Here’s an odd thing. Over and over again, when a researcher is mistreated by a journal or publisher, we see them telling their story but redacting the name of the journal or publisher involved. Here are a couple of recent examples.

First, Daniel A. González-Padilla’s experience with a journal engaging in flagrant citation-pumping, but which he declines to name:

Interesting highlight after rejecting a paper I submitted.
Is this even legal/ethical?
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF’S COMMENT REGARDING THE INCLUSION OF REFERENCES TO ARTICLES IN [REDACTED]
Please note that if you wish to submit a manuscript to [REDACTED] in future, we would prefer that you cite at least TWO articles published in our journal WITHIN THE LAST TWO YEARS. This is a polict adopted by several journals in the urology field. Your current article contains only ONE reference to recent articles in [REDACTED].

We know from a subsequent tweet that the journal is published by Springer Nature, but we don’t know the name of the journal itself.

And here is Waheed Imran’s experience of editorial dereliction:

I submitted my manuscript to a journal back in September 2017, and it is rejected by the journal on September 6, 2020. The reason of rejection is “reviewers declined to review”, they just told me this after 3 years, this is how we live with rejections. @AcademicChatter
@PhDForum

My, my question is, why in such situations do we protect the journals in question? In this case, I wrote to Waheed urging him to name the journal, and he replied saying that he will do so once an investigation is complete. But I find myself wondering why we have this tendency to protect guilty journals in the first place?

Thing is, I’ve done this myself. For example, back in 2012, I wrote about having a paper rejected from “a mid-to-low ranked palaeo journal” for what I considered (and still consider) spurious reasons. Why didn’t I name the journal? I’m not really sure. (It was Palaeontologia Electronica, BTW.)

In cases like my unhelpful peer-review, it’s not really a big deal either way. In cases like those mentioned in the tweets above, it’s a much bigger issue, because those (unlike PE) are journals to avoid. Whichever journal sat on a submission for three years before rejecting it because it couldn’t find reviewers is not one that other researchers should waste their time on in the future — but how can they avoid it if they don’t know what journal it is?

So what’s going on? Why do we have this widespread tendency to protect the guilty?

As I was figuring out what I thought about the new paper on sauropod posture (Vidal et al. 2020) I found the paper uncommonly difficult to parse. And I quickly came to realise that this was not due to any failure on the authors’ part, but on the journal it was published in: Nature’s Scientific Reports.

A catalogue of pointless whining

A big part of the problem is that the journal inexplicably insists on moving important parts of the manuscript out of the main paper and into supplementary information. So for example, as I read the paper, I didn’t really know what Vidal et al. meant by describing a sacrum as wedged: did it mean non-parallel anterior and posterior articular surfaces, or just that those surfaces are not at right angles to the long axis of the sacrum? It turns out to be the former, but I only found that out by reading the supplementary information:

The term describes marked trapezoidal shape in the
centrum of a platycoelous vertebrae in lateral view or in the rims of a condyle-cotyle (procoelous or opisthocoelous) centrum type.

This crucial information is nowhere in the paper itself: you could read the whole thing and not understand what the core point of the paper is due to not understanding the key piece of terminology.

And the relegation of important material to second-class, unformatted, maybe un-reviewed supplementary information doesn’t end there, by a long way. The SI includes crucial information, and a lot of it:

  • A terminology section of which “wedged vertebrae” is just one of ten sub-sections, including a crucial discussion of different interpretation of what ONP means.
  • All the information about the actual specimens the work is based on.
  • All the meat of the methods, including how the specimens were digitized, retro-deformed and digitally separated.
  • How the missing forelimbs, so important to the posture, were interpreted.
  • How the virtual skeleton was assembled.
  • How the range of motion of the neck was assessed.
  • Comparisons of the sacra of different sauropods.

And lots more. All this stuff is essential to properly understanding the work that was done and the conclusions that were reached.

And there’s more: as well as the supplementary information, which contains six supplementary figures and three supplementary tables, there is an additonal supplementary supplementary table, which could quite reasonably have gone into the supplementary information.

In a similar vein, even within the highly compressed actual paper, the Materials and Methods are hidden away at the back, after the Results, Discussion and Conclusion — as though they are something to be ashamed of; or, at best, an unwelcome necessity that can’t quite be omitted altogether, but need not be on display.

