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.

Filed Under: academic research, copyright, open access, pre publisher, research, scoarxiv
Companies: arxiv, elsevier, socarxiv, ssrn


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  1. 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.

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