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Elsevier is at it again. It has launched a new (free) service that is likely to undermine open access alternatives by providing Wikipedia-like definitions generated automatically from texts it publishes. As an article on the Times Higher Education site explains, the aim is to stop users of the publishing giant’s ScienceDirect platform from leaving Elsevier’s walled garden and visiting sites like Wikipedia in order to look up definitions of key terms:

Elsevier is hoping to keep researchers on its platform with the launch of a free layer of content called ScienceDirect Topics, offering an initial 80,000 pages of material relating to the life sciences, biomedical sciences and neuroscience. Each offers a quick definition of a key term or topic, details of related terms and relevant excerpts from Elsevier books.

Significantly, this content is not written to order but is extracted from Elsevier’s books, in a process that Sumita Singh, managing director of Elsevier Reference Solutions, described as "completely automated, algorithmically generated and machine-learning based".

It’s typical of Elsevier’s unbridled ambition that instead of supporting a digital commons like Wikipedia, it wants to compete with it by creating its own redundant versions of the same information, which are proprietary. Even worse, it is drawing that information from books written by academics who have given Elsevier a license — perhaps unwittingly — that allows it to do that. The fact that a commercial outfit mines what are often publicly-funded texts in this way is deeply hypocritical, since Elsevier’s own policy on text and data mining forbids other companies from doing the same. It’s another example of how Elsevier uses its near-monopolistic stranglehold over academic publishing for further competitive advantage. Maybe it’s time anti-trust authorities around the world took a look at what is going on here.

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