Sci-Hub, and the Fight for Free

General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Issues, International issues

by Kenneth Sawdon

Sci-Hub has been around since late 2011, but it has been getting publicity recently for it’s refusal to shut down. The website is an unabashed pirate website that provides access to over 48 million scientific articles and publications. The website’s mission is to, “remove any barrier … impeding the widest possible distribution of knowledge in human society,” and they “advocate for cancellation of intellectual property, or copyright laws, for scientific and educational resources.” Certainly strong language, but not an unsympathetic cause–helping researchers and the public bypass academic paywalls.

Fiona MacDonald, writing for Sciencealert, points out that,

If it sounds like a modern day Robin Hood struggle, that’s because it kinda is. But in this story, it’s not just the poor who don’t have access to scientific papers – journal subscriptions have become so expensive that leading universities such as Harvard and Cornell have admitted they can no longer afford them. Researchers have also taken a stand – with 15,000 scientists vowing to boycott publisher Elsevier in part for its excessive paywall fees.

But in recent years, more and more people are beginning to question whether they’re still helping the progress of science. In fact, in some cases, the ‘publish or perish’ mentality is creating more problems than solutions, with a growing number of predatory publishers now charging researchers to have their work published – often without any proper peer review process or even editing.

The science publishing industry has done many honourable things for the scientific community, and many academics owe their prestige to the work of academic publishers. As with most large companies and industry, academic publishing companies have had great gains and are doing everything they can to both cement themselves and expand their control. There is certainly a growing movement to to question and rebel against the industry that cares about scientific advancement secondary to profits and economic growth. MacDonald mentioned one of the major boycotts, and there has also been an ever-growing interest in open access publishing (which is, sadly, also affected by predatory publishers).

Going back to Sci-Hub, “The Pirate Bay of Science,”

The website works in two stages, firstly by attempting to download a copy from the LibGen database of pirated content, which opened its doors to academic papers in 2012 and now contains over 48 million scientific papers. The ingenious part of the system is that if LibGen does not already have a copy of the paper, Sci-hub bypasses the journal paywall in real time by using access keys donated by academics lucky enough to study at institutions with an adequate range of subscriptions…After delivering the paper to the user within seconds, Sci-Hub donates a copy of the paper to LibGen for good measure, where it will be stored forever, accessible by everyone and anyone.

The first stage is a direct search on a pirate database, Library Genesis (LibGen), which is a broader project with fiction, comics, magazines, paintings, and journal articles in their collection. The second stage bypasses paywalls by simply using someone else’s credentials in an academic database. A similar route to get access to journal articles has been employed one-on-one through Twitter and the hashtag #ICanHazPDF. Through Twitter a user may post/tweet the name and author of an article (or DOI or other identifier) along with this hashtag, and another Twitter user with access to this article will download the PDF and share it directly with the first user. The Twitter method is legal, although circumvention, as it would be ridiculous and without legal precedent to charge someone for sharing an article, that they had legal access to, with one other person, or even a small number of people. Copyright laws are against mass distribution. The Sci-Hub method is definitely more questionable, as one user is essentially giving access to their account to anyone that asks, worldwide. It is still a one-to-one transaction for that account, not an actual mass publication on the account-donator’s part. However, Sci-Hub does then place the retrieved copy into the LibGen database for later retrievals (en masse)–which the account-donor would know. It would be interesting to see how the courts would interpret this kind of sharing.

In the current case for Sci-Hub, Elsevier filed a complaint and requested an injunction to shut down the LibGen-centric websites. In addition, they also wanted compensation to the tune of ~$750-150,000 per article pirated. That was last year, and the Russian-based website has yet to go offline.

Interestingly, Alexandra Elbakyan, the neuroscientist from Kazakhstan that established Sci-Hub, is using article 27 of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights in her defense of her work and to fight back against Elsevier. Article 27 states:

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

This is a courageous use of article 27, strongly emphasizing the right to freely participate with the scientific community. However, I suspect publishers could point to the same article where it states the right to protect the material rights of the author (or, in this case, copyright holder as authors get only immaterial gains).

Elbakyan has pointed out that the academic industry is different than the entertainment industry. Researchers get renown and prestige from people reading and citing their works, not money. It could be argued that publishers facilitate the prestige by creating a brand and curating their works, but this has become less important through advancements in the digital environment and search. That is, back in the day a researcher may go to one or a dozen trusted journals, but with full-text and advanced searching the same researcher may find useful articles in journals they had never heard of. Besides this, academic publishers often take away the copyright ownership, in its entirety, from creators–many of whom do not seek copyright council from librarians or other professionals. The transfer of copyright ownership is a practice I find repugnant and exploitative.

I am of the opinion that Sci-Hub is in the right, and publishers are grasping at works that they have no right to control. The vast majority, if not virtually all, of scientific articles are created by academic scholars funded by the public and their public institutions–meaning the works are at partially/largely owned by the public. Some small monopoly, say six months, should be enough for a publisher to recoup the costs of collecting and publishing the articles that they curate. This may mean a reduction in the bells and whistles that publishers provide, but this opens up the market for smaller companies to fill these niches. Besides, many of these additional functions are questionably worthwhile, such as Elsevier’s policy to “[aggregate] and [anonymize] the usage data [of users] and…not personally identify..users to each other.” Meaning Elsevier does collect and store individual data from each user and session, and this data may be vulnerable to attacks–a privacy issue that does not apply to many libraries, as they do not retain private information. A six-month period before becoming open access, or placed in an institutional repository, is already becoming common for many universities and government institutions.

Besides all of this, scholars use and rely on Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub has done what no publisher or distributor can–they have the ability to find and distribute any article digitized and accessible to most major universities. So, Elsevier may take on another strategy–they may go after the universities and accounts that are donating (unwillingly and willingly, respectively) the articles. The Library Loon speculates some next steps on her blog.

Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. Connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.


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