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Elsevier Stirs Up Controversy with SSRN Acquisition

Response to the purchase was immediate and fierce, but Elsevier maintains it will keep SSRN's "freemium" model.

Elsevier revealed yesterday it has purchased the open access Social Science Research Network (SSRN) for an undisclosed amount. Reactions to the deal have been less than positive, to say the least.

Elsevier, the largest publisher of academic journals in the world, with more than 2,000 titles and more than $3 billion in revenue in 2015, has been widely criticized for what some characterize as exorbitant subscription rates for many of its academic journals. Annual subscriptions for libraries can cost thousands of dollars for a single journal, with several surpassing the $10,000 mark for combined or multi-volume licenses. (Many annual subscriptions, though, are less than $1,000.)

Critics argue that these rates would be justified if the costs to produce the journals were high for Elsevier. However, as several pointed out yesterday, Elsevier (and other scholarly publishers) don’t pay for the research, don’t compensate researchers and are under no obligation to pay reviewers. And in the case of digital subscriptions, they don’t even have to pay mechanical costs for printing.

Elsevier has also been criticized for being a “copyright maximalist,” targeting academic institutions and researchers alike for copyright infringement (as when the company demanded researchers at the University of Calgary remove papers they’d authored from their site) and lobbying for greater takedown powers. And just this month, Elsevier’s actions cost Sci-Hub its domain name, though the service continues to be available through Telegram.

All that in the overarching context that much of what Elsevier publishes is publicly funded research ... to which the public has no free access once Elsevier gets its hands on it.

These perceptions prompted several choice headlines among academic and technology writers, including:

Twitter (as is its wont) was aflutter with criticism as well. @CreativeCommons offered up a sarcastic response to the news: “Elsevier just bought SSRN, the popular open access repository. What could possibly go wrong?” George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr (@OrinKerr) wrote: “With Elsevier having bought SSRN, we'll see how many restrictions Elsevier will impose before the professors bail.” And Mark Lemley (@marklemley), William H. Neukom professor, Stanford Law School, wrote: “I want SSRN to survive this transition. But I'm doubtful. Elsevier would be wise to make a binding public commitment to openness.”

These types of responses were typical. In fact, it was difficult to find any positive reactions to the news at all across social media or traditional publishing sites. The journal Nature’s coverage was perhaps the mildest, noting only that there were some critics of the deal but focusing more on the business aspects of the acquisition and the history of for-profit publishers’ failed attempts at sustaining pre-print servers.

SSRN CEO Gregory Gordon, who, according to Elsevier, will remain in that position, noted that there are several positive aspects to the deal. According to Gordon, bringing SSRN together with Mendeley — a free collaboration platform acquired by Elsevier a few years back — will strengthen SSRN.

“Together, SSRN and Mendeley can provide greater access to the growing base of user-generated content, build new informational and analytical tools and increase engagement with a broader set of researchers,” Gordon wrote in a post on Elsevier’s site. “For SSRN’s users, the union with Mendeley and Elsevier will create significant short- and long-term benefits. We’ll be able to invest in an updated, more efficient SSRN user interface with add-ons such as a drop-in reference manager from Mendeley. SSRN will benefit from access to Scopus citation data and an ability to link working papers to their published versions with direct forwarding links. We’ll also have access to Elsevier’s broader collection of metrics and data analytics, which we can share with SSRN authors, readers and users.

“In time, SSRN will migrate onto the Mendeley technology platform, which will improve our ability to manage academic and research profiles, allow users to follow collaborators and other authors, and develop new journals and curation services,” he added.

Elsevier, for its part, pledged that SSRN’s “free to submit, and free to download” freemium model would remain in effect. SSRN’s current workforce will also remain.

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