The Acquisition Raises the Risk of Bundling and Increased Switching Costs
Elsevier has a well-documented history of bundling its academic publishing products. Most of Elsevier’s publishing subscription revenues come through “Big Deal” packages where institutions pay a single large fee for access to most or all of Elsevier’s collections1 and which raise competition concerns for smaller publishers. At an increasing number of institutions, these “Big Deal” packages are being expanded to also bundle reading access to journals along with fees for publishing openly, which has been shown to tilt the publishing market further toward the largest players.2 Furthermore, Elsevier has already experimented with bundling its content with research analytics tools.3
All of this lays the foundation for a potential “platform package” that bundles more of Elsevier’s offerings across the research lifecycle. Based on this history and the breadth of the company’s products, it seems reasonable to expect Elsevier to experiment with including Interfolio in a bundle of services that could span from publishing and accessing content to research analytics and assessment to fully-featured Faculty Information Systems.
For example, Elsevier could bundle its academic journal packages (paid for by the library) with Interfolio’s Faculty Information System (paid for by university administration) or provide a discount on the latter based on the purchase of the former. Given the internal dynamics within academic institutions, such arrangements would operate as a kind of product tying. In this example, many libraries would likely find it significantly more difficult to cancel a large journal package if doing so would result in a cost increase for the administrators whom they report to. These kinds of arrangements could tie products together in a way that limits competition and that could create a conflict of interest between different units within the same institution.
Bundling could further marginalize competitors in each market segment and increase switching costs for institutions in this type of deal, locking them into Elsevier’s products.
The Acquisition Risks Raising Long-Term Costs for Institutions
Given Elsevier’s history of bundling other products, the acquisition raises the possibility of predatory pricing by increasing the incentives to and improving the company’s position for doing so. Unlike its academic journals, Elsevier’s research analytics and Faculty Information Systems (FIS) products have direct substitutes, making predatory pricing a potentially tempting strategy for cementing market share in these areas. For example, Elsevier may choose to bundle its analytics tools with Interfolio’s Faculty Information System at a below-market price. This discounting would disincentivize Interfolio customers from using a competitor like Clarivate. Once its competitors are weakened, Elsevier would face significantly reduced constraints to increase prices to above-market rates.
There are specific characteristics across the markets in which Elsevier operates that heighten this risk of predatory pricing. These include first-degree price discrimination, a lack of transparency in pricing and contract terms, and prohibitively high switching costs. Together, these market attributes mean that predatory pricing would be more difficult to detect and to prove. If Elsevier were to extend its market power through predatory pricing, high switching costs would reduce institutions’ ability to respond to subsequent price increases or reductions in product quality.
The potential for predatory pricing is not unique to Elsevier. Other large players that operate across multiple markets could face similar incentives. However, Elsevier’s strength as a leader across markets makes predatory pricing a more viable strategy. Interfolio adds to this risk by making Elsevier the market leader for a product in Faculty Information Systems that has high switching costs and could be an attractive core product to bundle others around at below-market rates.
Alternatively, if Interfolio provides Elsevier with a sufficient market advantage, the company may move directly to raise prices at a faster rate of increase. Any significant shifts in pricing, in either direction, should therefore be watched carefully.
The Acquisition Raises Concerns About Privacy & Reductions in Product Quality
This acquisition presents the risk that data from Interfolio might be used in ways that could compromise faculty privacy, erode academic freedom, and also result in a reduction of the quality of the products and services the combined company offers.
From the faculty perspective, the acquisition raises concerns about both data collection and data use. From a collection perspective, Interfolio can collect non-public, often-sensitive data about faculty in a variety of key areas: faculty research and work plans; grant funding information; reviews for hiring, promotion, and tenure; and information about faculty seeking new positions. This collection often occurs in situations where faculty do not have much choice about whether to use an Interfolio product. Faculty have little input into which product their home institution (or an institution at which they hope to be hired) uses as their Faculty Information System or as part of a hiring process. This could compromise faculty privacy in a variety of ways.
Interfolio has now become a part of RELX, a multinational information analytics company of which Elsevier is a subsidiary. As a result, data collected by Interfolio (along with all other data collected by Elsevier) exists within the same corporate entity as a wide variety of RELX products—including their suite of “risk” products. Journalist Sam Biddle has described these RELX “risk” products, such as LexisNexis, as “offer[ing] an oceanic computerized view of a person’s existence” that can provide government entities and law enforcement with “the data it needs to locate people with little if any oversight.”4 These surveillance products have raised human rights concerns and calls for boycotts from within academic institutions.5,6,7
The potential for Elsevier to access personal information collected through Interfolio raises questions about whether it is possible that this data could end up in these “risk” products sold by RELX. Without durable contractual protections, promises or assurances made one day can be quickly discarded. Because they are subject to change, mechanisms such as privacy policies do not eliminate these privacy concerns.
