Today, 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.

wheat fields
Wheat Fields by Jacob van Ruisdael (Dutch, Haarlem 1628/29–1682 Amsterdam), circa 1670.


The acquisition target is a company with an interesting history and product portfolio. Like SSRN, Elsevier’s last major acquisition of a standalone company, bepress was founded by academics who saw opportunities to transform scholarly communications. In both cases, they have profited richly from their vision.  

Originally started by scholars at Berkeley in the fields of law and economics as Berkeley Electronic Press, bepress was first established to publish journals with improved time to publication using an innovative incentive structure to reward peer reviewers. The journals portfolio grew to 67 titles and was sold in 2011 to DeGruyter.

Today, bepress is focused not on journal publishing but on the infrastructure of scholarly communication and showcasing scholarship. When I asked him yesterday to define the company, CEO Jean-Gabriel Bankier began by saying, “We build research showcases.”

While the journals portfolio developed, bepress launched a cloud-based institutional repository system called Digital Commons. Institutional repository platforms are used by many libraries for a variety of purposes including assembling a university’s scholarship through article preprints and other materials. Other uses include the storage and dissemination of student works (such as theses and dissertations), datasets, and special collections and grey literature. Digital Commons has embraced this diversity and it competes in a number of different product categories.

Now the signature bepress product, Digital Commons counts more than 500 participating institutions, predominantly US colleges and universities. bepress claims a US market share of approximately 50% overall, recognizing that not all institutions have an institutional repository. Among those universities that conduct the greatest amount of research, for example the 115 US universities with highest research activity, bepress lists 34 as Digital Commons participants, for a market share of about 30%. Market penetration in this segment is lower because many of the larger research libraries have turned to open source solutions that are locally installed. No repository solution dominates, and while bepress may be strongest by some measures, it is hardly a monopolist. It also has not developed a strong presence beyond the US, although with a global marketing and sales engine this could change.

A related bepress product is Experts Gallery Suite, which functions in some ways as an add-on to Digital Commons, allowing institutions to showcase the work and expertise of their scholars.

Over time, bepress has built a healthy business that is not only cash flow positive but profitable. As the appetite for acquisitions in the scholarly communications has heated up, as I foresaw a year ago,  bepress is a promising target.  

Elsevier Strategy

Elsevier’s strategy for moving beyond content licensing has been unfolding in public. While its roots are as a publisher, today it describes itself as an “information and analytics” company, a distinction that is more than just rhetorical.

Elsevier has moved to become a substantial player in the gold open access marketplace, by its own account the second largest publisher of open access articles. While some efforts to transition national site licenses to hybrid publishing agreements have been fraught, this may be little more than transitional pains. Consortial cancellations and threats to do so notwithstanding, Elsevier’s science business remains strong. While the largest publisher, Elsevier has relatively close competitors, and as SpringerNature merges its two content bundles together in library sales and better integrates its open offerings it is worth watching closely.

Elsevier is also moving beyond publishing to support academic science. It has been on a major acquisitions spurt for the better part of a decade, buying up and then further developing a variety of scientist-facing services such as Hivebench, Mendeley, Pure, and SSRN, which collectively position it to serve scholars and universities from the research design and grant application stages through laboratory research and to and even beyond publication. There are vast opportunities to integrate these tools, including their infrastructure, data, and authentication mechanisms. Some of this integration is taking place at an appropriately methodical pace, but there is also reason to believe that Elsevier is having some trouble integrating them as rapidly as it might have been expected to do. But, over time this portfolio will become more seamless for customers and end users and it is on a strong path strategically. Digital Science — a sibling company to SpringerNature — is the only competitor demonstrating an interest in building a similar kind of portfolio, but although it is bundling products together for sales purposes (for example, at Carnegie Mellon), it seems to be less focused on integrating discrete products onto a common infrastructure and for a seamless user experience.

The Bidding

When the bepress board decided to sell, the bidding for it this summer included interest from both private equity firms and a variety of purchasers with strategic interests. Reflecting on the process, Bankier told me that, “From the moment Elsevier walked in the door, they got us, asked the right questions, were most analytical, understood the market, got our vision, and knew where we want to go.” In other acquisitions, Elsevier has been said to have offered more than an order of magnitude higher than a peer bidder, seeing the strategic potential of assets rather than just their current business projected out. In this case, terms are not being disclosed but there is no doubt that Elsevier sees the acquisition as strategic.

