In recent years librarians and legal scholars have been shining a light on the growing data collection and surveillance practices of the largest publishers of scholarly information. Vendors such as RELX and Thomson Reuters have over the last 10-20 years moved from simply publishing scholarly articles to aggregating and collecting large amounts of data from a wide range of sources and then selling these data. Of particular concern lately has been the agreements these companies have to sell these data to law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with very few if any constraints on how these data are used.

Lafayette librarians have been advocating for user privacy in our licenses for years now. One such example is our cancellation of Lexis Nexis in 2018 in response to their refusal to negotiate terms on a new license to protect faculty and student privacy. We continue to place heavy emphasis in contract negotiations on the need to ensure that these data are secured and not commodified.

Unfortunately, RELX is the provider of Elsevier’s ScienceDirect, one of our largest academic journal databases, with particular strength in STEM fields, and Thomson Reuters is the vendor for Web of Science, a central indexing service for scholarly information. Because the scholarly publishing landscape is nearly monopolized by a few very large players and data gathering/resale is a major source of revenue for these companies, it is difficult to completely divest from relationships with these vendors without losing access to critical sources of information.

This is a complex issue without any clear or easy solutions at present, but we will continue to study and monitor the situation and advocate for our patrons. We also wanted to take this opportunity to let students and faculty who are regular users of ScienceDirect or Web of Science know that this problem exists. Even basic use of these services results in the generation of certain “basic” kinds of data (e.g. location, browser, trafficking cookies, etc.), and the amount of data collected greatly increases when a user registers a personal account with these resources (e.g. to create a folder of saved items or search alerts). We are particularly concerned about this practice because there is a troubling lack of transparency around how these data are used by these conglomerates. We know that data surveillance and risk assessment are growing divisions of these companies (in some cases accounting for nearly as much revenue as traditional scholarly publishing), but it is unclear what data are being sold, and to whom.

SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) has published a synopsis of the issue following the recent announcement of a new multi-million dollar agreement between RELX and ICE. Sarah Lamdan, a Professor of Law and librarian, published a more in-depth article with In the Library with the Lead Pipe in 2019.

We would welcome and value further discussion with any user who would like to learn more—please feel free to contact us.