As a research analytics provider, Elsevier’s incentive is to extract as much data as possible from users and repackage it into metrics that can be sold back to institutions.8 This dynamic has the potential to undermine academic freedom in a number of critical ways.9 For example, detailed tracking of faculty activity could (understandably) give researchers the sense that someone is always looking over their shoulder, analyzing their activity, and making assessments that could impact their career prospects. Faculty may also reasonably believe that Elsevier analytics products may assess the company’s own publications more favorably than those of competitors. These concerns could harm academic freedom by influencing researchers’ choice of publication venue, away from what is most appropriate and toward what they believe will be assessed most highly by Elsevier.
Additionally, faculty may also be uncomfortable with the possibility that, even if their data is de-identified and aggregated, their use of Interfolio products to apply for a job at another institution could mean that their data could appear in a new metric that Elsevier might create—for instance, one that tracks how many faculty at a client institution are seeking employment elsewhere. This acquisition raises the likelihood of these harms to academic freedom by putting Elsevier products (and the analytics they can include) at the heart of hiring, review, promotion, and tenure at Interfolio institutions.
As noted earlier, this data extraction presents concerns for academic institutions as well.10 With access to the data flows that colleges and universities use to make business decisions, Elsevier could be positioned to be able to sell market intelligence products to those institutions that can afford to pay for them. These products could provide well-resourced institutions an advantage in pursuing emerging research areas and recruiting “rising stars.” Conversely, these products could disadvantage Elsevier’s own customers whose data could be extracted through products like Interfolio but who cannot afford these more advanced analytics tools that may be created based on access to that data.
The potential for this kind of data extraction and the corresponding erosion of academic freedom has significant market implications. They present the potential for very real consumer harms that can—and should—be considered a reduction in product quality. This harm would be particularly significant for faculty who don’t have a way to opt-out of using or being evaluated by an Elsevier-owned product but who, nevertheless, could be negatively impacted by them as described.
Though the acquisition of a well-adopted FIS product by another research analytics firm could present similar threats to academic freedom (and be opposed on these same grounds), Elsevier’s position as a market leader in both areas makes these concerns more pressing. The concerns regarding personal data privacy are greater in the case of Elsevier, as no other competitors in these markets are part of a larger corporation that sells “risk” products based on large databases of personal information. While the data uses outlined above may not be happening now, institutions should carefully consider whether they are comfortable with what is structurally possible in the context of the acquisition and consider how ironclad any protections they have are against these possibilities.
Big Deal Knowledge Base, www.sparc.com, https://sparcopen.org/our-work/big-deal-knowledge-base (last visited Jun. 22, 2022). ↩
Justus Haucap et al., The Impact of the German ‘DEAL’ on Competition in the Academic Publishing Market, 42 Managerial & Decision Econ. 2027 (Special Issue: Economic Perspectives on the Future of Academic Publishing) (Dec. 2021), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/mde.3493. ↩
Claudio Aspesi & SPARC, The Dutch Consortia/Elsevier Contract: The Real Risks, www.sparc.com (May 28, 2020), https://infrastructure.sparcopen.org/dutch-consortia-elsevier-contract. ↩
Sam Biddle, LexisNexis to Provide Giant Database of Personal Information to ICE, The Intercept, Apr. 2, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/04/02/ice-database-surveillance-lexisnexis. ↩
Reuters & RELX – Drop Your Contracts!, #NoTechForICE, https://notechforice.com/lawletter, last visited Jun. 21, 2022. ↩
Daily Bruin Editorial Board, UCLA needs to stand up to legal databases with ties to ICE, promote alternatives, Daily Bruin, Aug. 3, 2020, https://dailybruin.com/2020/08/03/editorial-ucla-needs-to-stand-up-to-legal-databases-with-ties-to-ice-promote-alternatives. ↩
End the Contract Coalition https://endthecontract.wixsite.com/home, last visited Jun. 21, 2022. ↩
Note: Elsevier likely does not even need to have perpetual access to institutional data in order for many of these concerning uses to be a possibility. Elsevier’s use of its own data generated by analyzing institutional data—rather than using the underlying institutional data itself—could be sufficient to raise concerns. ↩
For a detailed analysis of the tension between research analytics and academic freedom see: German Research Foundation, Data Tracking in Research: Aggregation and Use or Sale of Usage Data by Academic Publishers, Jun. 18, 2021, https://www.dfg.de/download/pdf/foerderung/programme/lis/datentracking_papier_en.pdf. ↩
See note 8 above. ↩