Then we have the disappointingly small illustrations: even the “full size” version of the crucial Figure 1 (which contains both the full skeleton and callout illustrations of key bones) is only 1000×871 pixels. (That’s why the illustration of the sacrum that I pulled out of the paper for the previous post was so inadequate.)

Compare that with, for example, the 3750×3098 Figure 1 of my own recent Xenoposeidon paper in PeerJ (Taylor 2018) — that has more than thirteen times as much visual information. And the thing is, you can bet that Vidal et al. submitted their illustration in much higher resolution than 1000×871. The journal scaled it down to that size. In 2020. That’s just crazy.

And to make things even worse, unrelated images are shoved into multi-part illustrations. Consider the ridiculousness of figure 2:

Vidal et al. (2020: figure 2). The verticalization of sauropod feeding envelopes. (A) Increased neck range of motion in Spinophorosaurus in the dorso-ventral plane, with the first dorsal vertebra as the vertex and 0° marking the ground. Poses shown: (1) maximum dorsiflexion; (2) highest vertical reach of the head (7.16 m from the ground), with the neck 90° deflected; (3) alert pose sensu Taylor Wedel and Naish13; (4) osteological neutral pose sensu Stevens14; (5) lowest vertical reach of the head (0.72 m from the ground at 0°), with the head as close to the ground without flexing the appendicular elements; (6) maximum ventriflexion. Blue indicates the arc described between maximum and minimum head heights. Grey indicates the arc described between maximum dorsiflexion and ventriflexion. (B) Bivariant plot comparing femur/humerus proportion with sacrum angle. The proportion of humerus and femur are compared as a ratio of femur maximum length/humerus maximum length. Sacrum angle measures the angle the presacral vertebral series are deflected from the caudal series by sacrum geometry in osteologically neutral pose. Measurements and taxa on Table 1. Scale = 1000 mm.

It’s perfectly clear that parts A and B of this figure have nothing to do with each other. It would be far more sensible for them to appear as two separate figures — which would allow part B enough space to convey its point much more clearly. (And would save us from a disconcertingly inflated caption).

And there are other, less important irritants. Authors’ given names not divulged, only initials. I happen to know that D. Vidal is Daniel, and that J. L. Sanz is José Luis Sanz; but I have no idea what the P in P. Mocho, the A in A. Aberasturi or the F in F. Ortega stand for. Journal names in the bibliography are abbreviated, in confusing and sometimes ludicrous ways: is there really any point in abbreviating Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology to Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol?

The common theme

All of these problems — the unnatural shortening that relagates important material into supplementary information, the downplaying of methods, the tiny figures that ram unrelated illustrations into compound images, even the abbreviating of author names and journal titles — have this in common: that they are aping how Science ‘n’ Nature appear in print.

They present a sort of cargo cult: a superstitious belief that extreme space pressures (such as print journals legitimately wrestle with) are somehow an indicator of quality. The assumption that copying the form of prestigious journals will mean that the content is equally revered.

And this is simply idiotic. Scientific Reports is an open-access web-only journal that has no print edition. It has no rational reason to compress space like a print journal does. In omitting the “aniel” from “Daniel Vidal” it is saving nothing. All it’s doing is landing itself with the limitations of print journals in exchange for nothing. Nothing at all.

Why does this matter?

This squeezing of a web-based journal into a print-sized pot matters because it’s apparent that a tremendous amount of brainwork has gone into Vidal et al.’s research; but much of that is obscured by the glam-chasing presentation of Scientific Reports. It reduces a Pinter play to a soap-opera episode. The work deserved better; and so do readers.

References

 

Robin N. Kok asked an interesting question on Twitter:

For all the free money researchers throw at them, they might as well be shareholders. Maybe someone could model a scenario where all the APC money is spent on RELX shares instead, and see how long it takes until researchers own a majority share or RELX.

Well, Elsevier is part of the RELX group, which has a total market capitalisation of £33.5 billion. We can’t know directly how much of that value is in Elsevier, since it’s not traded independently. But according to page 124 their 2017 annual report (the most recent one available), the “Scientific, Technical and Medical” part of RELX (i.e. Elsevier) is responsible for £2,478M of the total £7,355M revenue (33.7%), and for £913M of the £2,284M profit (40.0%). On the basis that a company’s value is largely its ability to make a profit, let’s use the 40% figure, and estimate that Elsevier is worth £13.4 billion.

