The publishing giant Elsevier has insisted that it will not force academics to sign up to its other services in order to use the newly acquired Social Science Research Network (SSRN) repository.
But Elsevier’s purchase of SSRN earlier this week, which has dismayed open access advocates, could be the first of many as the publisher looks to build up an online network of scholars as an alternative to its publishing business.
The company did not disclose on what financial terms it had bought SSRN, which acts as a repository largely for pre-publication papers in social sciences and humanities and has more than 2 million members.
Open access advocates, who have been highly critical of Elsevier because of its historic opposition to open access and what they see as excessive profits, fear that the publisher could crack down on the free dissemination of papers.
“Elsevier will do with SSRN precisely what most benefits Elsevier. Let's not pretend any different,” wrote Mike Taylor, a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol, on Twitter.
One of the key issues is whether Elsevier will use its ownership of SSRN to force academics to sign up to its Mendeley reference management service, which it bought in 2013. Mendeley is competing with other online academic networks such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate, and Elsevier hopes to use it to offer academics and universities data about research dissemination.
Announcing the deal on Elsevier’s website, Gregg Gordon, SSRN’s chief executive, said that “in time, SSRN will migrate onto the Mendeley technology platform” and that it would “develop a timeline for eventual integration as a separate community on the Mendeley platform”.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Tom Reller, Elsevier’s head of global corporate relations, said that the publisher was not going to force users to join Mendeley to gain access to SSRN. “Nothing changes in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Another question is whether Elsevier will use its ownership of SSRN to remove already published papers which it has copyright over. In his announcement, Mr Gordon said that the “majority” of papers on SSRN were unpublished working papers “the versions of which Elsevier has always been open to sharing” and said that “both existing and future SSRN content will be largely unaffected”.
Paul Gowder, a law professor at the University of Iowa, attacked these as “weasel words” in a post on the website Medium and warned that they gave the company “a lot of room” to “adopt aggressive interpretations of its own contract and copyright rights and then implement those interpretations by fiat on the massive platform that it now owns”.
Asked whether any papers on SSRN would be taken down after the Elsevier acquisition, Mr Gordon told THE that he was “certain that there are some papers that slip through the cracks” in terms of copyright infringement, but insisted the site had “regularly” taken down such papers in the past and that its policy of being “respectful” towards copyright was not changing.
He added that SSRN did not take any copyright rights over shared material and this would not change.
The question now concerning open access advocates is whether Elsevier will buy up other open access repositories in order to control more of the online space in which academics work.
Asked whether the publisher planned further acquisitions, Mr Reller said that the company was looking to expand its network so it was of even more use to scholars.