The social sciences research community has been buzzing over the announcement on May 17, 2016 that the Social Sciences Research Network (SSRN) has been acquired by Elsevier Publishing Group.
SSRN is a digital repository that was created in order to enable researchers in the social sciences to share their work in advance of its publication. Prior to the launch of SSRN, long delays between submission and print publication of papers had been a significant problem for researchers – particularly those working in rapidly changing and evolving fields. In addition, it was not always easy to find out who was working in similar areas or to be aware of developing trends in research as a result of the long publication delays. SSRN allows researchers to publish working papers, conference papers, and pre-print versions of accepted papers – as well as (where permitted by journals) published versions of papers. Access to the database is free to anyone with an Internet connection. This too is important for sharing academic research more broadly – many published academic journals sit behind digital paywalls making broader public access impractical or impossible. SSRN has been a game-changer, and it is now widely used by academics around the world as a vehicle for sharing research.
Elsevier is a commercial publisher which has, in the past, focused primarily on the fields of science, technology and health. It publishes over 2000 international journals. In recent years it has developed other information “solutions”. These include not only digital publishing platforms, but also data analytics, as well as tools to enhance and facilitate collaboration among researchers.
The controversy over the acquisition of SSRN lies in the deep distrust many researchers seem to have about the willingness of a commercial publisher known for its top-dollar subscriptions and generally restrictive access policies to maintain a publicly accessible information dissemination service that is free to both academics and the broader public. The founders of SSRN maintain that Elsevier, which also publishes open access journals, understands the need for broad sharing of research and has no intention of placing the site behind a paywall. They argue that SSRN’s acquisition by Elsevier will only enhance the services it can offer to scholars.
Critics of the sale of SSRN to Elsevier raise a number of concerns. One of these is, of course, whether SSRN will genuinely continue to be available as a free resource for sharing research. The reassurances of both Elsevier and SSRN’s founders are firm in this respect. Nevertheless, there are concerns that Elsevier might more strictly police what content is available on SSRN. It is likely the case that some academics post articles to which their publishers hold the copyright on the view that enough time has passed since publication to make free dissemination normatively if not legally acceptable.
The potential that access to some content might be limited is only one of the issues that should be on scholars’ radar – and it is probably not the most important one. By acquiring SSRN, Elsevier will enhance its expanding analytics capability – and data analytics are an important part of its business model. Researchers should consider the nature and extent of these analytics and how they might impact on the publication, dissemination, valuation and support for research in other venues and other contexts. For example, how might granting agencies or governments use proprietary data analytics to make decisions about what research to fund or not fund? Will universities purchase data from Elsevier to use in the evaluation of their researchers for tenure, promotion, or other purposes? Does it serve the academic committee to have so much data – and its analytic potential – in the hands of a single private sector organization? Given that this data might have important ramifications for scholars, and, by extension, for society, are there any governance, accountability or oversight mechanisms that will provide insight into how the data is collected or analyzed?
Essentially, the noble project that was SSRN has evolved into a kind of Facebook for academics. Researchers post their articles and conference papers to share with the broader community – and will continue to do so. While for researchers these works are what define them and are the “value” that they contribute to the site, the real commercial value lies in the data that can be mined from SSRN. Who collaborates with whom? How many times is a paper read or downloaded? Who cites whom, and how often? The commercialization of SSRN should be of concern to academics, but it is data governance and not copyright that should be the focus of attention.