Elsevier buys SSRN

Elsevier is one of the world's largest scholarly publishers and one of the most bitter enemies that open access publishing has; SSRN is one of the biggest open access scholarly publishing repositories in the world: what could possibly go wrong?

As renowned security academic Matt Blaze pointed out in a series of tweets, there is a common misconception about the role scholarly publishers play in research: the publishers don't pay a cent towards the research, nor do they compensate the researchers for publishing their work; but they do represent a huge cost-center for scholarly institutions in the form of subscription charges, which continue to increase far ahead of inflation. Scholarly publishers are in the business of charging money to show the public the results of research that the public paid to undertake.

Elsevier says that nothing will change at SSRN, but there's good cause to be skeptical: it's like if Monsanto bought out your favorite organic farm co-op.

Meanwhile, Scihub, a brazen and comprehensive repository of copyright-infringing papers from publishers like Elsevier, has become the major source of reference materials for millions around the world, with inbound links from technical discussions and the New York Times -- there's a confrontation on the horizon, there.

Finally, Elsevier and the other scholarly publishers are potentially in a lot of legal trouble. Until recently, the typical academic employment agreement assigned all rights to scholars' work to their institution -- the university or college. But the contracts that scholars signed with the scholarly presses assigned copyright to them -- these are the copyrights that the publishers now assert when they fight over sites like Scihub. The problem is that if the scholars were in a work-made-for-hire situation with their employers, then they didn't have title to the copyright when they signed their contracts. That means that nearly all the publications in the journals before a certain year infringed on university copyrights. Since copyright is strict liability (that is, even if you think you're not infringing, you're still liable for damages) and since it's subject to high statutory damages ($150,000/work!) and since it lasts so long (meaning that all those works are still in copyright, still being infringed upon today), that means that the universities are owed several multiples of the total planetary GDP, each by all the major scholarly presses.

That's a hell of a bargaining chip.

So it's been quite distressing to many this morning to find out that Elsevier has now purchased SSRN. Everyone involved, of course, insists that "nothing will change" and that Elsevier will leave SSRN working as before, but perhaps with some more resources behind it (and, sure, SSRN could use some updates and upgrades). But Elsevier has such a long history of incredibly bad behavior that it's right to be concerned. Elsevier is not just a copyright maximalist (just last week at a hearing I attended involving the Copyright Office, Elsevier advocated for much more powerful takedown powers in copyright). It's not just suing those who make it easier to access academic info. It's not just charging insane amounts for journals. It also has a history of creating fake peer reviewed journals to help pharmaceutical companies make their drugs look better.

And it also has a history of lobbying heavily against open access, while similarly charging for open access research despite knowing it's not supposed to do this.

Disappointing: Elsevier Buys Open Access Academic Pre-Publisher SSRN [Mike Masnick/Techdirt]

Notable Replies

  1. "I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened."

  2. And where does that money go?

    That's a question that came up several years ago when I worked at a library that was trying to get an online Springer subscription that had been paid for activated. I was told, repeatedly, that it couldn't be activated because the one person who handled that was out of the office.

    A library director finally said, "As long as we're paying you more than a million dollars annually you can afford to hire a second person to handle online access."

    Things got a little better after that.

  3. renke says:

    CEO salary? Pretentious head office? Bribes expenses?

  4. They are rotating through domains every couple weeks as their existing once get seized.

  5. KXKVI says:

    I hope SciHub never goes away, and only continues to grow unimpeded.

    I hated having to pay a couple thou in page fees for the privilege of having a paper published in a journal, that then is paid for by subscription by your own library. As a US government researcher, at least our work was in the public domain so we didn't have any rights to sign away. But the publishers got smart, and made the form say "If U.S. government worker, this work is in the public domain in the United States ONLY." So we had to sign away our international rights! (If I recall correctly.) Supposedly if I sent a copy to someone in Europe, I'd be breaking the Copyright Laws (and probably a couple of Commandments). Not to mention I did all my own graphics, and some of it was pretty damn good (scientific merit or not). I got the cover once, I'm sure because the graphics were pretty, not due to the Nobel-Prize winning nature of the content.

    The last straw was when my professional society (Biomedical Engineering Society) went from a paper journal subscription to all electronic. Supposedly there was notification of the members, but I never saw it. So no more nice big issues of the Annals of the BME, full of articles I could browse (like, in the bathroom). Instead I had to download individual copies and either read them on my computer or print them out. And they didn't make it easy, even though it was free for members: I had to go to the society website, sign in as a member, then go to the publishers' site, sign in a SECOND time, then navigate to the journal (one of thousands), and download an article, one at a time. That is, if it worked! Talk about a pain in the ass. I gave up my membership at that point (and told them the reason too). Retired soon after (for other reasons!). Fuck them.

    Another society had a journal whose subscription was January to December, even if you joined in August. Being out of sync like that, the subscription always lapsed without my remembering to renew. They also had free issues, by a society/publisher website connection that was so bad I have no memory of it. And it was only free as far back as you were a member. You had to pay for any issues before that! (The payment part of the website always worked.)

    I like paper. It lets you scan the whole damn journal and actually broaden your horizons. This business of only reading single papers really sucks. It's okay for literature reviews, where you only need one paper from the Journal of Scottish Heather Botany or whatever. But the main journal of your own field?

    Edit: I really need to stop holding in my feelings.

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