Gavia Libraria

Elsevier: embrace, extend…

Those of us who are moderately tech-savvy and of a certain age will recall the open source community’s disdainful characterization of Microsoft’s standard modus operandi faced with open standards: embrace, extend, extinguish.

This is not Elsevier’s only business strategy to be sure, but it does seem to characterize their current approach to open access. The key variable is control (operationalized as re-enclosure), and the control surface is ownership: how much open access can Elsevier control by buying out buyable open-access–related loci?

(Take as read that Elsevier must operate largely within the strictures of law. Sci-Hub is not purchaseable for this reason.)

Whether this strategy works depends on:

  1. how many such loci are buyable (the Loon would cross the street to avoid SSRN’s foolish venal sellouts—she hopes they choke on their money, the damage they’ve done), and what fraction of the total open-access landscape those loci represent
  2. whether the forces of light can acquire buyable loci before Elsevier gets to them
  3. whether Elsevier can gin up successful alternatives to non-buyable loci

The first criterion should be assessable: how many open-access repositories and publishers are run by foolish venal sellouts? Of the remainder, how many are vulnerable to hostile takeover? More to the point, anti-Elsevier poison pills in these organizations’ bylaws would seem wise; perhaps SPARC or another lawyer-enabled organization friendly to open access could draft some?

Likely acquisition targets include Academia.edu and ResearchGate, of course. The Loon can only suspect that Elsevier is hoping to grind them down on price. (Or Elsevier may let them stay independent because their tolerance of copyright-infringing postings vitiates the appeal of more responsibly-run repositories; likewise, they are poor candidates for library partnerships because of their enabling of flagrantly infringing behavior. This seems quite likely, actually, now that the Loon considers it!) FigShare is the real gem, but its proprietors strike the Loon as unlikely to sell.

In the slightly-longer term, the Loon is considerably worried about the current crop of “hey, let’s start a preprint server!” initiatives. These are, practically without exception, just as faculty-led and enthusiasm-driven as SSRN was. Faculty have documented history of losing their enthusiasm about these things; the Loon sees no reason that will not happen this time also. What happens then? The answer had better be better than SSRN’s was.

The Loon wishes she did not largely despair of the second criterion, but she does. Strategy-minded libraries could get into this business, but how many of those are there? And of those that exist, how many could stand up financially to Elsevier? The best the forces of light can likely do is protect current territory, such as arXiv, PubMed Central, and institutional repositories. She does think there might be hope for the preprint-server uprising, if and only if their faculty proprietors can be convinced to partner with one or more libraries now. Cornell, because of arXiv, is in the best position to make this happen, but the Loon would not count MIT or Stanford or California Digital Library or perhaps even Michigan out.

As for the third criterion, this depends on whether Elsevier has the social chops to set a fashion among the great mass of pig-ignorant faculty. (By the way, if you are deep enough in scholarly-communication circles to have found Gavia Libraria, you are almost certainly not what the Loon usually means by “pig-ignorant.”) The Loon does not have a perfect read on this, but on the whole she doubts it—Elsevier is far better at buying popularity (as with Mendeley) than earning it.

The open-access movement—and for once, the Loon is counting herself among its membership—has understandably been so hyperfocused on establishing open access that it has undervalued and understrategized maintaining open access. She thinks there is time still to redress this error… but in the shadow of Elsevier’s Microsoftian tactics, perhaps not much time.

3 thoughts on “Elsevier: embrace, extend…

  1. Galen Charlton

    Regarding the challenge of maintaining open access: I am reminded of LibLime’s attempt to enclose Koha back in 2009, which, while it ultimately failed, has left scars on the project that are still visible to those with eyes to see. (Full disclosure: I am not _remotely_ a neutral party here).

    I bring that up to express a worry about another avenue towards buyable loci. Part of what enabled LibLime to make its play was the collusion of a library system that was sending a lot of money LibLime’s way and was not opposed to the enclosure; in fact, they perceived certain benefits to themselves. Specifically, they were planning to act as gatekeepers to help grow their own organization. While I presume (too optimistically?) that Elsevier is not seriously viewed as a “partner” by any library nowadays, are there any plays whereby Elsevier could try to co-opt some?

  2. hvw

    “FigShare is the real gem, but its proprietors strike the Loon as unlikely to sell.”

    Is it not conceivable that FigShare already is working hard and successfully on the “extend” in order to “extinguish” when the time has come? OK, Elsevier is The Evil and Holtzbrinck, the owner of FigShare, is trustworthy German nobility. But nothing keeps them from putting a paywall in front of the site or to force users into a Springer/Macmillan proprietary ecosystem once enough dependency has been established.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      They could, yes. The Loon’s impression, based on her Boring Alter Ego having met some of the management team, is that they wouldn’t.

      If they’re bought, however, all bets are suddenly off.