Mega-Publisher Elsevier Is Buying an Open Research Site. That's Bad for Science

Reed Elsevier just bought the Social Science Research Network, threatening its free access and pre-print model.

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May 17 2016, 6:23pm

Image: Steven Guzzardi/Flickr

The Social Science Research Network (SSRN) is an open access repository of scientific papers that's treasured by academics, journalists and researchers—and it's easy to see why. For years the site has provided free publishing and access to pre-prints of more than 500,000 academic papers on topics ranging from privacy law to socioeconomics and media studies.

But academics were understandably worried after it was announced on Tuesday that the site has been acquired by infamous mega-publisher Reed Elsevier. The move follows the company's previous acquisition of Mendeley, a collaborative research platform Elsevier says will enhance SSRN's massive store of scientific articles.

Among the corporate gatekeepers of the science publishing industry, Elsevier is arguably the biggest and undoubtedly the most notorious of the bunch. For years the company has been ruthlessly cracking down on the sharing of academic material it owns the rights to, eventargeting academics for publishing their own papers on personal websites.

"Seriously, this is a huge step backwards. It's precisely predatory behavior by the likes of Elsevier that makes SSRN so valuable," wrote cryptographer Matt Blaze.

Access to academic research has always been crucial in the scientific field, both for researchers to build off each other's work and for the public to gain an understanding of what their tax dollars are paying for. But the publishing process is controlled by for-profit corporations like Elsevier and Springer that often charge obscene amounts for access to some of the most prestigious and important scientific journals.

"It's precisely predatory behavior by the likes of Elsevier that makes SSRN so valuable."

Reading a single Elsevier-published article can cost upwards of $40 a pop, and critics have called out the company and other closed-access publishers for hoarding publicly-funded science while enjoying large profit margins. (The nature of the industry means that while publishers have little overhead, they still get paid on both ends—by those who access the articles and by the researchers themselves.)

More recently, Elsevier's legal wrangling successfully shut down the domain hosting of Sci-Hub and LibGen, two open-access sites that host millions of scientific papers normally blocked by paywalls. The sites have since been forced underground, available via the anonymous Tor network.

"Elsevier has a history of copyright litigation, site-blocking, and pushing for things like SOPA and PIPA. So a site like SSRN could rather radically change under its stewardship," Matthew Rimmer, a professor of Intellectual Property and innovation law at the Queensland University of Technology, told Motherboard in an email.

In response to the outcry from academics, SSRN has promised that a "free version of SSRN will always be there for users," and that "As a user you'll see minimal difference followed by innovation." Elsevier also claims that it "will continue to enable [SSRN] users to 'submit for free and download for free'" and that the site's open access "ethos will remain intact."

But the full terms of the buy-out are unclear, and critics are understandably skeptical that things will stay the same. Given that SSRN hosts pre-prints of academic articles, it seems likely given Elsevier's track record that those drafts might disappear if Elsevier buys the rights to the finalized versions.

Motherboard contacted Elsevier asking under what conditions the company would take down content from SSRN, but hasn't received a response.