If you’re an SSRN user, you got the notice in your Inbox yesterday; if you’re not, follow the links at the top of Leiter’s post here. Read the comments, too. It’s hard to know what to make of this acquisition, but for those not familiar, here’s a quick backgrounder: SSRN.com (“Social Science Research Network”) has, for a very long time, been a repository for freely available research online, particularly in law. Most law faculty post their papers on SSRN, where anybody else may freely download and read them. SSRN also has other categories: I post my papers there, and there’s an entire set of categories for philosophy. When you post a paper on SSRN, it makes you swear that you have the right to do so, and underscores that it does not take copyright in anything. I’m a heavy user of the site, as is every legal academic I know (that’s how I got to it: I read lots of law journal articles). Elsevier has now bought SSRN.
Philosophers tend to use academia.edu, which is unfortunate. You can’t download anything from the site without registering for it, and when you do, it tries to scrape the web and link your papers to your academia.edu site (or at least, it did when I make this mistake several years ago), and then sends you an email asking you to make sure the papers listed are all yours (the overinclusion in my case was comical, as there is somebody in physics whose initials are G Hull). You also get a barrage of emails: somebody just searched for you on google and found your academia.edu page! Click here to know where they were! Good grief. In computer terms, the site is basically trying hard to be sticky (causing people to go there and linger), and so it imitates Facebook, giving you lots of opportunities to curate your image, follow people, be followed, explore homepages, and so on, when all you thought you wanted to do was share your work for anybody who wanted to read it (the 5th comment on the Leiter page linked above goes into more detail). Did I mention that it comes with piles of corporate money?
At any rate, back to SSRN: they sold out to a massive publishing conglomerate with a very checkered history. Reed Elsevier had been behind legislation that would have banned NIH-style open access requirements, although they eventually dropped their support after a massive public outcry over the costs of their journals. They had also been a board member (not just a member) of ALEC (the American Legislative Council, which writes boilerplate legislation for the far right), until enough public pressure convinced them to leave. They’ve had a history of sending takedown notices to academia.edu at least as early as December 2013, though it’s fairly clear in the comments on the linked post that they were taking down the published versions of the articles, as opposed to a “preprint” (the version that gets accepted, before the copy-editing and formatting for the journal. Most publisher copyright transfers allow you to archive the preprint version. I can’t speak to Elsevier, but I just did one of these with Springer, and preprint archives were ok.)
The fear is that Elsevier will take down or otherwise make unavailable papers for which they have copyright (which is all papers they publish), or that they will do so on behalf other publishers, or that they will otherwise attempt to reduce the open-access world. One question is whether they will attempt to change the rules for preprints in their copyright transfer agreements. Whether by this or some other mechanism, the issue is important not just because the big journal publishers make money hand over fist, and seem to offer very little in return beyond formatting, serving as an electronic archive, and sending copyright takedown notices (the author writes the paper; academics peer-review it; the editor does all the legwork in between - all of this for free - and then the journal formats it and sells the subscription, often as part of a bundle, for thousands of dollars a year or more than $25-$50 per article). It’s important for some other reasons. First, for those of us who are state employees, the public has already paid for our research. It’s part of our compensation package, and to then be asked to pay extortionate fees to read it is just wrong. Second, the extravagant and increasing prices for journals are forcing libraries to diminish their book and other holdings. Finally, although those of us lucky enough to be permanently employed in an academic institution generally can generally get the official published/formatted version. But for people who are outside the academy, occupy precarious positions within it, or are in the “global South,” the paywalls simply prevent them from accessing the material.
None of this has happened, and I hope none of it will. But now is a good time to start paying attention.