Asked why it chose to make this investment, Olivier Dumon, Elsevier’s Managing Director for Research Products, told me yesterday, “We thought we were missing this institutional promotional platform — we had a tiny bit of it in Pure — but it was really a very small set of features, and we are far from what bepress are doing…We’ve had them on our radar for a long time.” It is striking to hear how consistently both parties emphasize showcasing and institutional promotion as the keys to this transaction.

Showcasing and Compliance

Elsevier has invested substantially in tools to help universities comply with funder mandates, assess their research outputs, and showcase the expertise of their faculty members. The general category of systems has become known as current research information systems (CRIS), and Elsevier’s Pure is a powerful offering. I had the chance to participate in a workshop that Elsevier hosted about Pure recently and was impressed with the level of commitment being made by some institutions to these systems, as well as the opportunities from Elsevier’s perspective to integrate them into a broader suite of offerings.

bepress was one of the early entrants into the showcasing part of this market, creating pages for scholars to post their publications and other CV-type information, in a product now called Experts Gallery Suite (EGS). In terms of functionality, EGS is more focused on showcasing individual works than the fully array of services that a CRIS provides. bepress also aggregates items from across institutional installations through a series of “Commons” and “Networks,” making individual works, and also their creators, more discoverable.

Elsevier can improve its showcasing abilities in a number of ways. With Experts Gallery Suite, Elsevier now has a product focusing just on showcasing, moreso than as with Pure on assessment and compliance. EGS features may be added to Pure, or the two products could remain separate for the long-term.

Look also for information and analytics about works on Digital Commons to move seamlessly into Pure. This will strengthen Pure’s assessment and compliance at meaningful scale and may even help to drive Pure customers to adopt Digital Commons as their institutional repository. Is there even a scenario where Digital Commons would be offered as a free institutional repository add-on for Pure customers (shifting the basis of competition as a product is down-scaled to a feature)?

There has been some discussion about whether Pure itself can serve in essence as an institutional repository, since it includes a repository for preprints, and several universities have selected Pure to function as their institutional repositories. Because of questions about control and preservation, some have taken issue with whether this is a sound choice.  It will be interesting in this regard to see whether Digital Commons can actually be linked with or built into Pure to provide a CRIS-led institutional repository solution.

Science Preprints

For many, the elephant in the acquisition will be open access. While bepress leaders have been vocal in support of open access, a review of the Digital Commons marketing this week emphasizes its ability to “Expand reach and visibility for the full spectrum of faculty work” rather than on transforming scholarly communications. It is interesting to reflect on apparent institutional objectives and priorities even before Elsevier’s acquisition.

Of course, Digital Commons is certainly used broadly by libraries to support a transformative agenda for scholarly communications. Across implementations, Digital Commons includes nearly 2.3 million “free, full-text scholarly articles,” with a higher proportion coming from law, social science, education, and humanities, than the STEM fields. For providing free scholarly articles, Digital Commons probably competes most keenly in the library marketplace with the not-for-profit DuraSpace and the open source repository solutions it offers. But in a different sense, it competes with disciplinary repositories (Elsevier’s SSRN has nearly 750,000 research articles) and to some degree with social and pirate sources of articles such as ResearchGate and Sci-Hub.

Elsevier will naturally be looking to expand the existing Digital Commons business, both internationally and in growing the set of US institutions are interested in repository-driven services. Beyond growing this business as it currently exists, Elsevier will be looking at several strategic directions.

