With Elsevier’s acquisition record over the past few years, it is no longer particularly surprising to wake up to a press release announcing that a previously independent company is independent no more. Most recently of course is the Aries System acquisition. In response, on Monday, Angela Cochran wrote wisely about some of the issues that an independent publisher must consider when relying on a platform that is no longer independent. In contrast, Kent Anderson assured readers that the promised seeming competition is not a concern because of Elsevier’s emphasis on “oversight and firewalls.”
My own view is that all the talk about whether or not there is a firewall that will or will not hold misses the point. The key question that publishers continue to face is how to handle themselves in an environment when Elsevier — as it proclaims loudly and proudly to anyone who will listen — is no longer a publisher. I pondered this question last year and, re-visiting that essay, I can’t help but notice that Elsevier’s acquisition of Aries Systems moves toward the publication services offerings that I predicted 18 months ago.
Strategic Acquisitions Drive Platform Development
It is increasingly clear that focusing on the particular product offerings of an acquired company and its overall profitability is not the full story of an Elsevier acquisition. We need to consider the capacity that Elsevier is developing. As Roger Schonfeld has detailed, Elsevier, Digital Science, and others are all seeking to become a full workflow solution for research and publication, particularly as subscription revenues for publications increasingly appear threatened by open access policies, coordinated national contract negotiations/cancellations, and piracy.
Focusing on the immediate product offerings – or the customer base – of acquired companies may even be a distraction from developing an understanding of the strategic significance of these acquisitions. For example, as we now know, Mendeley has evolved to be not only a citation management system but also a platform that has been enabling Elsevier to unify and centralize Elsevier user accounts across platforms and to present a dashboard to the individual researcher of their citations, metrics, etc. Mendeley now describes itself as an academic social network. With the additions of Mendeley Datasets, Careers, and Funding, Mendeley is steadily and stealthily becoming a scholarly gateway for researchers, whether or not an institution licenses Mendeley, that provides an integrative experience across disparate platforms.
Aries Systems Enablement
So, what does Aries enable if we consider it a platform for future development rather than only as a set of existing product offerings, particularly in light of the platform capabilities of other Elsevier acquisitions, products, and services?
I’ve noticed that, just as when Wiley acquired Atypon, a great deal of the focus is on publishers’ concerns that their data in Editorial Manager will remain firewalled within the system. This concern, while understandable, especially in the short-term, represents an unspoken (perhaps even unconscious) assumption that manuscripts will continue to enter Editorial Manager through submission to a particular journal. But, what if that wasn’t the case? What if manuscripts were no longer submitted only to specific journals but also flowed to journals through some sort of central submission and then routing system? What if some of those manuscripts entered Editorial Manager via a preprint platform or through institutional portals?
Publication Services in a Stack?
Alejandro Posada’s and George Chen’s graphic of the scholarly workflow overlaid with Elsevier products has, until now, been empty of Elsevier offerings at the stages of manuscript submission, peer review, and publication processing. With the acquisition of Aries Systems, Elsevier will now be providing publication services and, potentially, is poised to provide them as an integrated “vertical stack.”
Elsevier’s “Online Peer Review System and Method” patent (which they claim is only “defensive”) presents the potential for a scholar to submit a manuscript to be matched through fingerprinting with its best possible potential publication venue. It would then cascade through review and editorial processes and then on to publication. As the prior art section of the patent explains: “existing systems only offer a shared database among sister journals, whereas a shared database is not available for non-sister journals, for example, journals that are not owned by related entities. Thus, it is impossible for these existing systems to accommodate the user’s request to switch from a sister journal to a non-sister journal.”
In other words, with the Aries acquisition, one could envision a future in which manuscripts enter a re-born Editorial Manager – perhaps directly into a general author portal or perhaps via a preprint platform (e.g., SSRN) or institutional portals (e.g., bepress) – and are then placed with the best possible journal after analysis through the Elsevier Fingerprint Engine. Elsevier could also develop an institutional offering of this service for universities that might wish to move towards centralized support and management of manuscript placement.
By building out such a “vertical stack” platform, Elsevier would preserve the firewalls currently offered to Aries customers while building an alternative competing system, potentially charging Editorial Manager customers a fee to include their journals as targets of the placement service or bundling it with existing services to maintain advantage over competing manuscript submission and review platforms. Such an offering could eventually displace existing submission workflows and publishers would find themselves locked in to the Elsevier publication services stack.
Libraries, universities, and publishers alike should be concerned about the potential implications of Elsevier building out an integrated stack of publication services. Scholars and universities will likely find great value in publication services that improve efficiency and effectiveness of manuscript submission and processing; however, licensing additional Elsevier services and/or replacing library subscriptions for journals with institutional subscriptions to a publication services platform will only continue to exacerbate the financial challenges in higher education. Though efficiencies of scale may hold back prices from increasing as much as they might otherwise, the likely eventual consolidation of even more small publications into Elsevier means that prices will increase as competition decreases. The Big Deal for workflow and publication services is unlikely to bring a different result than the original Big Deal for licensing subscription content.
Publishers will want to be attentive to how deeply entwined their operations are with Elsevier publication services. What are the other options for developing a robust infrastructure that is also integrated with data analytics and promises improved manuscript placements for scholars and their universities? What sort of infrastructure can support both independent publishers and also provide the scale and reach that would be needed to serve as an alternative to the Elsevier, Digital Science, etc. research workflow platforms? What options do other publishers have as platforms disrupt their access to authors?
These are difficult questions to address. But, we can be certain that, if Elsevier asserts its obvious platform advantages, there is no data firewall that can protect other publishers from Elsevier’s strategic advance.