Emerging controls in Elsevier's scholarly communications ecology

As I’ve written about Elsevier’s service development strategy in the distant past, I’ve decided to shame myself into making some fresh comment and help kick the tires of a very neglected DarkRepository.

Elsevier’s ongoing acquisitions programme turned another chapter on Monday with news that it had acquired bepress, (formerly the Berkeley Electronic Press), an academic software firm producing products and services to support scholarly communication. According to the press release, goodness will flow through integration with ‘Elsevier’s suite of research products, such as Scopus, Pure, SSRN and SciVal [and] will enhance the breadth and quality of the reach, promotion and impact services bepress delivers to its customers.’

The bepress suite of products includes Digital Commons, characterised as ‘an institutional repository, a comprehensive publishing platform, and a fully integrated research and impact suite [Expert Gallery Suite] for experts at your institution’. On the academic publishers’ blog The Scholarly Kitchen, Roger C. Schonfeld has described the deal as making Elsevier ‘…a major if not the foremost single player in the institutional repository landscape’. I can’t say if the hyperbole was intended but Schonfeld does reference a UKCoRR discussion from 2015 indicating what the trajectory could mean for research support infrastructure in UK HE.

When it comes to any disruption to its business strategies, Elsevier has been masterful at controlling the language to control the debate. It also has deep pockets from decades of market dominance in academic publishing, a shameless corporate ethos when it comes to political lobbying and a reputation for aggressively defending its acquisition of copyright to the published outputs of predominantly publically funded research.

There can be little argument that acquiring bpress is further evidence of a strategy to compliment rather than supersede its established publication services. With SciVal/Scopus and Plum (not a dessert) it also has a suite of data driven 'metric and impact' indicators supporting national and global assessments of research output and university quality. The attraction of being inside this tent should not be underestimated and it's the Research Office not the Library that will be more likely to make the call. 

So what exactly does Elsevier hope to gain from the deal?

Elsevier's acquisition of the PURE Current Research Information System (CRIS) in 2013 came at a time when the main driver for research support infrastructure development in UK HE was REF2014. As an institutional repository manager, I worked with the platform between 2012 and 2014. PURE does a lot of things brilliantly, particularly research output data management and reporting, but its built-in repository service is dismal. So dismal that I became convinced that the development of basic repository interoperability functions to share or expose content to other services had been parked while Elsevier/SciVal designed its model to accommodate the development of a locked-in scholarly communications ecology. In light of Elsevier’s ongoing service acquisition strategy I don’t believe I was too far off the mark.

With the bpress/Digital Commons acquisition does Elsevier have a piece of the jigsaw to develop a fit for purpose institutional repository service integrated with PURE? Perhaps but only to a point. Working with the Digital Commons platform to extract metadata for harvesting to RIAN.ie (Ireland’s national research portal) was, to say the least, challenging but ultimately successful.  That said, I don’t believe that facilitating content aggregation will be a service development priority for Elsevier unless that aggregation is an outcome incorporating controls to manage it as an Elsevier business process.

The May 2016 acquisition of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) was a far bolder move by Elsevier to dominate and dictate the pace of change in academic publishing on its own terms. The service allows the open dissemination of ‘working papers’ thereby supporting a pre-publication declaration of research interest related to a particular topic. It has been operational since 1994 and is widely used across the social sciences. Working papers appearing in SSRN can be considered as early drafts which may subsequently appear as published and peer-reviewed papers in academic journals. While this acquisition has obvious cost-benefits it has the potential to increase control over the decisions authors make regarding the transfer of copyright and licensing early in the publication lifecycle. Don’t be surprised if these controls are extended into Elsevier’s forthcoming ‘institutional repository’ service.