  • In recent years, as its interests have moved beyond content exclusivity and towards metrics and analysis, Elsevier has been exploring how to connect institutional repositories with its content databases, providing stronger services to institutional customers while also exerting greater control over content. Last year’s pilot to link an institutional repository with ScienceDirect API was strongly opposed within the library scholarly communications community for its seeming abandonment of any transformative agenda, but for the university spearheading the pilot it was all about monitoring mandate compliance. We can expect extensive links between Digital Commons preprints and published versions via Scopus and ScienceDirect, leveraging DOI and ORCID infrastructure, and services to auto-populate abstracts, content, metadata, and/or social media mentions and other alt-metrics into the institutional repository. As bepress’s Bankier explains, “it is a great deal of work to build these repositories and showcases so anything we can do to help [customers] do it faster and more effectively” is seen as valued.
  • But the connection between preprint and canonical work will itself be reconsidered further. Joe Esposito two years ago foresaw “the return of the big brands,” with mainline publishers coopting open access at least in part by building a cascade of journals. And indeed, Elsevier received a patent last year for a cascade system. Lisa Hinchliffe earlier this year predicted some future product directions for Elsevier, seeing this patent as an indication that a new a manuscript submission and management service might be in the offing. It is unclear exactly how such a system might be provided. Will Digital Commons become an anchor for such a service and therefore not only a repository but a starting point for the publication process?
  • And last year, Elsevier’s purchase of the SSRN service was in part about bringing more users and communities onto its scientific workflow tools and in turn enhancing the analytics that could be generated across its services. Since that acquisition, SSRN has continued to expand the number of research networks it provides. The addition of Digital Commons suggests some interesting opportunities to integrate disciplinary and institutional repositories over time. Dumon explains that “SSRN is really a platform for individual researchers while Digital Commons is more coming from the institutions,” suggesting an essential complementarity that could indicate certain kinds of convergence, and certainly auto-population across the two, over time. 

By controlling bepress’s substantial portfolio of institutional repositories, and integrating it with Elsevier’s content platforms and workflow suite, there is a substantial opportunity to integrate a massive set of preprints, and analytics about their impact, with the published versions.

Journal Publishing

Digital Commons also has some features that go well beyond what many might see as core institutional repository features. Perhaps most notably, it has a suite of journal publishing tools, which many libraries use to provide hosting services for campus stakeholders. Customers today publish more than 1,400 journals through the platform. While many of these are student journals or other non-scholarly publications, more than 300 of the titles are described as peer reviewed — a substantial portfolio by any standard. None of these journals are owned by bepress, and only 25 of them are subscription-based. Still, Elsevier will be looking at some interesting opportunities to provide these journals with greater support and develop them as more of a coherent portfolio. Who knows but that it might try to acquire some of them itself with the usage and impact data that the platform could make available.

Legal Scholarship

In what seems at first to be merely a coincidence, not only bepress but also SSRN have strengths in legal scholarship. SSRN’s Legal Scholarship Network is widely available at law schools. As for bepress, it offers an innovative model for legal publishing, in the Expresso service that supports law reviews, scholarly journals that are typically student edited rather than peer reviewed. And, a survey published last year found that 59 of the 80 US law schools with institutional repositories used Digital Commons. It is notable that, in part because of its founders, bepress has special strengths with law schools and legal publishing.

Interestingly, Elsevier’s peer organization within RELX, Lexis-Nexis, is first of all a major legal information service. Its flagship products aggregate legal codes, case law, and legal scholarship, among other legal sources, alongside extensive indexing.  It is not, however, a major primary publisher of legal scholarship.

It is notable, then, that Elsevier is bulking up on assets that are strong in legal scholarship. Whether this makes any meaningful impact for competitor services like Westlaw and especially for Heinonline as a smaller independent operation will be interesting to follow.  

Risk and Success

Probably the biggest risk factor in this acquisition is whether libraries will abandon Digital Commons. The institutional repository managers who are probably the core customer community for Digital Commons are among the librarians most hostile to Elsevier.  Will they be successful in urging their libraries to abandon this product suite?

Elsevier has done its due diligence on institutional repository migration plans and pricing, even if internal coordination was lacking. What Elsevier and its advisors likely found was that bepress has developed a defensible position at least for the short to medium term, since alternatives to Digital Commons tend to require more technical expertise while omitting some of the services valued for journal publishing and displaying special collections, in particular.

And the core Digital Commons service suite is not expected to change. Bankier emphasizes that “the same services, same people, same technology” will all be retained. The fundamental service model of unlimited platform access with an annual price increase of 4-5% will be maintained. New features will continue to be added regularly, with streaming media the latest. And he emphasizes that “nothing changes in regard to our support for open access.”

Moreover, bepress tools will be integrated, on the back-end if not on the product level, with other Elsevier systems. This will shore up defenses against attrition and enhance customer value.

