “we need to get more money into the “infrastructure pot”, with which probably 99% of all academics would agree, each for their own reasons. After all, for the last 30 years institutions have asked for such funding just to, e.g. keep up with student numbers (or just inflation!). On the other hand, you see clearly how far such requests for additional funds have gone: nowhere (with the UK government in particular answering these pleas particularly cynically). This is, in a nutshell, the reason I’m saying we need to reconsider if subscriptions are the most cost-effective way to secure access: if we manage to wean ourselves from them, we will have precisely the kind of money (and more) that you’re asking for in this post here.

  14. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Daniela. I think that Zenodo did itself a huge disfavour by calling itself an “orphan repository” at first, and continues to do itself a big disfavour by calling itself a “last resort” now. What the world needs is not a last resort, but a single unified location to find scholarship — just as arXiv is for the fields that it covers. I think Zenodo may be a fine piece of technical work in desperate need of some PR. The first question for the EC and CERN is: do they have the will to make it the repository-for-everyone that we all need?

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Björn asserts “none of the funders you list here *can* pay for infrastructure”.

    Why not? Who is to stop the Gates Foundation from funding infrastructure if they choose to?

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    And Björn continues:

    This is, in a nutshell, the reason I’m saying we need to reconsider if subscriptions are the most cost-effective way to secure access: if we manage to wean ourselves from them, we will have precisely the kind of money (and more) that you’re asking for in this post here.

    For a change, it’s time for me to say to you: I wish I shared your optimisim. I think that unless there is a sea-change in how funders perceive the needs of the communities they fund, the chance of subscriptions savings going to fund infrastructure are poor.

    I hope we can change that. (Which is why I wrote this post.)

  17. brembs Says:

    Well, ok, let’s imagine that would work. For instance, have all the world apply to them for covering their electricity bills, let’s say all-green electricity. So some universities get to have Gates-sponsored green electricity for as long as the funding period runs. Then they have to look elsewhere for funding. If funding runs out, there may not even be any money left for electricity, because government doesn’t pay for something Gates is paying for. Gates may also mandate, say, 11oV (just as they mandate OA). Same for running water, gas or sewage.

    All of this is so obviously absurd, that none of the funders you mention is set up to handle the kind of long-term commitment you are asking for. Heck, it may even be that none of these funders is around any more, at as time when universities still need water and electricity. That’s why, even if they wanted, they’d have to restructure their entire organization for something like that.

    In Germany, the main funder DFG is explicitly prohibited from funding anything considered infrastructure. That includes, e.g. PC and other standard equipment (e.g., microscopes, etc.). So even if they wanted to fund it, they couldn’t.

    Finally, in addition to the funders you list not being able to fund that sort of thing, consider the consequences if some miracle enabled them: many of the problems we are facing in academia are due to overcompetition in the academic area. Imagine the same overcompetition taking place not only there, but also for pipes, sockets, electricity, faucets, water, gas, sewage, information hardware, software. The administrative bloat we’re complaining about now as a consequence of “excellence” competitions everywhere will feel like paradise compared to what were to come.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    So some universities get to have Gates-sponsored green electricity for as long as the funding period runs.

    No, no. The whole point is that we need global solutions, not university-by-university piecemeal stuff. There is only one arXiv, and that is the correct number.

    (Also, I am a bit surrpised that you’ve put up a strawman here. I want fully funded global scholarly infrastructrure — repositories, publication platforms, citation graphs, etc. You instead show that locally funded mains electricity is silly. Well, yes, it is. Which is why I never proposed it, or anything like it.)

    Finally, I don’t understand how you think a fully funded global scholarly infrastructure would create more private competition.

  19. brembs Says:

    Imagine England and Scotland competed for who would have the best roads and Scotland got a grant to fund roads that would recharge all electric cars via induction – only the funder mandates driving on the right side, because that’s the only way they can make the technology work on a scale to be affordable. So Scotland goes right and gets great new roads where all electric vehicles get charged, while England is stuck with driving on the left and the cars have to stop for recharging.

    That’s the sort of scenarios you’d have to live with at universities if the competitive funders you list selectively funded the infrastructure of some universities, more or less according to their own whims.

  20. Mike Taylor Says:

    There you go again, with your local funding ideas.

    Once more, I am not interested in local funding. I want a properly funded global scholarly infrastructure.

    The alternative to public funding of infrastructure is of course private funding for infrastructure, which is how we got Mendeley, SSRN etc. And of course the Elseviers and Wileys are going to hoover those up as soon as they start to look like they might become important.

  21. brembs Says:

    Oh, then I may have misunderstood you. The funders you list *only* dole out money after a competition. With these guys, there is no money just by presenting a bill. You need to show you’re worthy before you get anything (and only at the expense of other applicants). That’s the reason why I said you likely didn’t mean these funders?

    Then I don’t really understand how and why Wellcome, let alone HHMI should pay for my university’s infrastructure, only because we present them with a bill?

  22. Mike Taylor Says:

    The funders you list *only* dole out money after a competition.

    Right, exactly — that’s precisely (what I see as) the problem.

    I would like those funders to take a broader view, both geographically and temporally. We badly need them to give us not so money to do projects, as an environment where we can do science more efficiently.

  23. Daniela Says:

    I am sorry at the moment I do not have time enough to read everything written above, but it should be noticed that EC as a funder of research supports the infrastructure, both technical and human… Zenodo can be used openly and I do hope it will be sustainable. But I understand it is more complicated issue. OpenAIRE infrastructure itself relies on other (local – institutional, national – or subject) repositories and open access journals content harvesting. I agree Zenodo has a limited capacity at the moment and should be PR more efficiently.

  24. brembs Says:

    Daniela is right: you mean the right thing, Mike, but the money for such things comes from other places. Martin Eve has a great post on this, too: https://www.martineve.com/2016/05/23/what-do-we-mean-when-we-call-scholarly-communications-platforms-sustainable/

    There is a place for competitive funding and the funders you listed are doing, IMHO, a decent job at it, by and large.

    What we need (and this is what, I think, you actually mean) is that less money should go to the “project pot” (which is what the listed funders pay), but to the infrastructure pot (which is usually what state and federal governments pay directly).

  25. This is an excellent explanation of why Elsevier and other publishers *do* deserve the rents that come from 400 years of investing in infrastructure.

  26. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hardly, Fred! Elsevier’s rents (and those of their peers) are based on monopoly ownership of content, not on any investment they’ve made in infrastructure. The fact that PeerJ made something better than Elsevier’s system in six months shows you how little value there was to be matched. (Of course the cost of building Elsevier’s infrastructure was much higher, because they had make paywalls and various ways of getting through them. But that is not at all the same thing as value.)

  27. The crux is finding a supranational solution, is it not? I don’t think national funders are the target here. Does the Global Research Council have the wherewithal to coordinate a agreement at least among those nations of the world that produce the most research to establish long-term funding of a global repository that ‘belongs’ to the world? Even a project funded by the EU, USA and China (and anyone else minded to join in) should have legs.

  28. Mike Taylor Says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Stephen. The truly global outlook is what I hoped someone like the Gates Foundation might bring to the party, but the GRC certainly sounds like the right body to make these things happen.

  29. […] predicted, the poopular and useful Social Sciences repository SSRN, having been acquired by Elsevier, is now being destroyed. Papers are being quietly vanished from SSRN, without their authors even […]

  30. […] system. As Mike Taylor points out, these developments bring to mind the underlying issue of who controls OA infrastructure, and the notion that resistance to commercial domination should be largely based on the academy […]

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