SSRN and open access for non-institutional scholars
Academics and open access advocates expressed concern when Elsevier acquired SSRN, the previously free and open social sciences research network. It appears now that those fears may have come true, as recent copyright takedowns by SSRN indicate a shift away from open access. The loss of a well-established open access research network will be deeply felt in the social sciences research community, including in my own field of law and public policy.
SSRN was an open access research network that allowed for free posting of academic research. In May of this year, academic publisher Elsevier purchased SSRN, to the concerns of many. In June, Authors Alliance, an open access non-profit, shared with Elsevier/SSRN a list of open access principles to which they might commit; all were rejected by Elsevier. Recently, SSRN has begun taking down papers without notice for copyright reasons – reasons that do not align with the general open access principles. (SSRN has subsequently described these removals as mistakes, rather than a change in policy.)
As a practitioner not employed by a university or academic research institution, I am especially disappointed by this news. Being able to share research on SSRN was important for researchers not associated with traditional academic institutions, which at the very least can often host papers for their professors and other staff. SSRN also provided an easy method for independent researchers, and the general public at large, to access timely and relevant social science research.
Many have noted that the high price of academic journal access can make research cost-prohibitive for anyone not formally affiliated with an academic institution. Losing SSRN will make it more difficult for practitioners and others outside traditional academia both to access and to contribute to the exchange of ideas that eventually drives business and policy decisions. Losing those voices and restricting information from the non-academic public would shrink our marketplace of ideas.
Furthermore, openly accessible academic research can benefit the public at large, especially in fields like law and public policy. Free information on laws and legislation is necessary for an informed democracy. SSRN was only one small provider of open information, but it was an important one, and its loss will be deeply felt.
I’ve been speaking of SSRN in the past tense, but the website is still functional. It is still possible that SSRN may change its policies to reflect open access ideals. However, it does not appear as if this is likely to occur. It may be naïve to expect that any corporation without a knowledge-based social mission would ever dedicate resources to an open access research network. There are some alternatives, including the new research network, SocArXiv, which officially launched last month. It is unclear if researchers will migrate to SocArXiv or any other of the alternatives to SSRN.
The (presumed) demise of SSRN is a reminder of the importance of open access to information generally. From a technology policy standpoint, there are a number of ways to safeguard open access and free information, from copyright reform to net neutrality. For more information on those topics, you can read the freely accessible articles on SSRN – for as long as they last.
Ed.: The University of California has an open access policy for research conducted by faculty at all UC campuses. Berkeley’s Open Access Initiative may be able to answer your questions. eScholarship serves as an institutional repository for UC scholars. While those institutional policies and repositories cannot directly help researchers without university affiliations who are trying to publish research, making our research openly available through those means can provide access for others to read.
Tiffany Li is Commercial Counsel at General Assembly, the global education institution. She is a Fellow with the Internet Law & Policy Foundry and an Affiliate with the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. She holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, where she was a Global Law Scholar, and a B.A. from University of California Los Angeles, where she was a Norma J. Ehrlich Alumni Scholar. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer or any affiliated organizations.