A wider target audience

Major publisher’s acquisition of manuscript submission system makes waves in scientific journals market

Andrew Baker

Dutch publishing company Elsevier, which publishes more than 2,500 medical and scientific journals, announced in August that it would be acquiring Aries Systems, a technology company that supports the academic publishing market. Founded in Boston, USA, in 1986, Aries is the company behind Editorial Manager, the online platform used by hundreds of journals to receive and assess scientific manuscripts, and to generate reports and statistics on the journal production process. The system is used by many of Elsevier’s competitors, including Springer, Macmillan, and the Public Library of Science (PLOS), which publishes open-access journals. It is also used by Elsevier itself, which began a partnership with Aries in 1999. “This acquisition will allow us to improve our operations in the online manuscript management systems market,” the publisher told Pesquisa FAPESP. Lyndon Holmes, the founder of Aries, said in a statement that the deal will strengthen the company, helping to improve the technologies available to publishers. The value of the deal was not disclosed. Elsevier has announced that it will establish an advisory board composed of current Aries customers, to be chaired by Holmes.

The acquisition demonstrates the publisher’s strategy of diversifying its activities—in recent years it has acquired other companies in niche areas such as social media and preprint repositories (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nos. 250 and 258). Aries’s closest competitor is ScholarOne, developed by Clarivate Analytics, the former intellectual property and science division of Thomson Reuters. “There seems to be an arms race between Clarivate and Elsevier when it comes to data and centrality. This move puts Elsevier on a better footing for the market confrontations that may lie ahead,” wrote Kent Anderson, an American expert in scientific communication, on the Scholarly Kitchen website.

Data control
The deal gives Elsevier access to a huge set of metadata on scientific articles that could help the company develop new analysis products, a market in which it is already working hard and competing with Clarivate. “It is an important competitive advantage,” says Abel Packer, general coordinator of Brazilian online scientific library SciELO. “Elsevier’s main motivation for acquiring Aries was not to increase revenue, but to gain control of the communications flow from their own journals and from those published by other companies.”

The acquisition gives Elsevier access to a set of metadata that could be used to develop new products

Every day, thousands of articles pass through Editorial Manager, which is used by journal editors not only to receive manuscripts submitted by researchers, but to organize and centralize the entire peer review process until final publication. The system maintains a daily history of author and reviewer data, such as institutional affiliation and area of ​​activity. It also records which manuscripts are being rejected, which could help Elsevier redirect them to other journals that it publishes. “While on the one hand this benefits the publishing management process, on the other it raises questions about how this data is used by the companies that control these systems,” says Carlos Henrique Marcondes de Almeida, a professor at the Documentation Department of the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

The debate first started in 2016, when US publisher Wiley purchased the Atypon manuscript submission system, which was commonly used by Wiley’s competitors. To ease concerns, Wiley announced that the system would use new firewalls to block access to certain types of data. Elsevier even developed its own publishing platform, called Evise. Although it is still in operation, Evise has not had a major impact on the market because of the limited resources it offers in comparison with its competitors. Elsevier is not the only publisher that has struggled in this market. In December 2017, PLOS announced that it was abandoning the effort to make its own system, known as Aperta, after years of development, and would continue to use the Aries platform.

In terms of technology, user demands are increasing, and constant updates to systems and their interfaces—which are often not particularly user-friendly—are a common cause of complaint. “We have hosted training courses for publishers who are not accustomed to using online management systems,” says Packer. At present, SciELO offers editors of its 290 journals a choice of two management systems: Clarivate’s ScholarOne or the Open Journal System (OJS), an open-source platform created in 2001 by the Public Knowledge Project at the University of British Columbia, Canada. According to Packer, systems such as OJS, which are more flexible and independent, could become important alternatives as commercial publishers continue to enter this market.

Elsevier has a history of backing new models to maintain its position as market leader. “Until the 1990s, the company worked with a traditional publishing model. When journals started moving online in the 2000s, it had to adapt to a new environment,” says Dante Cid, Elsevier’s vice president for academic relations in Latin America. The task has not always been easy, as shown in the recent decision by German universities not to renew their contracts with Elsevier in an attempt to pressure the publisher into changing its subscription-based model and lowering the cost of its services.