To be sure, we should expect to see outrage from the library community (with language like “foolish venal sellouts” for bepress). At a minimum, this may make it even more difficult or impossible to win some of the largest research university accounts (where libraries have the capacity to develop or operate their own repository platforms) or temporarily slow new sales. And library community reaction may suggest unexpected openings for existing or emerging competitors, especially in the preprint repository space.

But while rhetoric may well be hot, unless greater competition does develop, it is probably reasonable to expect that customer attrition will be minimal. In this circumstance, Elsevier will have become a strong player in the US institutional repository landscape. And, depending on how Digital Commons and SSRN are integrated into its broader portfolio of tools and services, does Elsevier now have the assets needed to tame open access?

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


30 Thoughts on "Elsevier Acquires bepress"

Interested that you see this in terms of ‘taming Open Access’, I wonder if Elsevier are correctly seeing this more in terms of moving beyond Open Access. But I doubt that they will be dropping their Big Deals anytime soon. Let the cash cows browse, while Sci-Hub is nibbling at their pasture, and begin to move everything to the next field where there will be a premium on organisation, curation and promotion. A tricky transition, but may be possible.

I think you’ve described perfectly what it might mean to “tame” open access, to bring it inside a workflow that you control.

Something that isn’t widely known is that the California Digital Library, that is Catherine Candee and myself as the “e-Scholarship” part of CDL, were the ones that made bepress enter the repository business. When we partnered with them they were only a journal platform. We saw the potential for the platform to be the best digital repository out there (remember, this was back in the day when e-Prints ruled), and basically paid them to make it so. They then took the platform that we helped them to build and marketed it as Digital Commons.

It is not the first time that CDL or other academic libraries have designed a product or service to only find out that their not for profit work ended up in the hands of a commercial company that later was sold off. Of course the original developers often go without compensation or recognition. The control of intellectual property at the university level is much better controlled in the sciences where new drugs are developed or medical devices, but unfortunately library tools are not so valued.

Insightful piece, Roger but I can’t help pointing out that our acquisition of bepress is not about Elsevier “taming” or “co-opting” OA. Our strong OA record (you note we are the second largest gold OA publisher, for example and we are also a leading enabler of green OA) speaks for itself. Instead, as you rightly assess, bepress is a great strategic fit for Elsevier. It’ll help us continue to support institutions to showcase their research

Gemma, this is precisely why the Elsevier brand is so toxic in the library market. OF COURSE Elsevier is co-opting Open Access. Your company would do so much better if you acknowledged this. As matters stand, Elsevier is adding deceit to an aggressive commercial strategy. This will win over nobody.

Gemma, Elsevier is absolutely a leading, now perhaps even the leading, enabler of OA. No doubt about it. And it is impressive that you have been able to pivot so well from seeing it as a possible threat to making it into your business. To do so, you are bringing it inside the house, buying providers, building out new tools and products, negotiating new kinds of licenses, and introducing new kinds of policies and API’s. I touched on many of these directions in my piece. Elsevier’s strong OA record is all about domesticating this movement, and no publisher has been more successful.

Agreed, Elsevier’s ability to pivot successfully on this is remarkable. I doubt this is the last piece in the puzzle but definitely brings the picture into view.

I will be interested to see if libraries seek alternatives to Digital Commons.

Given that Elsevier is thriving in the current Open Access environment and sales, net profit, and subscription revenue continues to grow, this acquisitions fits nicely in their portfolio of new companies. Elsevier spends on average $500 million a year on acquisitions and I am sure that this one was no different, nor that expensive. Elsevier is a smart investor for the long haul. However 40% of their profits still come from their STM business and a great business that continues to yield impressive results. BE Press offers a highly regarded set of tools and they will fit nicely into the Elsevier organization. Well done Elsevier……

Sorry to be confusing but $ the $500 million is for all of RELX and not just the STM group.

