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The Hubbub About Sci-Hub: Who's the real pirate?

May 4, 2016

Tags: Sci-Hub, open access, Elsevier, pirated papers

Updated 7-11-17, 4-13-17. Welcome to Sci-Hub, the Pirate Bay of science. "A researcher in Russia [ Alexandra Elbakyan} made more than 48 million journal articles -- almost every single peer-reviewed paper ever published -- freely available online. And she refused to shut the site down, despite a court injunction and a lawsuit from Elsevier, one of the world's biggest publishers." Researcher illegally shares millions of science papers free online to spread knowledge (Fiona MacDonald, Science Alert, 2-12-16). Interesting dilemma and discussion.

Global publishing giant [Elsevier] wins $15 million damages against researcher for sharing publicly-funded knowledge(Glyn Moody, Privacy News Online, 6-29-17) As a copyright person posted on a copyright listserv, here "copyright is being used as a big stick rather than an enabler." As the article states, "most of the work writing, checking and editing a paper is carried out completely for free. The only costs that academic publishers incur are typically for production, which are limited if publication is purely digital, as is increasingly the case. Given the extremely efficient nature of the academic publishing system, it will come as no surprise to learn that leading companies in the sector – including Elsevier – have consistently achieved profit margins between 30% and 40%, levels almost unheard of in other industries. Such elevated profit margins have come as the prices paid by academic libraries to subscribe to titles have increased rapidly. While the cost of living increased by 73% between 1986 and 2004, the expenditure by research libraries on subscriptions to academic journals went up by 273% in the same period." Which type of piracy is the more egregious?

Should All Research Papers Be Free? (Kate Murphy, SundayReview, NY Times, 3-12-16), follow-up analysis to the suit against Alexandra Elbakyan but also about the scholarly journals' paywalls she denounced, in which the "largest companies, like Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer and Wiley, typically have profit margins of over 30 percent, which they say is justified because they are curators of research, selecting only the most worthy papers for publication. Moreover, they orchestrate the vetting, editing and archiving of articles."

"In response to the suit filed against her, Ms. Elbakyan wrote a letter to the judge pointing out that Elsevier, like other journal publishers, pays nothing to acquire researchers’ studies. Moreover, publishers don’t pay for the volunteer peer reviewers or editors. But they charge those same researchers, reviewers and editors, not to mention the public, whose tax dollars most likely funded the study in the first place, to read the resulting articles."

“That is very different from the music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold,” Ms. Elbakyan wrote. “I would like to also mention that we never received any complaints from authors or researchers.”

Four Ways of Rationalizing Infringement: or, How to Defend a Pirate (Rick Anderson, The Scholarly Kitchen, 4-12-17) Responses from those trying to deal with the moral/ethical implications of Sci-Hub’s manifestly illegal behavior, rather than wink at or sidestep them, seem to fit into one (or more) of four categories of argument:
1) Sci-Hub’s activity is neither illegal nor immoral.
2) Sci-Hub’s activity is illegal, but not immoral.
3) Sci-Hub’s activities are both illegal and immoral, but excused on the basis of the odiousness of their targets.
4) Sci-Hub’s activities are positively good (even if technically illegal) because they undermine an aspect of the social order that sorely needs to be undermined.
But, says the author, thinking critically means, among other things, making the effort to divorce oneself from easy binaries and tribalism — it means acknowledging that the enemy of one’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend.

Who's downloading pirated papers? EVERYONE (John Bohannon, Science Magazine, 4-28-16) In rich and poor countries, researchers turn to the Sci-Hub website. Many who access the site also have access to journal subscriptions, which provide clunky time-consuming downloads.
Data from: Who's downloading pirated papers? Everyone (Dryad)

The Sci-Hub story so far: Main event or sideshow? (John DePuis, Confessions of a Science Librarian, Science Blogs, 2-22-16) " Elsevier and its ilk are thrilled to be the target of all the outrage. Focusing on the whack-a-mole game distracts us from fixing the real problem: the entrenched systems of prestige, incentive and funding in academia. As long as researchers are channelled into “high impact” journals, as long as tenure committees reward publishing in closed rather than open venues, nothing will really change. Until funders get serious about mandating true open access publishing and are willing to put their money where their intentions are, nothing will change. Or at least, progress will be mostly limited to surface victories rather than systemic change."

Paper piracy sparks online debate (Chris Woolston, Nature, 5-2-16) Data on Sci-Hub activity prompts discussion about why the research-paper website is so popular. Tweeted geneticist Ben Lehner at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain: "Sci-Hub: people use it because it is faster, simpler and more reliable than the clunky official ways to get papers." Molecular biologist Alexis Verger noted on Twitter that the second-most downloaded paper on Sci-Hub — an analysis of low-grade gliomas published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015 — is actually open access.

The frustrated science student behind Sci-Hub: Alexandra Elbakyan (John Bohannon, Science Magazine, 4-28-16) Elbakyan sees the site as a natural extension of her dream of helping humans share good ideas. "Journal paywalls are an example of something that works in the reverse direction, making communication less open and efficient.

My love-hate of Sci-Hub (Marcia McNutt, Science, 4-29-16) "When researchers access papers through Sci-Hub, article usage information is lost. Authors do not benefit from download statistics, for example, which are increasingly being used to assess the impact of their work. Libraries cannot properly track usage for the journals they provide and could wind up discontinuing titles that are useful to their institution. As institutions cancel subscriptions, the ability of nonprofit scientific societies to provide journals and support their research communities is diminished." And so on.

Who’s to blame for Sci-Hub? Librarians, of course! ( John Dupuis, Confessions of a Science Librarian, 4-29-16) "Aren’t you publishers the ones that “break” the hyperlink ethos of the web by creating the paywalls in the first place? And aren’t you the ones who have a different interface created by each company that people have to learn? Google and Google Scholars are the tools most scholars use to find papers and they bypass searching systems. What those researchers are finding hard to deal with is YOUR set of barriers and Tower of Babel systems across publishers. We’re trying to make it better, you’re trying to make it worse because that’s how you make your money.

Revolution in academia: Copyright and open access (Writers and Editors) In academia a wide-ranging discussion about open access is weakening academic journals' monopoly on profiting from publishing research findings. Different interest groups view this differently, of course. Meanwhile, as the publishing landscape changes, are academic authors, who have long abandoned claims to copyright on many of their scholarly articles (in the "public or perish" world of university faculty-making), less docile about publishing rights, with tenured faculty positions scarcer and scarcer? A round-up of relevant pieces, starting with Elsevier Mutiny: Cracks Are Widening in the Fortress of Academic Publishing (Mathew Ingram, Forbes, 11-2-15)

What do you think?
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  1. September 28, 2017 4:13 PM EDT
    Publishers’ Legal Action Advances Against Sci-Hub(Diana Kwon, The Scientist, 9-19-17) "A 2016 investigation by Science revealed that between September 2015 and February 2016, Sci-Hub received 28 million download requests from all around the world. Elsevier and ACS were among the most downloaded publishers, along with Springer Nature, Wiley Blackwell, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers."
    The pirate site plans to ignore the lawsuits from Elsevier and the American Chemical Society. "Even though it is possible to introduce difficulties for Sci-Hub to access content, [it is] not possible to prevent this completely."—Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-Hub founder
    - PM