Scholarly Communications On Fire

Roger C. Schonfeld writes for the Scholarly Kitchen today:


Today, Elsevier announces its acquisition of bepress. In a move entirely consistent with its strategy to pivot beyond content licensing to preprints, analytics, workflow, and decision-support, Elsevier is now a major if not the foremost single player in the institutional repository landscape. If successful, and there are some risks, this acquisition will position Elsevier as an increasingly dominant player in preprints, continuing its march to adopt and coopt open access.”

This development is just another clear indication that the company I often refer to as ‘The Dutch Giant’ is determined to control as much of the scholarly communications infrastructure worldwide as possible.

Academics (I include here not only ‘researchers’ but also students, editors, librarians, research officers, administrators, repository managers, the whole diversity of roles of everyone involved in the higher education enterprise) should be by now aware that soon it will be very hard to avoid altogether their monopolisation of academic work, even when research outputs have not been published in an Elsevier journal.

This is not, of course, new. Elsevier has for many years not been a mere ‘publisher’ in any traditional sense. They encompass the whole range of activity/behaviour/production in contemporary academia (teaching and institutional marketing/reputation management included). To give the most obvious example, Scopus, indeed “the largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature: scientific journals, books and conference proceedings”  is an Elsevier ‘solution’ whose influence already is virtually unavoidable in contemporary academia, regardless of where academic work has been published. The acquisition of Mendeley, the reference management/academic social networking software, also signalled the company’s goal is to profit from academics’ data, all data, in all forms and at all times, in all stages of the research and professional workflow/cycle.

Consider the main list of Elsevier ‘solutions’, as advertised on their main web site:

That’s quite the package, isn’t it? The acquisition of bepress publicised today is indeed a predictable yet particularly alarming development as it clearly demonstrates that Elsevier, which relies heavily on subscriptions for revenue (68% of their total revenue in 2014), understands that the combination of institutional repositories and national open access mandates (that, as in the UK, require researchers selfarchive their publications in their institutions’ repositories) are a viable alternative to the centralisation of academic content, and therefore, as the alternative they can be to subscriptions and APCs, represent a threat. If something competes with their model, it gets acquired.

It has to be said that this is not good news. This is not “exciting”, nor “big” news in a positive sense. It is scary and worrying. A critique of the growing monopolisation of the scholarly communications landscape (the global research market was recently estimated to be worth around $1.7 trillion) is not about tampering innovation nor entrepreneurship. Raising an alarm regarding the increased monopolisation from a for-profit third-party entity of virtually all aspects of academic production is a call to recognising that there are ethical and legal threats to academic freedom  and its diversity when for-profit monopolies/oligopolies become the de-facto providers of infrastructure.

This increasingly pervasive control over academic workflows leaves academics and the public disempowered  and unable to regain control over the work they produce and fund, and from having a say about who owns the work and all related data, how it is accessed and who gets to profit directly and indirectly from it. That much of that content has been publicly-funded by taxpayers and/or either privately or publicly by universities or funders, makes this development even more alarming.

These are just some quick, rushed, alarmed lines. I am looking forward to continuing the reflections that my colleague Domenico Fiormonte and I have been developing for some time now more thoroughly, and to also collaborate on addressing these threats to academic infrastructural diversity with my colleague Penny Andrews at some point very soon. Watch this space…

[What can we do? A follow-up to this post, here].

© kc green
© kc green