The Forest of the SPARC Landscape

The recent “Landscape Analysis” from SPARC, released at the end of March, walks readers through a sober-sided evaluation of the market, with an emphasis on the major publishers — Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature on the journals side, with Pearson and McGraw-Hill (and Cengage, now part of McGraw-Hill) on the education side.

There are some interesting analyses in the document, and some surprising figures to be sure (for example, Elsevier makes less money per article than either Springer Nature or Wiley). There are tables showing the asymmetry of usage (~5-7% of journals account for ~50% or more usage in multiple fields), but drawing what I consider to be unforgiving conclusion (I don’t agree that low usage equates to low value — a lot of good science and scholarship comes out of small disciplines, new ways of thinking, or emerging fields). The authors confirm in passing my finding that subscriptions only cost academic institutions 0.5% of their budgets. There are arguments about productivity gains, and some contradictory and incomplete data. But overall, the analysis seems solid at the detailed level, missing the mark only a few times here and there.

What’s truly interesting about the analysis is the forest it describes — the big picture it asserts — which is alive with customer knowledge and Big Data assumptions. The authors examine how Elsevier and other companies are now pivoting away from content and into the surveillance economy.

The implications of this are examined in the analysis through a narrow premise — that academic institutions can and should guide the data acquisition and analysis practices of private firms using information products as ways to ignite data exhaust they can use to sell information and projections about academic practices, research areas, and individuals back to institutions.

What the analysis describes is a fascinating — and totally expected — pivot, one we’ve seen developing for quite some time. The SPARC analysis puts a pin in it, and states it quite explicitly.

But exploring the forest is where the analysis falls down, failing multiple times to answer questions its own premise begs — for instance, it asserts data acquisition and analysis should be guided by academic culture, without testing whether there is actually something we can identify as “academic culture” against which proper data utilization practices can be judged….”

Elsevier’s Presence on Campuses Spans More Than Journals. That Has Some Scholars Worried. – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Lyon, a librarian of scholarly communications at the University of Texas at Austin, listed scholarly-publishing tools that had been acquired by the journal publishing giant Elsevier. In 2013, the company bought Mendeley, a free reference manager. It acquired the Social Science Research Network, an e-library with more than 850,000 papers, in 2016. And it acquired the online tools Pure and Bepress — which visualize research — in 2012 and 2017, respectively.

Lyon said she started considering institutions’ dependence on Elsevier when the company acquired Bepress two years ago. She was shocked, she recalled in a recent interview.

“It just got me thinking,” she said. Elsevier had it all: Institutional repositories, preprints of journal articles, and analytics. “Elsevier, Elsevier, Elsevier, Elsevier, Elsevier.”

Scholars are beginning to discuss the idea of Elsevier-as-monolith at conferences and in their research. Not only are librarians and researchers speaking openly about the hefty costs of bulk subscriptions to the company’s premier journals, but they’re also paying attention to the products that Elsevier has acquired, several of which allow its customers to store data and share their work….”

Preliminary Findings: Rent Seeking by Elsevier – The Knowledge G.A.P.

Over the last few decades, there has been ongoing debate and distress regarding the effects of the journal subscription paywall and the very real barriers to knowledge access that it creates. As major academic publishers invest and redirect their business strategies to open access and alternative paying structures, it may seem as if the access to knowledge battle is starting to be won. However, as big publishers move towards openness they have also been redirecting their business strategies towards the acquisition of scholarly infrastructure, the tools and services that underpin the scholarly research life cycle, many of which are geared towards data analytics. We argue that moves toward increased control over openness and data analytics by big publishers are simultaneous processes of profit maximization. Could it be that our attention on the paywall has ditracted us from paying attention to the strategic takeover of infrastructure by the publishers? These processes should be examined closely as they are actively entrenching the publisher’s’ power and control which could be posing great threats to the exclusion of already marginalized researchers and institutions.