UTSC IDS alumnus Alejandro Posada and George Chen, of the University of Toronto, found that "increased control of scholarly infrastructure … could further entrench publishers' power and exacerbate the vulnerability of already marginalized researchers and institutions."
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Elsevier’s Presence on Campuses Spans More Than Journals. That Has Some Scholars Worried.
On a recent panel on challenges to the future of teaching and research, Colleen Lyon outlined what was, to her, a "dangerous" dynamic in the world of academic publishing.
Lyon, a librarian of scholarly communications at the University of Texas at Austin, listed scholarly-publishing tools that had been acquired by the journal publishing giant Elsevier. In 2013, the company bought Mendeley, a free reference manager. It acquired the Social Science Research Network, an e-library with more than 850,000 papers, in 2016. And it acquired the online tools Pure and Bepress — which visualize research — in 2012 and 2017, respectively.
Lyon said she started considering institutions' dependence on Elsevier when the company acquired Bepress two years ago. She was shocked, she recalled in a recent interview.
"It just got me thinking," she said. Elsevier had it all: Institutional repositories, preprints of journal articles, and analytics. "Elsevier, Elsevier, Elsevier, Elsevier, Elsevier."
Scholars are beginning to discuss the idea of Elsevier-as-monolith at conferences and in their research. Not only are librarians and researchers speaking openly about the hefty costs of bulk subscriptions to the company's premier journals, but they're also paying attention to the products that Elsevier has acquired, several of which allow its customers to store data and share their work.
Administrators are concerned about what this means on two fronts, said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, who has discussed these issues with campus officials.
First, institutions fear having less leverage in negotiations, believing that it would be more challenging to move to a different provider if Elsevier's products were adopted en masse. But, she said, they are also worried about one company's controlling so many tools that analyze not only the reach and performance of research but also the professors and institutions that produce it.
The skepticism could complicate the relationship between universities and Elsevier just as, on some campuses, it's showing new strain. Academic libraries have begun to muse publicly about the future of their relationship with the company as their budgets are strained by bulk journal contracts. The University of California system's high-profile decision to cease negotiations with Elsevier this year has raised the stakes.
Tom Reller, an Elsevier spokesman, said in an email to The Chronicle that several tools that Elsevier has acquired are already paid services. "This isn't news, this is just a generic discussion," he wrote in response to the concerns that Lyon expressed on the panel.
But researchers have raised similar concerns. Two of them last year looked at the question of how Elsevier's acquisitions have changed knowledge production.
In a recent paper, Alejandro Posada and George Chen, of the University of Toronto, found that "increased control of scholarly infrastructure … could further entrench publishers' power and exacerbate the vulnerability of already marginalized researchers and institutions."
'Anyone Work for Elsevier?'
Also among Posada and Chen's findings was that Elsevier's broad acquisition of tools and services along the research pipeline makes it harder for professors and institutions to cut ties with the company.
"The integration of the data that they control, not only in terms of content but in terms of all the other data they use, makes it a lot harder to function outside the system," Posada, a research associate at Toronto, said in an interview.
Reller, Elsevier's spokesman, wrote in his email that one of the company's four critical principles is that the researcher is in control: "No one technology can, nor should, make decisions on behalf of the researcher. Rather, the information system supporting research needs to put the user in control, supporting the critical decisions they have to make."
Still, some academics have expressed frustration with Elsevier's acquisitions.
At an open-access conference in February, Leslie Chan, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, asked the audience an icebreaker question: "Who here works for Elsevier?"
Then he said, "I would argue that we all work for Elsevier."
These conversations are accelerating, Joseph said. She urges institutions to take a holistic look at their contracts to understand how different areas of the university depend on vendors that store and analyze research data.
These relationships run deep. For example, even after the California system broke off negotiating a new contract with Elsevier, people on its campuses still use Elsevier products.
Two of the system's library websites, on the Merced and Irvine campuses, host guides on how to use Mendeley, an official said. Law-school research at Berkeley is visualized by the Digital Commons Network, which is also owned by Elsevier. While Merced and Irvine do not pay for Mendeley, the law school at Berkeley pays for the network, an official said.
David Horton is one of many professors in the California system who hosts some of his recent legal scholarship on Social Science Research Network. Horton, a law professor on the Davis campus, first used SSRN when he was on the job market a decade ago, to widen the reach of his scholarship. He still subscribes to the Elsevier-owned service's e-journals as "a way of keeping a finger on the pulse" of new publications.
So when he saw the UC system's announcement calling off Elsevier negotiations, he first wondered about SSRN and his ability to post and read papers there. "That's sure a part of my day."
He needn't have worried. Ivy Anderson, one of the lead negotiators for the university system as it considered its Elsevier journal subscriptions, wrote in an email to The Chronicle through a spokeswoman that the focus of negotiations was on journals, not other products, like certain databases and ebooks.
"Consistent with the focus on journals, we did agree systemwide that individual campuses would not license journals we had canceled," she wrote. "Individual campuses are free, however, to continue or renew licenses to other products."
Anderson acknowledged that some people are concerned about Elsevier's investment in so many products along the pipeline of research production.
She takes a different view. "Tools will survive or fall based on the value they offer," she wrote. "The key issue for the scholarly community is to remove barriers that lock away access to and use of original research."