(Side-comment: ouch.)

According to the Wellcome Trust’s 2016/17 analysis of its open access spend, the average APC for Elsevier articles was £3,049 (average across pure-OA journals and hybrid articles).

On that basis, it would take 4,395,000 APCs to buy Elsevier. How long would that take to do? To work that out, we first need to know how many APC-funded articles they publish each year.

From page 14 of the same annual report as cited above. Elsevier published “over 430,000 articles” in a year. But most of those will have been in subscription journals. The same page says “Subscription sales generated 72% of revenue, transactional sales 26% and advertising 2%”, so assuming that transactional sales means APCs and that per-article revenue was roughly equal for subscription and open-access articles, that means 26% of their articles — a total of 111,800.

At 111,800 APCs per year, it would take a little over 39 years to accumulate the 4,395,000 APCs we’d need to buy Elsevier outright.

That’s no good — it’s too slow.

What if we also cancelled all our subscriptions, and put those funds towards the buy-out, too? That’s actually a much simpler calculation. Total Elsevier revenue was £2,478M. Discard the 2% that’s due to advertising, and £2428M was from subscriptions and APCs. If we saved that much for just five and a half years, we’d have saved enough to buy the whole company.

That’s a surprisingly short time, isn’t it?

(In practice of course it would be much faster: the share-price would drop precipitously as we cancelled all subscription and stopped paying APCs, instantly cutting revenue to one fiftieth of what it was before. But we’ll ignore that effect for our present purposes.)

 

The opening remarks by the hosts of conferences are usually highly forgettable, a courtesy platform offered to a high-ranking academic who has nothing to say about the conference’s subject. NOT THIS TIME!

This is the opening address of APE 2018, the Academic Publishing in Europe conference. The remarks are by Martin Grötschel, who as well as being president of the host institution, the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, is a 25-year veteran of open-access campaigning. and a member of the German DEAL negotiating team.

Here are some choice quotes:

1m50s: “I have always been aware of the significant imbalance and the fundamental divisions of the academic publication market. Being in the DEAL negotiation team, this became even more apparent …”

2m04s: “On the side of the scientists there is an atomistic market where, up to now and unfortunately, many of the actors play without having any clue about the economic consequences of their activities.”

2m22s: “In Germany and a few other countries where buyer alliances have been organised, they are, as expected, immediately accused of forming monopolies and they are taken to court — fortunately, without success, and with the result of strengthening the alliances.”

2m38s: “On the publishers’ side there is a very small number of huge publication enterprises with very smart marketing people. They totally dominate the market, produce grotesque profits, and amazingly manage to pretend to be the Good Samaritans of the sciences.”

2m27s: “And there are the tiny [publishers …] tentatively observed by many delegates of the big players, who are letting them play the game, ready to swallow them if an opportunity comes up.”

3m18s: “When you, the small publishers, discuss with the representatives of the big guys, these are most likely very friendly to you. But […] when it comes to discussing system changes, when the arguments get tight, the smiles disappear and the greed begins to gleam.”

3m42s: “You will hear in words, and not implicitly, that the small academic publishers are considered to be just round-off errors, tolerated for another while, irrelevant for the world-wide scientific publishing market, and having no influence at all.”

4m00s: “One big publisher stated: if your country stops subscribing to our journals, science in your country will be set back significantly. I responded […] it is interesting to hear such a threat from a producer of envelopes who does not have any idea of the contents.”

4m39s: “Will the small publishers side with the intentions of the scholars? Or will you try to copy the move towards becoming a packaging industry that exploits the volunteer work of scientists and results financed by public funding?”

5m55: “I do know, though, that the major publishers are verbally agreeing [to low-cost Gold #OpenAccess] , but not acting in this direction all, simply to maintain their huge profit margins.”

6m06s: “In a market economy, no-one can argue against profit maximisation [of barrier-based scholarly publishers]. But one is also allowed to act against it. The danger may be really disruptive, instead of smooth moves in the development of the academic publishing market.”

6:42: “You may not have enjoyed my somewhat unusual words of welcome, but I do hope that you enjoy this year’s APE conference.”

It’s just beautiful to hear someone in such a senior position, given such a platform, using it say so very clearly what we’re all thinking. (And as a side-note: I’m constantly amazed that so many advocates are so clear, emphatic and rhetorically powerful in their second, or sometimes third, language. Humbling.)

As RLUK’s David Prosser noted: “I bet this wasn’t what the conference organisers were expecting. A fabulous, hard-hitting polemic on big publishers #OA.”

 

 


Note. This post is adapted from a thread of tweets that I posted excerpting the video.

Publishers provide certain services (peer-review management, typesetting, brand badges, sometimes proof-reading or copy-editing, archiving, indexing) to the scholarly community.

Those services are of greater and lesser value, provided at higher and lower levels of quality, and cost greater and lesser amounts. Of course, we in the scholarly community want high-value, high-quality low-cost services. This is true whether the publisher in question is a multinational corporation with a multi-billion-dollar turnover, or a tiny boutique press run on a non-profit basis for the sheer love of the process.

Since the scholarly community (researchers, authors, peer-reviewers, academic editors, etc.) is spending money in exchange for publication services, and since publishers are providing publication services in exchange for money, it is clear that the goals of these two groups cannot be aligned. Any money that the scholarly community can save on publication costs is income lost to publishers; and any additional money that publishers can charge for their services is money lost to the scholarly community. I hope that so far, this is uncontroversial.

In the same way, if you sell me a second-hand car, then however well you and I might get on in civilian life — we might support the same football team, drink the same beer, discuss the same novelists, watch the same films — then for the purposes of that transaction, what is good for you (a high price) is bad for me; and vice versa. Note that in saying this I am not condemning or even criticising you. I am just stating a fact about transactions.

Now, suppose my wife and I sit down and decide that we need to buy a new car. We consider Hondas, Fords and Fiats. We weigh up various models on their merits, compare their prices with their features, and reach a decision on what we want to buy and how much we’re prepared to spend. We then approach the various Honda dealers (or, as we may have decided, Ford dealers or Fiat dealers). We negotiate with them to agree a price that we are happy with for a model that is in good enough condition. Different dealers compete with each other to win our custom by offering good cars at a low price. This is a functioning market.

What we don’t do is invite all the dealers to come and join us in our initial conversation. When my wife and I are discussing how important it is to us that our new car has variable-speed intermittent windscreen-wipers, we have that discussion in an environment quite free of car dealers telling us how great Fiat’s intermittent-wipe feature is. How could we possibly reach a coherent decision on what our own requirements are if we’re bombarded by the claims — some competing, some in collusion — of all the car dealers? And how can we think sensibly about what we’re prepared to spend if we’re surrounded by the dealers’ defences of the various financing arrangements they offer?

So in the same way, I feel that the scholarly community needs to figure out what publication services it needs, free of the influence of publishers who (and again this is not a criticism) have their own agenda. Then, when we know what we want, we can go to the publishers who offer the kinds of services we’re interested in, and invite them compete for our business on the basis of features and price.

But involving them in the initial what-we-want discussion can only lead to confusion, and a compromised outcome. Which is what we’ve seen for the last 50 years. This was the fatal flaw that led to the deeply flawed Finch Report and to the erosion of the RCUK’s initially very progressive OA policy.

As a side-note: my wife and I may end up deciding we don’t need a car at all: we might decide we can walk, or cycle, or take public transport. Car dealers would hate that: they would advocate against such an outcome with all their might if they were involved in that discussion. Which is why they can’t be.

 


Note. This post is adapted from a message to the Open Scholarship Initiative mailing list.

This tired old argument came up again on Twitter this evening, in light of Elsevier’s me-too announcement of a preprint archive:

Brian Nosek‏: Elsevier enters the biology #preprints space: https://www.elsevier.com/solutions/ssrn/biorn
Me: KILL IT WITH FIRE
Brian Lucey‏: I’ve used SSRN from its inception. Never ever felt it as anything but useful. That’s not changed with Elsevier.

And elsewhere in the same thread:

Me: We want preprints to be supported by community-owned initiatives that will not try to take total control.
William Gunn: Well, you said the same stuff about Mendeley and it wasn’t true then, either, so…

So what’s the problem? Mendeley and SSRN are still around, right

Yes, they are. But they continue to exist only by the grace of Elsevier. At any moment, that could change. And here’s why.