As a librarian responsible for managing a Digital Commons repository, I am appalled by this news.

bepress’ decision to sell out to a megapublisher who has made a habit of acting in bad faith towards libraries and universities (see: negotiations with the Dutch & German consortia; double-dipping exploitation of ‘hybrid’ open access; their apparent contract breach and lawsuit-dodging with LSU; and more!) runs counter to bepress’ professed, and until-now practiced, values of true partnership and support of open, sustainable systems. (I can hardly believe it, but I actually agree with Joe Esposito for once–in his comment above, he notes that Elsevier is co-opting open access. It may be an excellent business strategy for Elsevier, but it is a grave threat for libraries and open access advocates.)

Until I saw this news, I would have gone to bat for Digital Commons in comparison with any open source repository or publishing platform–and I have made that case to many people. As much as I admired PKP’s Open Journal Systems, or the goals of Fedora/Hydra/DSpace/etc, I had boundless enthusiasm for bepress’ approach and tools. No more.

For me, this announcement means that it’s time to start strategizing, planning, and building a case to abandon bepress and Digital Commons for our repository and publishing services. It’s deeply unfortunate, and I am very sad to be at this point.

(Note: these are solely my personal views and perspective as a Digital Commons-using librarian. I do not speak on behalf of my employers, and while I plan to do my best to convince/empower my place of work to transition away from an Elsevier-owned repository system, a great deal of that process and decision is entirely beyond my role and pay grade.)

Matt — I wonder if you could expand on your concern that this represents “a grave threat to libraries and open access advocates.” Can you be more specific as to what you fear may happen? I get that some people are concerned because it’s Elsevier and they don’t want to support a corporation that they feel (rightly or wrongly) isn’t aligned with their interests. It’s not just that Elsevier is a commercial outfit; bepress customers have been working happily (?) with a commercial outfit all along. But you seem to be suggesting something more than just a dislike for Elsevier’s business practices, so I’m curious as to what you think this grave threat consists of.

“a grave threat” is probably a bit of exaggeration. Or at least, this development does not materially alter the threat already posed by Elsevier’s (extremely savvy and successful) efforts to simultaneously dominate the world open access publishing and develop a suite of services that will lock-in entire universities. (This is a good thing for Elsevier, enabling them to set higher prices and extract greater profit because too many stakeholders will be invested in their system. It’s less good for those of us who would prefer institutional and public funds going towards ends other than shareholder profits and executive yachts.)

Yes, many institutions were happily working with bepress, and knew bepress was for-profit. The key point here is precisely “Elsevier’s business practices”. Bepress, as a company, has largely acted as a good-faith partner, attentive to the mission and values of libraries, and providing excellent services at a very reasonable cost. Elsevier has demonstrated the opposite, time and again. They aren’t afraid to throw their weight around and they don’t care how much they harm their business partners’ other goals as long as those partners keep paying.

I would be less upset if bepress was purchased by Proquest, or Ebsco, or Taylor & Francis. Concerned, sure. Wary, definitely. But I, my peers, and my colleagues probably wouldn’t be discussing how the Digital Commons community can redirect our resources to finding/building a replacement. Those conversations are starting to take place. It will be fascinating if the robust community networks developed by bepress become an avenue through which smaller institutions are able to develop and implement the kind of open-source platforms that were unfeasible for us to build as individuals.

Your concerns are valid, Matt, but the point I keep trying to make is that when you look at Mendeley, SSRN, Plum Analytics, etc, you see evidence for something different. You see a company that is reinventing itself – building and buying new and innovative services that the scholarly community wants. So I’m not saying you don’t have reason to worry, but I am saying that you do have reasons to be hopeful, too, and the reasons to worry are really getting kinda old. Some of the fears are based on misinformation, too: the institution still owns the content & there’s no lock-in.

Thank you for pointing out that some of the reasons for worrying are getting old. Elsevier and the people who work for them are not demons. I think people are dependent on issues from years ago when they did have large price increases and purchased other publishers. When was the last time that happened? I can point to many other publishers or content providers who have double or triple digit increases that do not receive the focus of librarians.

The researchers at my institution want easily accessible content and tools that help them in their workflow. If Elsevier can bring some needed improvements to bepress, which really needs them, than I am fine. If they can integrate it with some of their other products that our researchers use, I am also fine because it makes our users happy. Will we see huge price increases? Not at all. Am I bothered with a for-profit company purchasing another for-profit company? No unless I see our terms change.

I’m tired of the hand wringing over Elsevier.

