SSRN, Elsevier, Mendeley, and the Future of Academic Libraries

Today’s news that Elsevier has acquired the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) brings with it shivers of fear to librarians and researchers everywhere. Scrappy, independent SSRN — the long-established open access repository for working papers in law, economics and various humanities disciplines — will now be part of one of the largest publishing entities on earth.

Elsevier’s profit margins remain the stuff of legend, thanks to its core business model of offering subscriptions or licenses to journal content deemed (by people who do not have to pay for it) indispensable. Once you obtain a monopolistic hold on such content you can charge whatever price the market will bear, including prices that vastly exceed the rate of inflation.

Although this has been Elsevier’s modus operandi for decades (along with other publishers such as Wiley and Springer), change is in the wind. Three years ago Elsevier bought Mendeley, an online reference manager program that also connects people to potential collaborators. Rather than the exclusive focus on “content,” Elsevier is now getting into the “workflow” game. The Mendeley acquisition caused similar angst as today’s SSRN news, but three years later it remains free to use. Similarly, Elsevier promises that SSRN will remain free.

Time will tell, but my bet is that SSRN actually will remain free. There is no good reason for Elsevier to charge for SSRN. As Roger Schonfeld points out on the Scholarly Kitchen, Elsevier does not need cash from SSRN so much as business intelligence: “There is a wealth of information in the usage logs of services like SSRN that could help guide editors trying to acquire manuscripts for publication or that could assist business development efforts for journal acquisitions.” So this would be “free” in the same way that using Facebook is free — money does not change hands, but valuable user data is provided instead.

Such a result would be troubling, both from a user privacy perspective and for the future of academic librarianship. The ultimate aim here is to disintermediate librarians from the dissemination and publishing ecosystem entirely. Publishing consultant Joe Esposito says as much in the Nature piece about the SSRN acquisition: “ Elsevier is now getting closer and closer to researchers with business models that don’t involve libraries. 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 [Sci-Hub has taken a big swing at the journal content part of Elsevier’s portfolio], create deeper relationships with researchers and become more and more essential to researchers even as librarians become less so.” (Emphasis mine)

Esposito has promoted direct-to-consumer sales by publishers for a long time, and so his emphasis of this point is not surprising. But even allowing for his bias, Esposito is correct. Why wouldn’t publishers want to cut out the middle step of selling through libraries? That’s extra staff, money and time. On the other side of the pendulum, more librarians are interested in becoming publishers for exactly the same reasons.

Librarians and publishers both want to simplify the supply chain.

Publishers are better positioned to exploit this possibility than are librarians. Publishers already have strong and direct ties to potential authors from across the globe, and the ability to set dynamic prices for various services such as copy-editing articles and marketing published pieces. And — crucially — academic publishers control the copyrights of much of what they publish.

Per Darwin, then, one potential outcome is the inevitable (if protracted) collapse of academic librarianship. There is enough money from grant overheads and tuition payments to afford whatever publishing infrastructure we need, and publishers can work directly with authors to solicit and refine work. In the future SSRN users can use the service to sport their newest findings, then collaborate with an Elsevier editor to formally publish that work on terms which most individual readers can easily afford.

Bye bye librarian, it’s been real.

This may well happen, but I am much more hopeful. Even if the academic library does become obsolete as a means of providing access to scholarship, that is only one of its functions. There is also preservation of the digital record, curation of a vast corpus into meaningful and usable information, and nurturing the work of new fields and/or those without immediate commercial application.

Sure, publishers may believe that they can also do any or all of these things. But as business entities (whether for-profit or non-profit) they will be hard-pressed to actually do so. This is not an anti-capitalist screed, just an acknowledgment that the decisions necessary to maintain cash flows are not the same as those required to maintain our scholarly and cultural record.

Academic librarians have a very bright future ahead of us, whatever the doomsayers pronounce, as long as reconsider our roles while maintaining our values.

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