Subway is a chain of fast-food outlets that makes sandwiches. As it happens there is a branch in Cinderford, the nearest town to where I live. Which is nice.

Now everyone knows and understands that Subway is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s fine: no-one resents it, because it’s what it is. If the Cinderford branch makes money for them, they’ll keep it open and everyone will be happy. But if it doesn’t, then they’ll close that branch and no-one will be surprised. Because Subway’s mission is not to bring dining options to rural England, but to make money. No harm, no foul, that is just what they are.

But by the same token, Elsevier is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s not a controversial claim, it’s a simple statement of fact. And it’s not a criticism, it’s just recognising reality. We don’t even need to resent it: we just need to recognise it, and make our choices accordingly.

Now, from Elsevier’s perspective, Mendeley and SSRN, and indeed BioRN, are simply branches of Subway. They exist to make money for their shareholders. That’s their mission. Once more, not a criticism: just a fact.

But what this means is that the moment they are not making money, they will be shut down, just as the Cinderford branch of Subway would be. And, for that matter, just as BioMedNet, ChemWeb and ElsevierEngineering were shut down. Because Elsevier’s mission is not to further scholarship, it’s to make money. Again, not a criticism: just a fact.

What does it mean for Mendeley and SSN to “make money”? It may be that these branches of the Elsevier empire provide very little in the way of direct revenue. But someone will have run the numbers and shown that what they cost to run is less than their value to the corporation in terms of visibility, PR, drawing customers into other Elsevier products, etc. If it weren’t so, then they wouldn’t be running these services — because their responsibility is to shareholders, not scholars.

And you can bet that as soon as they day comes that they conclude Mendeley and SSRN are not paying for themselves, those services will go down in flames.

Now. It’s fine if Subway run their Cinderford branch for eighteen months and then decide it’s not working out. if they close it, I can just go down the road and get a kebab or a Chinese. But it’s not fine if scholarly infrastructure vanishes, or changes its terms, or becomes available only to members, or what have you. We need to be able to rely on scholarly infrastructure. Which is why in the end it needs to be owned and run by the scholarly community.

This is why I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure, which lay out the conditions for a service to be reliable, sustainable and safe from hijacking. (I expect to write more about the Principles some time soon.)

The bottom line is just this: Elsevier’s mission is money and their duty is to shareholders. But our mission is research and our duty is to the world. We and they are simply not aligned. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide and charge for useful services. But it does mean that they can’t be allowed to own and control infrastructure.

That’s why no-one should submit preprints to BioRN. Let this effort move directly from cradle to grave without passing Go. There are already plenty of good preprint options for bioscientists: PeerJ preprints, BiorXiv, arXiv’s q-bio category, the whole ASAPbio initiative) and even for palaeontologists in particular (PaleorXiv).

Use those. Don’t give Elsevier control over scholarly infrastructure.

Back in 2012, in response to the Cost Of Knowledge declaration, Elsevier made all articles in “primary math journals” free to read, distribute and adapt after a four-year rolling window. Today, as David Roberts points out, it seems they have silently withdrawn some of those rights. In particular, the “free” articles can no longer be redistributed or adapted — which, for example, prevents their use in teaching or in Wikipedia articles.

We don’t know when this changed. It just did, quietly, at some point after the Cost of Knowledge anger had died down, when no-one was watching them carefully. So here, once more, Elsevier prove that they are bad actors who simply cannot be trusted.

There is a broader and more important point here: we simply can’t build a meaningfully open scholarly infrastructure that is dependent on the whims of corporations. It can’t be done.

Whatever corporations like Elsevier give us one day, they can and will take away another day. They can’t help themselves. It’s in their nature. And, really, it’s unreasonable of us to expect anything different from a corporation whose reason for existing is to enrich its shareholders.

So to have a genuinely open scholarly infrastructure, there is no real alternative to building it ourselves, within the scholarly community. It’s worse that useless to sit around waiting for likes of Elsevier to gift us the infrastructure we need. It’s not in their interests.

So once more, folks: there’s no need for us to be hostile to Elsevier et al. Just walk away. Do not deal with them. They are not on your side. They never have been, and they never will be. They will give just enough ground to defuse anger when it threatens their bottom line; that’s all. Then they will take the ground back when it suits them.