  • Anonymous (only because I don’t feel like getting attacked for speaking out)
  • Aug 3, 2017, 9:59 AM

I guess where you come down on this depends somewhat on whether you think co-opting is a good thing or not. The phrase has a negative connotation, but isn’t it a good thing that Elsevier is supporting OA at such a high level? More OA is always better, right?

To answer my own rhetorical question, it’s because some people just don’t trust Elsevier. There are good reasons for that, but as a former Mendeley employee, I have to say those reasons are showing their age. At some point, which for me is in the past, but for some it’s still in the future, people will see that the strategic direction Elsevier is moving in is actually aligned with their goals of improving access & providing innovation in scholarly communications.

I think this is a key issue that many struggle with — is the question of “who is doing it?” more important than “what are they doing?”

Seems an odd set of criteria, given that Elsevier’s prices are much in line with the rest of the gold open access publishing community. Would you say the same of PLOS (fees per article ranging from $1,495 to $2,900) or eLife (fee per article $2,500 which only partially covers eLife’s costs)?

Pricing per se may not be the immediate issue, but the fact remains that any commercial company exists for the benefit of its owners/stockholders and profit maximization (or, in the case of a company like Amazon, market dominance) is the chief value, which sometimes conflicts with the kind of mission that universities see themselves as serving. This tension does not exist when the publishing is done by organizations internal to the university (like a university press or, increasingly, a library) that has the same mission. Ultimately, if open access is controlled mainly by the Elseviers of the worlds, they will be operating it for their goals, not necessarily the goals of the academy. Time will tell how much the misalignment of goals between commercial publishers and universities will impede the latter’s mission.

Well, there’s certainly an argument to be had (this is not the place) that universities are increasingly run along the same lines as commercial companies these days, for the benefit of the endowment rather than the stockholders, so perhaps the alignments aren’t really all that far off.

That aside, the question still remains: if you get what you want, does it matter who supplies it? If the commercial company, for reasons that are completely different from your own, is able to supply exactly what you need to accomplish your goals (at a reasonable price), then does it matter if they’re benefiting their stockholders at the same time?

Note that I generally agree with you, and have only worked for not-for-profit presses associated with institutions of higher learning because I feel that academia is best served by controlling its own publishing ecosystem. But let’s also be clear — profit is a strong motivator for investment, technological progress and daring experiments, all of which are pretty rare things in the university press world.

I agree that if the price is reasonable, and in line with what is known about costs, it doesn’t matter who the supplier is, But doesn’t economic theory show that as companies come more to create monopolies, or at least oligopolies, they take advantage of market share to increase their profits? I also agree that university presses have not been as innovative, generally, as large commercial publishers have, but that is not for lack of talent but lack of capital. And you forget that it was university presses that first created the AAUP Online Catalogue, which is what Amazon later created for a more general book space. Not to mention Project Muse.

The notion of monopolies versus a diverse and healthy ecosystem of suppliers is a different subject (and so far, the internet has shown us the power of network effects and the tendency for consolidation of the market onto one product e.g., one Google, one Facebook, etc.). I don’t think the issue with UP’s is a lack of talent either, nor do I think it is necessarily a lack of capital (many universities are swimming in huge endowments) but more the many issues Joe Esposito chronicled years ago:

The problem witrh Joe’s article is that he makes too much of the makeup of governing boards as a key to understanding why university presses and other mission-driven NFPs cannot compete with the big commercial publishers. I spent my career with two university presses that did not have the problems he focuses on. At Princeton the boiard was dominated by experienced publishers, including the CEOs of companies like Scribner’s, McGraw Hill, Wiley, Little/Brown, etc., who all happened to be Princeton grads themselves. There was no shortage of for-profit publishing experience represented on its board. But seeing how much time the press director there had to spend preparing for the quarterly board meetings, I eschewed having any such board when I became director of Penn State Press. I made all the executive decisions there, which only had to be approved, mostly pro forma, by my boss, the VP for research (until the head librarian took over toward the end of my time there). But I had ready access to informal advice from commercial publishers I had met through PUP or through my involvement in industry affairs, such as the board of the CCC, which included executives from Elsevier, Wiley, etc. Joe’s strictures may apply to some presses, but as he admits himself, they cannot be generalized, and my two instances are counter-examples that show that not all problems can be attributed to bad governance. One problem Joe does not address is that a press exists within a university where many conflicting interests exist, e.g., libraries and presses that have quite different positions to take on copyright issues. These tensions do not exist in commercial publishing companies. Nor do such companies have to put up with all the regulations and red tape that apply to university bureaucracies, such a hiring and firing policies, legal consultation, etc. Joe only began to scratch the surface in his analysis. There are many more reasons that NFPs have a hard time competing with commercial publishers than he canvassed.

