Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Selling Out, Academic Publishing Edition

Yesterday, news quickly spread that the Social Science Research Network was bought by Elsevier.  This quickly caused an uproar on twitter.  Why?  The SSRN was established to provide a place for social scientists to share their work in progress.  Elsevier is one of the most rapacious rent-seeking profitable publishes of academic journals.

Elsevier charges large amounts of money to universities so that universities can provide access to bundles of journals (the de-bundling movement in cable might remind folks that bundling is not an altruistic strategy by those facing little competition).  These publications are "gated" in that one can only access via a subscription.  The "good news" is that a scholar can pay Elsevier or another one of its ilk to permanently (more or less) provide open access to an article one has published--the scholar only has to pay Elsevier a thousand more or dollars for that.

In short, Elsevier and other journal publishers are the enemy of open access (amazing how many people on the internet came up with that exact phrase at the same time).  SSRN assured folks on the internet that their policies would not change (much?).  Ok, but even if SSRN does not change much, if the deal helps Elsevier, it is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, right?  Which makes SSRN selling out .... academic treason, right?

Elsevier's profit seeking is simply bad for academia.
  • Escalating prices for subscriptions crowds out other spending by university libraries so they have to buy fewer books (bad for academics who either want access to books or have libraries buy their books) and makes universities have to choose which journals to carry or drop.
  • The high and gloriously unjustified price for un-gating a single article, combined with grants requiring more access, means diverting grant money to Elsevier and its ilk rather than spending on graduate students, post-docs, books, research materials, etc.
  • The non-academic world has limited means to access this articles, which makes it a bit harder to be relevant.
  • and on and on.
The good news is that the internet facilitates collective action that might ultimately lead to online journals that supplant the highly ranked yet highly expensive journals that are bundled by one of a few major academic publishers.
The bad news is that Elsevier and its fellow oligopolists can try to buy out the various contenders, just as they did with SSRN, to maintain their shared monopoly of academic publishing.
The good news is that others will arise who might have some principles and choose not to sell out to the enemy.

Oh, and here is some of my twitter interactions with SSRN yesterday:

Which reminds me: I need to go to my SSRN account and remove my paper (alas, two earlier papers were uploaded while I was at McGill, and I don't know how to access that account since it is tied to an email account that no longer exists).  Sorry to make it harder for folks to get my stuff, but I am not going to help those who give aid and comfort to the enemy.

No comments: