Elsevier acquisition highlights the need for community-based scholarly communication infrastructure

This blog post was written jointly by Kathleen Shearer, Executive Director of COAR, and Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, and is also available on the SPARC website.

September 6, 2017

Like many others in the scholarly community, we were very disappointed to learn about the recent acquisition by Elsevier of bepress, the provider of the popular Digital Commons repository platform. (1) The acquisition is especially troubling for the hundreds of institutions that use Digital Commons to support their open access repositories. These institutions now find their repository services owned and managed by Elsevier, a company well known for its obstruction of open access and repositories. (2)

While we were disappointed, we were not surprised. Elsevier’s interest in bepress and Digital Commons is reflective of the company’s long term strategy to stake an ownership claim in all the functions vital to the research cycle—from data gathering and annotation, to sharing and publication, to analytics and evaluation. Prior high-profile acquisitions (including SSRN and Mendeley) have made this strategy crystal clear. While this might be a smart business move on the part of a commercial company, it presents significant challenges and risks to the academic and research community.

The dangers inherent in the increasing control of crucial research communication functions in the hands of a small number of commercial players are well-known and well-documented. (3) The dysfunction in the academic journal market serves as a case in point. This consolidated control has led to unaffordable costs, limited utility of research articles, the proliferation of western publishing biases, and a system in which publisher lock-in through big deal licenses is the norm. This situation is damaging for the research enterprise, individual researchers, and for society. Further consolidation of the market across functions and platforms—including key elements like research information systems and open access repositories—will exacerbate this already unhealthy situation.

As organizations and communities, COAR and SPARC have spoken out and regularly taken action to support researchers and academics in taking back control of the research enterprise  to ensure that it functions in a manner that has the public good at its center. We share the end goals of maximizing the benefits of research through investing in and sustaining an ecosystem that nurtures openness, innovation, diversity, and equity. We also share a commitment to supporting the vital role that open access repositories play in making this kind of an ecosystem a reality.

COAR’s Next Generation Repositories initiative aims to position repositories, libraries, and research institutions as the foundation for a distributed, globally networked infrastructure for scholarly communication. This work involves developing new functionalities for repositories on top of which layers of value added services, such as peer review, can be deployed. (4) We believe that an international network of next generation repositories, collectively managed by the scholarly community, has the power to transform our system for communicating research—making it more research-centric, and open to and supportive of innovation. The use of open source platforms, with appropriate community governance, is also critical to this goal and to preventing greater commercial control of scholarly content and associated services. COAR has also been working to strengthen and align the major repository networks around the world to help advance this vision. (5)

Rather than viewing the bepress acquisition as simply another occasion to register our collective disappointment, we are committed to making the development of community-owned infrastructure a priority, and to using this opportunity to catalyze positive community action. This acquisition has highlighted the vulnerability of the research communication enterprise and underscores the need for us to more clearly articulate our vision for the future of scholarly communication, the principles associated with that vision. In the coming months, COAR and SPARC will work together to move this discussion forward, and collaborate with the broader library community and other stakeholders to undertake the actions required to ensure that research communications is a community supported and owned enterprise.

(1) See the news article: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/08/03/elsevier-makes-move-institutional-repositories-acquisition-bepress

(2) https://www.coar-repositories.org/activities/advocacy-leadership/statements-and-guidelines/petition-against-elseviers-sharing-policy/

(3) https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science

(4) https://www.coar-repositories.org/activities/advocacy-leadership/working-group-next-generation-repositories/

(5) https://www.coar-repositories.org/activities/advocacy-leadership/aligning-repository-networks-across-regions/aligning-repository-networks-international-accord/

4 thoughts on “Elsevier acquisition highlights the need for community-based scholarly communication infrastructure

  1. Community-based scholarly communication infrastructure needs support – both moral and financial. Academia needs to spend at least a fraction of the resources committed to commercial companies to community-based initiatives. I favor either a voluntary contribution or a multi-tiered membership fee structure affordable to less endowed institutions too.

  2. CLACSO, network of 611 social science research institutions in 47 countries, agrees with COAR and SPARC vision on the need of worldwide support to community-based scholarly communication infrastructures. Our 2015 declaration http://bit.ly/2eLyrMz

  3. Green is the colour of the solution we are all looking for. Community-based repositories – at the level of institutions and countries – as well as central (world level) repositories such as arXiv are all that we need.

  4. The key is widespread use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) infrastructure.

    Businesses and Not-for-Profits that use FOSS create competition for other models.

    Not for profits that fail to use FOSS licenses or use non-commercial clauses for knowledge they create are not much better than their for profit counterparts.

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