Fears over potential publisher ‘monopoly’ in digital research tools

As Elsevier buys another academic workflow company, some worry about potential for publishers to ‘lock in’ scholars to their services

August 16, 2018
Car on monopoly board
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An acquisition by Elsevier has renewed fears that the world’s biggest academic publishers are seeking to buy up and monopolise the digital platforms that scholars use for their work.

The purchase of US-based Aries Systems, which offers workflow tools for academics, is seen by some observers as the latest step in a strategy by big publishers to create an end-to-end platform on which academics do everything from devising a research question all the way to tracking how many citations the resulting paper garners.

In many ways, such a platform could make life easier for academics – but it could also lock them into a particular publisher’s system. If that happens, some fear, large publishers with a captive audience could raise prices at will and also gain even more power over the research process.

Roger Schonfeld‪, director of the library and scholarly communication programme at Ithaka S+R, a non-profit advisory body for academic leaders, said that new academic workflow services have “tentacles everywhere, from the laboratory, to the research grants office, to academic personnel, which makes the switching costs potentially enormous”.

He has warned that publishers could lock academics into using only their tools by developing them into a seamless, unified process, selling them together in discounted bundles, and making it hard to move data to a different system.

If big publishers manage to create inescapable, integrated platforms, “the risk is not just that prices will rise, but also that, as we have seen with other categories of academic tools, a monopoly develops and service quality declines”, he said.

Not everyone sees the publishers’ new strategy as a threat. Lenny Teytelman, chief executive of ProtocolsIO, a repository for scientific methods, wrote on Twitter: “if we have a knee-jerk reaction against publisher efforts to diversify and explore non-journal space, we are basically pushing them to continue relying on subscription and asking them to fight OA [open access].”

The debate over the potential for “lock-in” has heated up as several publishers have gone on buying sprees. Last year, researchers from the University of Toronto found that since 2010 Elsevier has intensified acquisitions of data analytics tools, and was now buying up more companies in this area than in its traditional business of journals.

The company has sought to rebrand itself as a “global information analytics business” that “provides digital solutions and tools”, rather than a publisher. It has snapped up academic tools including the academic social network Mendeley, the preprint repository SSRN and the research metrics company Plum Analytics, which the Toronto researchers see as constituting a growing empire of services covering every part of the research process.

Other publishers have been making similar moves: in 2016, Wiley spent $120 million (£93.3 million) to buy Atypon, which provides online journal hosting services.

Lisa Hinchliffe, coordinator for information literacy services and instruction at the University of Illinois library, has argued that following the Aries acquisition, “Elsevier will now be providing publication services and, potentially, is poised to provide them as an integrated ‘vertical stack.’”

She said that there were parallels with the broader digital economy, where critics have accused Google and Facebook of running monopolistic and hugely profitable online platforms – although unlike these companies, academic publishers still own a lot of the content, she added.

Elisabeth Ling, Elsevier’s managing director for research products and research metrics, said: “At Elsevier, we are dedicated to making academic information in the broadest sense – articles, data, metrics, profiles – more widely available, easier to find, manage and report. We work continually on initiatives to enable seamless researcher and institution workflows by making our products interoperable and API-based.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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