I expected the news that Elsevier had acquired Bepress to raise a larger kerfuffle in libraryland than it did. Certainly the people who tweeted or posted or emailed about it were deeply alarmed, if sometimes a little hazy about the actual implications. (No, this did not mean that journals on Bepress platforms had become Elsevier journals. Bepress repositories were not going to be forced to put up paywalls.)
But there wasn’t as much alarmed reaction as I thought there might be, given the depth of dislike and distrust of Elsevier in many pockets of libraryland. Angst reigned for two days and that was about it for social media. I’m sure the outrage was shared by many who didn’t chime in, but in this age of easy likes and retweets, I expected more.
There was another two day flurry a month later when the librarians at UPenn announced Operation Beprexit, their very cleverly named intention to leave Bepress for parts unknown. They're calling for librarian and research colleagues to join them on the journey to an infrastructure of open source, academia led, noncommercial solutions. They’re taking a measured approach, setting up a committee to examine campus needs and open source options. Nothing hasty. I’m sure many in libraryland will be watching their progress with interest, but again there was rather less social media chatter than I expected.
If I were a Bepress customer, I’d’ve greeted the news of the acquisition with cautious optimism. It’s always wise to approach mergers and changes of ownership cautiously. Even when they’re well thought out and well-designed, there can be bumps in the road and sometimes outright disasters. But when one looks at how Elsevier has handled the Mendeley and SSRN acquisitions, there’s plenty of cause for optimism. The Elsevier leadership obviously doesn’t want to do anything to damage those aspects of the acquired companies that have made them successful. They want to keep the teams in place, keep them moving in the same strategic directions. At the same time, there’s an opportunity to more closely integrate them with other products in the portfolio. Most significantly, what Elsevier can provide is cash – they can reach into those deep pockets for development investments that would be out of reach of those small, if agile and creative companies on their own. Barring some stupid moves on the part of various managers and executives involved (always a possibility — no matter who the owner is), Bepress should continue to grow into an even more useful partner for librarians and their institutions than it has already proven itself to be.
But... but... but… Elsevier!
Yes, well, like it or not (and, for the record I do not) we live in a capitalist world where it is the for profit companies that have the resources, talent and organizational skills to build the tools that can be used to implement the kinds of workflows and analytics that librarians and researchers want. Elsevier has done a very good job of positioning itself to be a major player in this space. And despite its reputation, Elsevier has also done more than most organizations in providing immediate unfettered access to the Version of Record. This is utterly unsatisfactory to those who want commercial companies out of scholarly communication altogether, but you can’t really argue that Elsevier is anti-OA. They’re just not supportive of OA approaches that might put them out of business. Go figure.
Librarians (the vocal OA partisan librarians, that is) complain that Elsevier’s interests and the interests of librarians are irrevocably at odds. All the company cares about is profit, they say, while librarians are focused on maximizing access. It’s a caricature caused, at least in part I suppose, by the fact that most librarians’ only exposure to people from Elsevier comes when trying to negotiate a license. In that narrow transaction, the specific interests in getting the best deal certainly do have the two sides at odds. But viewing a company like Elsevier through that narrow lens is as myopic as publishers who see librarians as nothing but purchasers of content and are oblivious to everything else that we do. Companies stay in business only when they align themselves in supporting the interests of their customers. And most of the people in publishing that I know are in that business because they believe that the work they do has real social value and that the better they get at developing systems and services that address the real needs of their customers the more successful they'll be, the more successful their customers will be, and the better off society will be in general.
While some librarians’ angst is driven by an irrational hatred and fear of Elsevier, at least some see this as the time to take a stand against corporate dominance of the tools of scholarly communication. A scholarly communication ecosystem managed entirely within the academy, with no need or room for commercial players, dedicated to no cost sharing of the products of research globally, remains the holy grail for many librarians who’ve dedicated their work lives to scholarly communication issues. Many of them thought the OA movement would weaken the commercial publishers. They look at Elsevier's continued strength with considerable alarm. For some, the Bepress acquisition was the last straw. Now’s the time to take a stand.
I’m sympathetic to the idealism underlying this. I think it would be good, in the long run, for librarians and researchers to have more control over how the ecosystem develops. So I wish the librarians at UPenn the very best. I’m glad they’re taking a deliberate approach to looking at the options.
Still, I remain deeply skeptical of efforts to create an entirely separate ecosystem without engaging the people in commercial publishing. These are talented and committed people with a wealth of knowledge about how scholarly communication systems actually work. It’s the people who work in publishing who understand what it takes to develop and deliver high quality, well-vetted publications. They understand the needs and desires of authors and readers, the challenges of developing useful peer review systems, the technical opportunities for moving beyond text, the minutiae of checking for error and fraud. Certainly they have their blind spots, but that's why all of the other stakeholders need to be tightly engaged. We count on the others to help us past our own blind spots.
The challenges society faces in opening access to scholarly information are vast. They are technical, political, social and cultural. The players include researchers, teachers, students, librarians, funders, members of the public, university administrators, people in publishing companies large and small, commercial and not-for-profit. We all see the problems and solutions a little differently. We all have unique insights. We all have our own interests to protect, while we try to pursue the greater good. We will continue to argue and fight and disagree as we struggle our way towards solutions. That's okay. That's what it takes.