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The publishing giant Elsevier became a major player in the institutional repository landscape Wednesday with the acquisition of the private company Bepress. The acquisition is the third such purchase in the last 14 months for Elsevier, which recently acquired social science and humanities repository SSRN and the research metrics company Plum Analytics.

Like SSRN, Bepress was founded by academics who spotted a gap in the scholarly communications landscape. Originally created by Berkeley professors in 1999 to help journals speed up the peer-review process, Bepress’s most popular offering is now a service called Digital Commons -- a cloud-based institutional repository. This service, which is used by more than 450 institutions, allows universities to share research outputs such as preprints, student theses, data sets and special collections with the public, free.

An Elsevier news release said the acquisition of Bepress was part of a deliberate effort to shift the company from journal publishing into research and technology data management. Elsevier said acquiring Bepress would help drive adoption of its research data management tools, while Bepress would benefit from accessing Elsevier's technology and analytics.

“We talked to a lot of potential partners,” Jean-Gabriel Bankier, CEO of Bepress, said in an interview. “Elsevier were the ones who really saw us. They saw our vision and what it is we are doing for our customers.”

Bankier said that through Bepress’s partnership with Elsevier, the company would be able to offer more services to its customers. By incorporating Elsevier’s data into Bepress’s institutional repositories, Bankier said, institutions would be able to know, for example, how many times a paper in their repository had been cited elsewhere, or how many times it had been tweeted about. “Elsevier has it all -- we’re like kids in a candy store,” Bankier said of the possible analytics his company could gain.

Going forward, Bankier stressed, the company and its offering to customers “is going to exist as it is … We’ll be talking to customers to figure out what is the best path forward,” he said.

Some Not-So-Happy Bepress Customers

The acquisition was not surprising to Roger Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s Library and Scholarly Communication Program, who wrote about the acquisition for publishing blog Scholarly Kitchen. He said in an interview that it was clear to anyone watching the acquisitions landscape that all privately owned scholarly communications companies are currently “in play.”

“This is a good moment for founders to make some earnings,” he said. “Elsevier and Digital Science are really driving a strong marketplace for acquiring some of these start-ups.”

Schonfeld noted, however, that some would be shocked by the news. “If you look at Twitter discussions within the library community today, you’ll see some individuals who are extremely surprised. Bepress, like SSRN, was seen as friendly to the library community, so I think there will be some confusion about that.”

Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small liberal arts college in Minnesota, agreed that the move may confuse some academics. “Libraries have invested time and dollars into institutional repositories and library-supported publishing because of the behavior of highly profitable publishers like Elsevier, so all of that effort abruptly becoming the property of Elsevier is especially vexing.”

Fister said that while Bepress offered an excellent product, “selling out to a publisher that has rightfully earned a terrible reputation for price gouging among librarians” would spark “a lot of understandable outrage.” Elsevier, one of the largest scholarly publishers in the world, is also one of the most disliked by academics. However, Elsevier says that its profits are invested in innovations that make researchers' lives easier.

Terri Fishel, library director of Macalester College, a private undergraduate liberal arts college in Minnesota, said she felt “devastated” by the news. “How could Bepress, an organization that has around 500 members, be so clueless about how we felt about Elsevier?”

Fishel said that she had been a Bepress customer for 14 years and had always been impressed by its “fabulous service.” However, she said, she had “not a clue” that the company’s sale to Elsevier was happening until she saw it on Twitter. “To not have let the customers know before this was announced I think is despicable,” she said.

Fishel said that her main concern about the sale was that content created by the college to be read freely by all would now be owned by a publisher that has a poor track record with open-access advocates. “There will be people that leave because we don’t want to be owned by Elsevier,” said Fishel.

“I can see this acquisition makes a lot of sense from Elsevier’s side, but that doesn’t mean I was anxious to see it happen,” said Paul Royster, repository manager at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, which also uses Bepress.

“A lot of us are looking at our contracts, thinking, ‘Maybe it’s time to dust off plan B,’ but we’re not going to bolt right away. A lot of it depends on how Bepress behaves. If they maintain their current level of service, I don’t see a lot of people leaving out of spite,” said Royster.

Asked what message he would like to send customers concerned about Bepress’s acquisition by Elsevier, Bankier asked for “time to show the value that we will be delivering to the community with this relationship.”

An Elsevier-Enabled Workflow -- From Start to Finish

The move into institutional repositories means that Elsevier now offers services at almost every stage of the scholarly workflow -- from initial research to citation management, publication and deposit into a repository. Schonfeld says that Elsevier's tactic of creating one streamlined workflow for researchers is a “masterful strategy,” but Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate executive director of the Modern Language Association, described it as “concerning.”

“Allowing any one entity -- especially a commercial publisher that has done so much damage to library budgets -- to have full control over the entirety of the scholarly workflow poses grave risks to the future accessibility of the scholarly record,” said Fitzpatrick, who is currently working on an open, nonprofit, scholar-governed repository called Humanities Commons.

Jeffrey Spies, co-founder of the Center for Open Science, said that it makes good business sense for big publishers to create these seamless workflows, but that such strategies limit scholars' choices. “Publishers could make choices that don’t promote lock-in, but it’s a very good business model if your focus is on the bottom line,” he said.

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