'There Isn't Some Big Conspiracy Happening'

Some scholars are taking confusion about articles mistakenly deleted from the Social Science Research Network as their cue to look for a new place to share research.

July 19, 2016

A staff error is the reason why several articles were deleted without notice from the Social Science Research Network, but some users are threatening to boycott the popular repository anyway.

The confusion began last week when Stephen E. Henderson, the Judge Haskell A. Holloman Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma, found that a PDF of an article he had uploaded to SSRN had been removed. Checking the revision comments, Henderson found the following message:

“It appears that you do not retain copyright to the paper, and the PDF has been removed from public view. Please provide us with the copyright holder's written permission to post. Alternatively, you may replace this version with a working paper or preprint version, if you so desire.”

Henderson shared his frustration in an email to a Listserv of law professors, writing, “It appears that the corporate takeover of SSRN is already having a real impact.” (SSRN was acquired by publisher Elsevier in May.)

Henderson’s message was shared by the blog PrawfsBlawg, which focuses on legal issues, and from there more widely on social media. Other SSRN users soon reported that their papers, too, had been taken down, leading many to call on SSRN to clarify the situation.

“To be clear, we haven't changed any policies about copyright,” SSRN tweeted on Friday. “A couple of processing emails were sent incorrectly and in the wrong order. … There isn't some big conspiracy happening.”

SSRN CEO Gregg Gordon released a follow-up statement on Monday, saying a staff member had reviewed Henderson’s PDF and removed it by mistake. The paper was reposted once SSRN was made aware of it, he said.

“Some have taken this mistake to suggest there has been a copyright policy change resulting from our recent acquisition by Elsevier. This is not true,” Gordon said. “We have always worked to improve our processes, but mistakes do happen. While we worked to improve our compliance part of our submission process, we fell short in thinking through the communications with the authors, which resulted in some authors receiving confusing and contradictory emails about their submissions.”

Gregg said he believed about 20 papers had been mistakenly removed. SSRN’s database contains more than 557,000 full-text papers. Still, the confusion comes at an inconvenient time for the repository. Many scholars have been wary of changes after the repository was surprisingly acquired. In anticipation of a backlash, founder Michael C. Jensen wrote a letter to members on the day the acquisition was announced to reassure users.

“We realize that this change may create some concerns about the intentions of a legacy publisher acquiring an open-access working paper repository. I shared this concern,” Jensen wrote. “But after much discussion about this matter and others in determining if [academic social network] Mendeley and Elsevier would be a good home for SSRN, I am convinced that they would be good stewards of our mission.”

Gordon echoed that belief, writing at the time that users should feel “assured that our ethos will remain intact” and that “existing and future SSRN content will be largely unaffected” by the acquisition.

The Authors Alliance, a nonprofit interest group for authors that generally favors less restrictive copyright measures, in May issued an 11-point list of principles that SSRN could adopt to assuage the concerns of users about the acquisition. SSRN “offered more general reassurances” but “would not commit to adopting even one of our principles,” the organization said in an update published on Sunday, in which it asked users to reconsider whether they should continue using the repository.

“It is also worth protesting the practices that would restrict your work’s availability and reach by leaving the services adopting them,” the group wrote. “If the reports about SSRN’s new practices are accurate, then it may be time to leave SSRN and adopt more author-friendly alternatives.”

Some SSRN users signaled over the weekend that they would do just that. While some scholars are choosing to host their research themselves or deposit their research in institutional repositories, others said they would look for new online communities -- or build their own -- to share their work.

Reached by email on Monday, Henderson said he has not decided to remove his articles from SSRN.

“Frankly, overall I believe SSRN has done much good, and I’m a believer in the concept and in their words that they privately convey about wanting to do right,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, to date their actions often don’t mirror those words, as in this latest takedown craze and in their woeful misrepresentation of legal scholars’ citation counts. But they are once again saying the right things, so only time will tell, I suppose.”


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