SSRN, Elsevier and the future of scholarly infrastructure.

So Elsevier has bought SSRN, a private company that fills a role for many academics that is an exemplar of the power and utility of a true commons for scholarship.

There is much wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth, and the obligatory call for the community to pony up and create a true open piece of infrastructure.

Well, it turns out building things is pretty hard, and building things that people will actually use is even harder. In the long run if the infrastructure of scholarly communication is going to be as open as we would like it to be, it’s going to require serious buy-in from funders, institutions and researchers. Its telling that one of the most fundamental pieces of scholarly infrastructure — CrossRef, is essentially funded by publishers, and another Google Scholar is owned and run by a small group within a very large company.

We may wake up one morning in magic pony land where all of the infrastructure we want is sufficiently funded, and researchers are self-enlightened enough about the odd incentive schemes at play within the race for funding, that they take the collective action to all abandon journals and self publish and review work in an open transparent and reproducible manner, but until that day things like the Elsevier acquisition of SSRN are going to keep happening (I wouldn’t be surprised if ResearchGate is next up to start acquiring things soon, a ResearchGate acquisition of anyone?).

So what is the optimistic outcome, and what is the pessimistic outcome for this acquisition?

To understand that I I think it’s helpful to understand the landscape that Elsevier is operating in. They are a publicly listed, massively profitable company, but they are working in an industry where all of the writing on the wall is telling them that funders want to move to fully OA models, and want pricing for OA to come down. Libraries have been bled dry and there is no more profit expansion to be had in that direction. Generally markets like to see the capacity for growth, and the capacity for growth in Elsevier’s traditional revenue streams looks small. That’s generally not good for a publicly listed company.

I think internally Elsevier has two options, one is to double down on its existing model — one which has tended to extract far more value from the academic landscape than it has created. The other option is to move to services, and seek growth in services. I like to think that perhaps there is a great debate inside the company with some people on the side of the traditional model, and some good souls trying to move to the company to a services model, but that’s a naive reading, and the truth is almost certainly much more complex. All of the people that I have met who work in Elsevier are good people who seem to really have the interests of the researchers at heart, but historically Elsevier made it’s great profits through monopsonomic business practices.

So, the pessimistic view on what is going to happen is that Elsevier discovers that it can’t sufficiently replace it’s current revenue streams with services, and as it hits market push-back it shutters things like SSRN (perhaps folds it into Mendeley, but then leaves it’s product side under invested in, while eventually turning Mendeley into something much less fully featured than it is now). It uses the captured market that is has on the SSRN side to put tighter copyright controls in place, and researchers are forced by practice, habit and lack of options to demand that their institutions buy whatever product Elsevier puts into play. I’ll be honest I don’t really see this as a likely outcome.

The Optimistic outcome is that Elsevier get’s to a place where it is happy to abandon it’s current profit margins, is willing to massively downsize, and somehow finds a way to make the service offering that it puts in play be actually able to pay for the massive burn rate that Mendeley, and other infrastructure plays, must be costing it at the moment. In this world Elsevier is no longer a journal publisher, and all content coming from Elsevier is openly available, and we all get a nice happy feeling about their brand, and everything they do actually accelerates research, rather than holding it back. Somehow I don’t see this as a likely outcome either.

Probably they are going to try to integrate SSRN usage and users into whatever infrastructure they have for user data across Elsevier. I expect that SSRN will get some product updates. I expect that the actual burn rate of operating SSRN is so small that not much is going to change on the SSRN side for the next few years, but what I would expect to see happening is Elsevier wanting to build analytics and profiles around all of the interests and research for all researchers who currently interact with SSRN. The services they may be hoping to get out of this may be services that can be sold to advertisers, to product companies, in effect they may be looking to make a pivot from the content being what they sell, to the researchers being what they sell. That would be very interesting, and a bit worrying.