Techdirt has just written about the amazing achievements of Sci-Hub, and how it now offers the vast majority of academic papers free online. One implication may be that traditional publishing, with high-cost journals hidden behind paywalls, is no longer viable. But as we noted, that doesn't mean that traditional publishers will disappear. For one thing, many are embracing open access, and finding it pretty profitable (some would say too profitable thanks to things like "double dipping".) But there's another way that academic publishers, particularly the biggest ones with deep pockets, can head off the threat to their profits from developments like Sci-Hub and open access: by diversifying.
Mike wrote about one example last year, when Elsevier bought the preprint service Social Science Research Network (SSRN), arguably the most popular repository of research in the fields of economics, law and the social sciences. Since SSRN deals in preprints, which can be freely downloaded, sites like Sci-Hub are no threat. Similarly, preprints are generally posted before submission to journals, and therefore can flourish whether or not those journals are open access. Now we have yet another significant move by Elsevier, reported here on the Scholarly Kitchen blog:
Elsevier announces its acquisition of bepress. In a move entirely consistent with its strategy to pivot beyond content licensing to preprints, analytics, workflow, and decision-support, Elsevier is now a major if not the foremost single player in the institutional repository landscape. If successful, and there are some risks, this acquisition will position Elsevier as an increasingly dominant player in preprints, continuing its march to adopt and coopt open access.
As that post explains, Bepress is not a publishing company, but seeks to provide key elements of the general infrastructure needed for scholarly communications. That includes things like repositories -- the stores of articles produced by researchers at an institution, or covering a specific field -- and "showcases". Bepress's product in this field is called Digital Commons. It claims to be:
the only comprehensive showcase that lets institutions publish, manage, and increase recognition for everything produced on campus -- and the only institutional repository and publishing platform that integrates with a full faculty research and impact suite.
It's a shrewd acquisition by Elsevier. It continues to move the company beyond the role of a traditional publisher into one that can offer a complete solution for the academic world, with products and services handling every aspect of scholarly work. By acquiring more and more parts of this solution, Elsevier can integrate them ever-more tightly, which will encourage users of one element to adopt others. If this process of integration can be carried out successfully, it will leave Elsevier with almost total control of the sector, beyond even today's already profitable position.
That may be great for Elsevier shareholders, but it limits choices for the academic community. Fortunately, there are ways to counter Elsevier's rise to monopoly power. Techdirt wrote about one of them last year, when a new open preprint repository for the social sciences, SocArXiv, was created soon after Elsevier bought SSRN. There are already a number of open source alternatives to Bepress products, and supporting those rather than moving to Elsevier-owned services is an obvious move for those in the academic community who wish to preserve their independence. The problem is that doing so is likely to require a certain amount of effort, and it may be that institutions, libraries and academics don't have the time or energy to do that, and they will simply sign up to Elsevier's monoculture without worrying too much about the long-term consequences.
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