Excellent analysis as always, Roger. Thank you for breaking down so many aspects of what’s happening and at least offering the basis for a conversation that could go beyond simple demonization of Elsevier or narrow to the single question of whether libraries will jump ship. We shall see if that conversation ensues or not, i.e. one centred more squarely on the broader picture and how this acquisition fits into Elsevier’s broader strategy. What’s done is done, in this case, but it’s the moves down the road that should interest us most.

I’m glad that at a couple of points you made clear that while this news has high impact in the North American market, the reverberations elsewhere will be more muted. This might be an excellent time for North American institutions to pay closer attention to what’s happening elsewhere. The UK’s institutional repository infrastructure is, for example, nearly entirely open-source based, with a few Pure exceptions (cf. Germany’s DEAL consortium continues to push Elsevier to make concessions in order to negotiate a fair and sensible national-level deal. Despite the ‘pain’ of slow access to Elsevier articles via their domestic ILL system, more institutions are joining DEAL, increasing the leverage of its bargaining position.

Meanwhile, in the US and Canada, many will express outrage and/or dismay about this latest move, but will we see any form of collective action ever take shape?

Incidentally, the institution where I work, McMaster University, left Digital Commons a number of years ago, in part over concerns of placing the institution’s intellectual property in the care and keeping of a vendor, in our case, moreover, one based in the United States. We now host our IR on DSpace and use OJS for our journals, and have gained many freedoms by going this route, not least the freedom from an annual invoice. In my experience in multiple libraries, the difficulty of operating and maintaining such platforms is often invoked as a reason not to use them, while practice shows them to be far more straightforward.

Thanks Dale. I very greatly appreciate your calling further attention to some of the issues outside North America, in particular, where as you mention things seem to be moving in a slightly different direction or at least at a slightly different pace.

Collective action is certainly the key and you can expect Elsevier to have a strategy to counter it. During the early years of the Big Deal, publishers like Elsevier were able to defuse collective action by negotiating separately with libraries and consortia, by the use of non-disclosure agreements, and most importantly, by offering discounts that seemed too good to pass up (for example, access to the full output of a publisher for a small additional fee). As in the late 1990’s, the major publishers are proving adept at offering new products to circumvent the threat posed by mass serials cancellations. Reading the comments to this article adds to the sense of deja vu. Those skeptical of Elsevier are derided for excessive negativity, a lack of imagination and the inability to let bygones be bygones, exactly as those skeptical of the Big Deal were.

Given that collective action is the only thing that will keep the OA ecosystem from being completely co-opted by the commercial publishers, I’m wondering if anyone at ARL, ALA or CARL is paying attention to these developments?

I consider this latest Elsevier acquisition as another example of a smart company moving its focus from the present selling of journal subscriptions to a future of directly supporting and embedding itself into research directly. Such a transformation is something smart libraries should pay attention to and start to replicate in terms of de-emphasizing paying for subscriptions beyond a certain point and investing these dollars in services that move them beyond providing consumption of published research, to being there at creation, enhancing the capitalization of research, and (when appropriate) providing curation through locally-developed or externally purchased robust institutional repositories.

Additionally, rather than agonize about and criticize Elsevier’s forward thinking, in my view librarians should not hesitate to embrace its products when their adoption allows libraries to better insinuate themselves into the research process itself. Elsevier’s many enhancements of Scopus, for example, make it more important not only for discovery but also as a tool for collaboration and capitalization of research output via alt-metrics such as Plum Analytics. Such developments represent the future that neither companies nor libraries can afford to ignore.

Consequently, both publishers and libraries need shift toward future-focused strategies of investing in uniquely valuable resources that allow us to be embedded in the entire research cycle, especially when by doing so they solve problems that researchers consider important.

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