Elsevier & SSRN Making My Ideal Pub Ecosystem a Reality?

For years I have been banging on to anyone who would listen about how I think journals (i.e. collections of articles that are subjected to pre-publication peer review) are useless. Much better I (and many others) said would be to have disciplinary repositories like arXiv where researchers can deposit all their papers and then have overlay journals that trawl the repositories, picking out the best content and subjecting that content to peer review. The selected papers would then be given a badge – or a series of badges (e.g. selected for peer review in _____; peer reviewed by ______, etc.) to show that they had been selected and the journal would just be links to revised version in the repository. There are many advantages to this arrangement:

  • All results – positive, negative, confirmations, etc. – could be “published” (i.e. put in the repository) and would be discoverable on the open web
  • The peer review load would be dramatically reduced since only those papers thought worthy of inclusion in journals would be peer reviewed
  • There would in theory be cost savings since the repositories would like arXiv be community supported.

The downside to this arrangement is that it would put much more emphasis/strain on journal editors. Though even here there is an upside in that successful editors/editorial boards would likely gain much more prestige than they do today.

News came today that Elsevier had acquired SSRN. Roger Schonfeld writing at the Scholarly Kitchen points out the myriad ways this deal makes sense, for example:

There is a wealth of information in the usage logs of services like SSRN that could help guide editors trying to acquire manuscripts for publication or that could assist business development efforts for journal acquisitions. Also important to watch are SciVal, Pure, and some of Elsevier’s other “research intelligence” offerings. SSRN has extracted and made use of the references in its papers, and its usage data are already used to calculate top papers, top authors, and top organizations. SSRN data will have value for generating “performance” data for papers, authors, and organizations.

Certainly all those things are sensible reasons why Elsevier would be interested in SSRN (or arXiv for that matter). Since I mostly only deal with Elsevier’s legacy publishing business the first sentence really stands out to me. Elsevier is now going to know before anyone else what exciting things are happening in the social sciences and will in theory have first crack at trying to get that content into their journals – raising their prestige and attracting more submissions of quality, virtuous circle, etc. My thought was what if this is actually the first move towards a for-profit/paywalled version of the vision presented above. That is to say, journals as we know them would continue to be paywalled but instead of having authors submit to the journal, the journal staff/algorithms would simply crawl SSRN and pick out the promising working papers and invite those authors to submit their papers the appropriate journal. That smaller and more manageable group of papers would then be peer reviewed. There’s lots of details that would have to be worked out but if you had decided the current way things are done were insufficiently profitable (or were going to be insufficiently profitable in the near to medium future) this is the kind of move you would make.

I’ll close by saying I think Schonfeld is probably closer to the mark than my wild speculations but this acquisition does raise some very interesting possibilities.

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