Note: This essay was recently published in Amerikastudien/American Studies, as part of a Forum on Digitization, Digital Humanities, and American Studies. The essay carries a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.


Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature, Wiley, and SAGE: Many researchers know that the five giant firms publish most of the world’s scholarship. Fifty years of acquisitions and journal launches have yielded a stunningly profitable oligopoly, built up from academics’ unpaid writing-and-editing labor. Their business is a form of IP rentiership—collections of title-by-title prestige monopolies that, in the case of Nature or The Lancet, underwrite a stable of spinoff journals on the logic of the Hollywood franchise.

Less well-known is that Elsevier and its peers are layering a second business on top of their legacy publishing operations, fueled by data extraction. They are packaging researcher behavior, gleaned from their digital platforms, into prediction products, which they sell back to universities and other clients. Their raw material is scholars’ citations, abstracts, downloads, and reading habits, repurposed into dashboard services that, for example, track researcher productivity. Elsevier and the other oligopolist firms are fast becoming, in other words, surveillance publishers (Pooley). And they are using the windfall profits from their existing APC-and-subscription business to finance their moves into predictive analytics.

Elsevier is the farthest along. In 2015, its parent company RELX Group announced its “transformation” from publisher to a “technology, content and analytics-driven business,” adding that the firm is “systematically migrating all of our businesses towards electronic decision tools” (RELX Group, Annual Report 2014 5, 4). By then, Elsevier’s decade-long acquisition binge, up and down the research lifecycle, was already underway. In the past decade, it acquired Pure (2012), Mendeley (2013), Newsflo (2015), SSRN (2016), bepress (2017), Parity Computing (2019), and, in spring 2022, Interfolio, the “Faculty Information System” provider. Together with ScienceDirect, the firm’s web-based journal delivery platform, and Scopus, its citation index, Elsevier has assembled a portfolio of knowledge products that spans lab software to research assessment. These are, in a sense, services with benefits: reference management from Mendeley and journal access from ScienceDirect both furnish scholars’ behavioral data back to Elsevier. The company then sells the processed data back to universities and other clients in the form of “research intelligence,” i. e., prediction products like SciVal and Pure that score researcher impact and productivity.

Elsevier, to borrow a computing phrase, has become a full-stack publisher. Its thousands of journals might be seen as data-delivery vehicles—in themselves and by way of trackable engagement. Though some of these researcher-facing services are costly indeed, the core dynamic is not unlike the surveillance businesses built by Google and Facebook (Zuboff). The key difference is that Elsevier gets to charge its customers twice, first through sky-high subscription-and-APC rates and, secondly, for the “decision tools” generated by the legacy business’s behavioral surplus (RELX Group, Annual Report 2021 5). As CUNY law professor Sarah Lamdan put it in a 2021 talk, “[y]our journals are spying on you” (Your Journals). Earlier this year, internet sleuths discovered that Elsevier had embedded a per-download tracker in its PDF metadata (Hansen). Psychologist Eiko Fried followed up with a GDPR data request, which yielded a spreadsheet haul of torrential size. The company, Fried revealed, is tracking article engagement at the granularity of specific image views. The precise ways that these and other data are mined, sorted, and processed into prediction products like SciVal is, of course, shrouded in proprietary secrecy. Elsevier touts what it calls its Fingerprint® Engine, which applies machine learning to its vast trove of researcher data (“signals”) to assign, for example, a list of weighted concepts to a particular researcher (Picadio). As the RELX Group boasts in its latest annual report, the company’s “research intelligence portfolio”—sold to university management, corporate R&D executives, funders, and policy-makers—now generates over a third of Elsevier’s revenue (Annual Report 2021 21, 23). The company states that it expects to improve on its 2021 profit margin which, at 38 percent, places Elsevier among the world’s most lucrative businesses.

The other publishing colossi are playing catch up. Taylor & Francis, a unit of the UK-based intelligence conglomerate Informa Group, has been expanding its “knowledge services” through acquisitions like the Faculty of 1000 platform last year (Annual Report 2021 51–55). The division’s profit margin, at 37 percent, was just hairs off the Elsevier pace (51). Wiley, meanwhile, recently rolled out its journal platform Literatum, built by the software firm it acquired in 2016, Atypon. “Know thy reader,” reads the firm’s pitch. “Literatum’s analytics module tracks and combines publishing-specific content usage data with readers’ site behavior” (Atypon). Wiley’s margin last year was 35 percent (John Wiley & Sons 32). Springer Nature’s parent company, Holtzbrinck, for its part, owns its own full-stack research lifecycle offerings, including the Scopus competitor Dimensions, Pure competitor Symplectic, impact tracker Altmetric, and data repository figshare (Holtzbrinck).

Elsevier’s main competitor, tellingly, is Clarivate, a firm that began as the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in the late 1950s (Wouters). ISI’s founder, Eugene Garfield, helped establish the field of bibliometrics through the company’s Science Citation Index. In 2016, ISI was spun off as Clarivate in a $3.5 billion private equity deal, with Garfield’s citation index—renamed Web of Science—the new company’s crown jewel (Clarivate 5, 12–13). Sold to over 9,000 universities and other customers, Web of Science builds on what was, in Garfield’s citation graph, the original academic prediction product. What Clarivate is selling, after all, is bets on future scholarly productivity and impact. A key growth strategy, the company states, is “moving up the value chain by providing our customers with predictive and prescriptive analytics” (Clarivate 10). Late last year Clarivate—which reported an astonishing 42 percent profit margin—acquired ProQuest, the sprawling library vendor, for over $5 billion (Clarivate 9, 13). The data generated from ProQuest’s library products will almost certainly feed Clarivate’s own “research intelligence” offerings, Converis and InCites. If anything, Elsevier’s leg up on Clarivate has been its access to the rich behavioral surplus produced by its publishing business.

More acquisitions and inter-firm jockeying will proceed at the pace of Wall Street. What is fast emerging is a small band of vertically integrated knowledge brokers, most of them, in Björn Brembs’s phrase, “corporations formerly known as publishers” (“Off to Paris”). Elsevier and its peers, indeed, have used their enormous publishing profits to finance their full-stack acquisitions. In that respect, surveillance publishing is an insult-to-injury story. Scholars justly complain about the insanely lucrative scholarly publishing industry, whose subscription and APC windfalls are made off their unpaid labor. Now Wiley and the others are extracting a second rent, without the consent or notice of scholars.

Most scholars, after all, have no idea that their behavioral cream is getting skimmed for profit. If widely exposed, these next-level predations could build momentum for a nonprofit, academy-led alternative to the oligopolists. As historian Aileen Fyfe has chronicled, the current joint-custody arrangement—nonprofit universities and for-profit publishers—is a recent and reversible development. A community-owned infrastructure is, with slow care, getting built out, with the aim to support new and established scholar-led publishing initiatives. Another scholarly communication world really is possible. We need, however, researcher buy-in in light of predictable—if short-run—prestige penalties; funders and librarians, too, must be shaken from their APC-and-subscription slumbers. The emerging surveillance publishing economy, in that respect, is an opportunity of sorts. A range of scholar-critics, including Renke Siems, George Chen, Leslie Chan, Björn Brembs (“Algorithmic Employment”), and Sarah Lamdan (Data Cartels), have begun to sound the alarm. Our task is to amplify their accounts—to spread the word about surveillance profits—in support of the campaign to restore custody over scholarly publishing.


Works Cited

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