Just As Open Competitor To Elsevier's SSRN Launches, SSRN Accused Of Copyright Crackdown

from the the-inevitable dept

A couple of months ago, we wrote about how publishing giant Elsevier had purchased the open access pre-publisher SSRN. SSRN is basically the place where lots of research that we regularly report on is published. Legal and economics academics quite frequently post their journal articles there. Of course, Elsevier has a well-known reputation for being extreme copyright maximalists in dangerous ways. Having Elsevier take over SSRN concerned a lot of academics, and even led to calls for alternatives, including many asking the famed arXiv to open a social science research operation as well.

Indeed, it appears that arXiv was paying attention, because just about a week ago, SocArXiv was announced, and it already has a temporary home hosted by Open Science Framework.

And perhaps this came just in time, because just as that happened, Stephen Henderson, a law professor, noted that SSRN took down his paper saying that they didn't think he retained the copyright to it.
When I posted a final PDF of an article for which not only do my co-author and I retain the copyright, but for which the contract also includes _explicit_ permission to post on SSRN, I received the typical happy “SSRN Revision Email” saying all was well. Only when I went to take a look, I found there was no longer any PDF to download at all—merely the abstract. So, download counts are gone, and no article. Not the former working version nor the final version. And then in the revision comments, I found this:

It appears that you do not retain copyright to the paper, and the PDF has been removed from public view. Please provide us with the copyright holder's written permission to post. Alternatively, you may replace this version with a working paper or preprint version, if you so desire. Questions and/or written permissions may be emailed to support@ssrn.com, or call 1-877-SSRNHELP (877-777-6435 toll free) or 1-585-442-8170 outside the US.

So, not only have they completely changed their model, but—at least to me—they gave no effective notice, and they pull papers without asking. Nobody bothered to _ask_ whether I had permission; they simply took down every version of the article and said nothing. Alas. And when I called customer support and someone called back, I pointed out that some profs have hundreds of articles posted for which SSRN doesn’t hold the copyright agreements. “Are you going to take all those down too?,” I asked. The answer, in essence, “Those were posted in error.” Unbelievable.
As that story started to make the rounds, SSRN insisted that it was just a technical glitch, in that it had sent the wrong email, but others aren't buying it.
And now, the Authors Alliance has come out with a notice telling SSRN authors that it may be time to try something new (such as SocArXiv) because Elsevier cannot be trusted. The Alliance notes that after Elsevier purchased SSRN, it reached out to Elsevier to try to get the company to commit to some basic principles of openness, and Elsevier refused:

Since we first heard of mega-publisher Elsevier’s acquisition of SSRN, the popular social sciences pre-print and working paper repository, we have expressed concern. Elsevier is not known to be an avid supporter of the open access publishing practices favored by many of our members, and has historically taken a restrictive stance toward author control and ownership of scholarship.

In response, we reached out to Elsevier and to SSRN with a set of principles the service could adopt that would reassure authors that SSRN could continue to be a go-to resource for those looking to refine and share their work. We have since heard back from SSRN: they would not commit to adopting even one of our principles. They offered more general reassurances that their policies would continue as before. We were not satisfied, but we decided to wait and see whether our fears would be borne out.

The article notes more examples of SSRN pulling down research, even when the authors do retain the copyright, combined with a misunderstanding of how Creative Commons licenses work. It seems fairly clear that this was not just the case of one email improperly sent. And thus, for those who rely on SSRN, it's probably time to start looking for alternative ways of posting documents.
SSRN authors: you have not committed to SSRN. You can remove your papers from their service, and you can opt instead to make your work available in venues that show real commitment to the sharing, vetting, and refinement of academic work.
The Authors Alliance also points out that researchers don't need to just post their research in one place, and can often host it themselves as well. But, it appears that SSRN under Elsevier is quickly losing trust. Considering that it was basically the go to place for all legal and economics research pre-publishing, that's quite a quick turn around, thanks entirely to Elsevier.

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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 18 Jul 2016 @ 4:15pm

    Mission Accomplished

    So Elsevier bought out a potential competitor, and in a matter of months managed to undercut it and damage the trust people who used it had in it through their bumbling of it, intentional or not.

    Seems like their 'investment' paid off in spades, though hopefully it will be a short lived victory as people simply pull their papers and move elsewhere, gutting the service and forcing Elsevier to start from scratch trying to undercut the next one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2016 @ 4:42pm

    "a misunderstanding of how Creative Commons licenses work"


    Mmmm. I can imagine the scene, I'm sure all parents can...

    "This is what a Creative Commons license means and how it works..."

    "I can't hear you. I can't see anything, I can't see any license, I can't see any paper"

    "Pay attention!"

    "Can't!! Won't!! You can't make me!!!"

    "Go to bed"

    "No, I don't have to do anything I don't want to!!"


    This is shameful. Good for arXiv.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2016 @ 4:52pm

    Elsevier

    It is my opinion that Elsevier is hopelessly tainted, that the taint subsumes anything they touch, and that the only reasonable response to this is to absolutely avoid and shun Elsevier - and any other corporation their officers and managers infest now and into the future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 18 Jul 2016 @ 5:18pm

    sounds more like intentional abuse than any sort of "misunderstanding" of how things legally work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2016 @ 3:12am

      Re:

      One wonders if there is any correlation between frequent access and removal frm SSRN, as the sight of money not being made must be pure torture for Elsevier.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Jul 2016 @ 5:21pm

    Disappointing. I hope the terms of service for SocArXiv includes clauses that make it an extremely unattractive buyout option in the future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      LawLibrarian, 20 Jul 2016 @ 12:33pm

      Re:

      SSRN was always a profit-making enterprise. SocArXiv is being established as non-profit as well as open-access from the get go. This should eliminate the motivation to purchase. Hopefully.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 18 Jul 2016 @ 8:23pm

    "publishing giant Elsevier had purchased the open access"

    Elsevier and Open Aceess. Oil and Water. Oil wants to own Water so it can eliminate it. Look out water.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Gregg Gordon, 19 Jul 2016 @ 10:38am

    we made a mistake, nothing more

    Late last week, one of our authors raised concerns about their submission to SSRN. One of our staff reviewed the PDF, and then removed it before ascertaining the author had permission to post it. This was a mistake as the author did have the correct permissions, and we reposted it immediately upon being notified. Some have taken this mistake to suggest there has been a copyright policy change resulting from our recent acquisition by Elsevier. This is not true.

    We have always worked to improve our processes, but mistakes do happen. While we worked to improve the compliance part of our submission process, we fell short in thinking through the communications with the authors, which resulted in some authors receiving confusing and contradictory emails about their submissions. We believe that up to 20 papers may have been affected. Nothing has changed in regard to our policies since being acquired by Elsevier. We regret the inconvenience and confusion that we caused.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Jul 2016 @ 10:00pm

      Re: we made a mistake, nothing more

      You're going to need to prove it better than that with Elsevier involved.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anon, a mouse, 21 Jul 2016 @ 2:07pm

      Re: we made a mistake, nothing more

      Why does your post move from the singular "author" in paragraph #1 to the plural "authors" of "up to 20 papers" in paragraph #2? Why does SSRN need a "compliance part [in their] submission process" in the first place? Are you not protected by the DMCA safe harbor provisions? Why are you assuming that your submitters don't hold copyright? Why wouldn't you assume they do until you receive a valid take-down notice?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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