Note. This post is based on a series of tweets.

As explained in careful detail over at Stupid Patent of the Month, Elsevier has applied for, and been granted, a patent for online peer-review. The special sauce that persuaded the US Patent Office that this is a new invention is cascading peer review — an idea so obvious and so well-established that even The Scholarly Kitchen was writing about it as a commonplace in 2010.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can't verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can’t verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Well. What can this mean?

A cynic might think that this is the first step an untrustworthy company would take preparatory to filing a lot of time-wasting and resource-sapping nuisance lawsuits on its smaller, faster-moving competitors. They certainly have previous in the courts: remember that they have brought legal action their own customers as well as threatening Academia.edu and of course trying to take Sci-Hub down.

Elsevier representatives are talking this down: Tom Reller has tweeted “There is no need for concern regarding the patent. It’s simply meant to protect our own proprietary waterfall system from being copied” — which would be fine, had their proprietary waterfall system not been itself copied from the ample prior art. Similarly, Alicia Wise has said on a public mailing list “People appear to be suggesting that we patented online peer review in an attempt to own it.  No, we just patented our own novel systems.” Well. Let’s hope.

But Cathy Wojewodzki, on the same list, asked the key question:

I guess our real question is Why did you patent this? What is it you hope to market or control?

We await a meaningful answer.

Long time readers may remember the stupid contortions I had to go through in order to avoid giving the Geological Society copyright in my 2010 paper about the history of sauropod research, and how the Geol. Soc. nevertheless included a fraudulent claim of copyright ownership in the published version.

The way I left it back in 2010, my wife, Fiona, was the copyright holder. I should have fixed this a while back, but I now note for the record that she has this morning assigned copyright back to me:

From: Fiona Taylor <REDACTED>
To: Mike Taylor <mike@indexdata.com>
Date: 15 August 2016 at 11:03
Subject: Transfer

I, Fiona J. Taylor of Oakleigh Farm House, Crooked End, Ruardean, GL17 9XF, England, hereby transfer to you, Michael P. Taylor of Oakleigh Farm House, Crooked End, Ruardean, GL17 9XF, England, the copyright of your article “Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review”. This email constitutes a legally binding transfer.

Sorry to post something so boring, after so long a gap (nearly a month!) Hopefully we’ll have some more interesting things to say — and some time to say them — soon!

As predicted, the popular 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 being notified. This is happening even in cases when the copyright is held by the authors (who posted them, giving implicit permission for them to be redistributed), and even more astonishingly when papers are under Creative Commons licences. Details at PrawfsBlawg.

These are not the actions of a publisher acting in good faith.

6a00d8341c4eab53ef01bb09011389970d-800wi

As James Grimmelmann comments:

There’s no longer a point in deterring SSRN. Its new owners at Elsevier have made their true colors clear, and we as a community canot afford to centralize our scholarly communications in the hands of for-profit publishers.

It is time to depublish all of our articles from SSRN and walk away completely. It doesn’t matter if they reverse course now. We can’t trust them in the long run. It’s time to walk away from SSRN.

And as Tony Ross Hellaur puts in, an another comment on the same post (emphasis mine):

Anybody who bought Elsevier’s line that “both existing and future SSRN content will be largely unaffected” following the sell-off should now wake up. Elsevier is aggressive in enforcing copyright, and have the resources and scale to be able to make extreme judgements on what constitutes copyright violation and then to put the burden of proof on individual researchers to show otherwise.

The good news: Brandon Butler points out in the comments that there is a new and open alternative to SSRN: Announcing the development of SocArXiv, an open social science archive. SocArXiv has some very good people behind it. I hope it takes off, and that the zombie SSRN is rapidly defleshed.

Update (29 December 2017)

As requested by SSRN themselves, I am updating to note that it seems nothing has changed at SSRN so far. Brett D. Currier‏ pointed out that SSRN is now charging $38 to download some of its papers, but as Tom Reller pointed out, they have in fact always done this. I don’t know whether such articles have always been presented in a way that encourages you to pay $38 for the publisher’s formatter version, and hides the free version behind a misleading “There are 2 versions of this paper” message (which i assumed meant an original submission and a revised version), but that’s how they do it now. (Does anyone who used to use it back in the day remember if it was always thus?)