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.”
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?