Libraries and Learning

Platforms and Profits

May 17, 2016

Maybe it’s because of my liberal education in a college of arts and sciences. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired. I’m always looking for connections, and this often happens when scrolling through Twitter. Today two items collided with a third.

The first: Sci-Hub is still in the news. In case you missed it, this is the site that collects copies of journal articles and makes them available without payment. It got a lot of publicity after Elsevier sued the woman who runs the site. Whether you believe her actions constitute a moral act of civil disobedience or despicable piracy of intellectual property, Sci-Hub is getting a lot of use. It’s likely to be more difficult to enforce paywalls once people get a taste of what it’s like to do research without them.

The second: Facebook has been accused of influencing what news stories appear in their “trending” section, with former employees accusing the social media platform of bias against conservative news. This has led to some confusing hand-wringing about whether algorithms are less biased than human editors, whether sites like Breitbart count as news, and how much influence Facebook has on people’s news-reading habits. News organizations are increasingly giving up a portion of their shrinking ad revenue to Facebook to live inside Facebook because that’s where readers are. The outrage news publishers once felt toward Google when it started aggregating news stories has faded into resignation. Now they feel they have to put their content inside other people’s walled gardens if they want to reach readers (and generate ad revenue).

And the third: I woke up on Tuesday to find that one of the oldest open archives of scholarship, SSRN, had been sold to Elsevier. I had to check the date – is this a joke? No, Elsevier, the largest and least loved of the big five commercial journal publishers, wants to own not just content but the process of creating it. They acquired Mendeley, a popular site for saving and sharing citations as well as papers, back in 2013. SSRN will retain its identity but become part of Mendeley, according to The Bookseller, which also characterizes this move as “helping researchers to better manage the publication journey from start to finish.” Joe Esposito told Nature that this is a natural move as free access to research becomes the norm. “The positioning is well thought out: lock up revenues to the legacy publishing business, move into areas where piracy is not much of an issue, create deeper relationships with researchers and become more and more essential to researchers even as librarians become less so.”

On Twitter, Jen Howard asked if librarians should be worried. At the Scholarly Kitchen, Roger Schonfeld asks even more questions. Librarians certainly should be thinking about what we can contribute to an open access world – after all, we’ve been advocating for it for decades. We need to figure out how we can contribute to a more open, more accessible world of knowledge. We can’t sit back and watch it happen around us.

But I think it’s researchers who should be worried. Handing over their finished articles to Elsevier hasn’t worked out all that well. If it did, there wouldn’t be so many visits to Sci-Hub. Letting Elsevier become a platform for the entire “research journey” seems unwise.

But to be honest, I’m not at all sure what it even means. How do you wring profits out of workflow? Is knowing who’s working on what and who’s paying attention going to be valuable enough that Elsevier can continue making its astonishing profit margin? Will they offer researchers or institutions metrics for a fee to make those profits? Will Elsevier’s involvement in pre-publishing activities coax authors to publish in Elsevier journals? Will Elsevier become like Facebook, a goldmine of personal information used for generating ads to a captive audience? What will they do about research that detours outside the Elsevier brand – defecting to the venerable arXiv, to newer non-profit platforms like Open Library of Humanities, or yet-to-be-invented platforms like that envisioned by Paul Gowder?

I suspect Elsevier, being big and profitable, wants to do what Facebook has done – become the place where you go because everybody else is there. I just don’t see how it’s going to provide the profits that Elsevier’s shareholders will likely demand.

And that’s fine by me. I’ve been boycotting Elsevier for a long time.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.