How does piracy, legal or otherwise, address the systematic problems in publishing?
Publishing is an essential part of the practice of science, and scientists work hard to get published in the best scholarly journals. This is instrumental in establishing their intellectual and professional merit, and has important implications for tenure prospects. In this context, it is important to consider why frustration with commercial publishing companies has been on the rise over the past few years, and this story is centrally driven by the online platform, Sci-Hub. By way of introduction, Sci-Hub is the equivalent of Pirate Bay for scholarly publishing, in that it provides for free, access to paywalled journal articles that otherwise could cost up to US$40 per article. While the immediate ease of free access is apparent, it could equally be argued that there is a more poetic case to be made for piracy of journal articles; the copyright of scholarly articles belongs to the publisher, so piracy of articles does not affect the authors in the same way that piracy of music or other creative content affects the artist. How does one view Sci-Hub then? Is it plain theft, as alleged by the publishers, or is it an act of collective rebellion by those who add to, or use the site?
Commercial publishing companies like Reed-Elsevier and Springer are the surprise constants in this debate; librarians, and a large majority of scientists feel that their pricing practices are unfair, if not downright exploitative. Since the time of the first commercial publishing houses, each scientific journal has effectively been a monopoly, as there can be no competition for the articles published in it. Robert Maxwell, the forerunner of all scientific publishing barons, realised early on that this was the only industry in which each new journal only increases the profit margin . These monopolies then allowed commercial publishing in science to survive, and indeed thrive, as the world entered the Internet age over the late 1990s. Elsevier is proof that this was one publishing enterprise that the internet could not kill. This success story however, belies a contradiction. In their pre-internet era infancy, such commercial entities provided tangible services; they were more efficient at publishing than academic societies of the time which had massive back-logs, and they promised much wider reach for the research they published. Importantly, these functions required subscription, for a price that was then determined, and justified, by the costs of the physical enterprise of publishing. With the advent of the internet however, these costs have declined steadily, but subscription prices have continued to rise, to the extent that institutes as well-endowed as the Harvard Library are beginning to feel a definite pinch in their pockets . In the absence of the costs of physical publishing then, the value brought by the publishers appears incommensurate with the increase in subscription prices. It is compelling to observe that we find ourselves in an Orwellian fantasy, in which scientists produce all the research, voluntarily (without pay) review the research they produce, voluntarily sign off their copyright to a publisher, and finally buy their own finished product back from the publisher at a disproportionate margin. Publishing companies, on the other hand, have no motive to share the researchers’ commitment to fair science dissemination, and this is reflected in their pricing practices; an ignominy that is not lost on us.
The context of deep structural problems in scientific publishing is important to understand the motivation for Sci-Hub. There is a lot of frustration and disillusionment within the research community regarding access to published scientific literature. On the one hand, scientists need the reputation that some of these journals bring to their work, but paywalls make it prohibitively expensive for them to access the research that they need. It is in this context that an option like Sci-Hub is very tempting; given the notion that publication prices are unfairly high and deter wide dissemination of research (which in turn, is detrimental to the practice of science), piracy appears to be a valid response for several practising scientists. Civil disobedience resonates strongly with most audiences, as our own nationalist history informs us, and the pull of revolutionary rhetoric (guerilla open access, to quote the late Aaron Schwartz) is difficult to resist, especially when the “oppressor” is a large commercial publishing house. For many, it is often tempting to reject the rule of a law when it appears to serve the wrong interest, and while the US Supreme Court is legally correct in ruling in favour of publishers, this ruling has had very little effect on Sci-Hub’s popularity or its ethical merit. This gap between common law and what is perceived as “natural” or common sense seems to underlie the ethical questions surrounding Sci-Hub, but I won’t belabor this point; I am no political philosopher, and even though I am inclined towards a conformist view that aims to achieve structured reform, a clear verdict for either side does not seem very useful in this matter.
There are other aspects in which the utility of Sci-Hub has been unquestionable, and the rise of Sci-Hub and the dialogue that has emerged around the flaws in the current model of scientific publishing are the focus of this article. Sci-Hub is the alarm call the scientific community needed, to recognise the contradictions within the current publishing system, and to start considering serious solutions. For that alone, the moment that Alexandra Elbakyan decided she’d had enough will be remembered as a watershed moment in scholarly publishing.
Piracy also serves the immediate, short-term requirements of scientists and/or students who lack the means to pay exorbitant subscription fees (yours truly), and others who, because they aren’t affiliated with an institute, don’t have institutional access to journals. For these people, the slow proliferation of the Open Access mandate is inadequate for their everyday work, and Sci-Hub ensures that they can readily access the information they need. Attempts at bringing about reform in the publication system have thus far been unsuccessful, and Sci-Hub has been a response to this failure; when institutions within fail us, we look for means without.
I find it counter-intuitive though, that Sci-Hub itself could be held up as a serious solution to the problems of scholarly publishing, when one hears of how online piracy of scientific papers could somehow be legalised, or at least decriminalised. How does piracy, legal or otherwise, address the systematic problems in publishing? If numbers online are to be believed [3, 4], Elsevier’s finances don’t seem to have been hit significantly by Sci-Hub’s operations, and experience tells us that the social currency of big journals, in terms of reputation, will remain entirely unaffected. Individual scientists cannot afford to not publish with the top journals because their reputation hinges on getting good papers in reputed journals, which means that the publishers still have the upper hand in determining prices. In effect, we call for an end to the tyranny of the publishers on the one hand through Sci-Hub, while we ourselves further their business interests by publishing with them. I would argue then, that it is duty of the powers that be in the bureaucracy and/or the government to resolve this conflict of short-term interests with long-term reform. It requires far-sighted and concerted efforts to bring the OA mandate to all levels of the research community, from the lowly grad student to the established PI. Amongst many others, promising signs of such efforts have emerged, from the US, where bipartisan legislation for sooner open access is now in Congress, and from several European countries that have made significant progress in negotiating fair subscription deals through consortia of universities [5, 6]. We await similar signs in India, but in the meantime, piracy remains an alternative (albeit illegal) for most researchers, here and abroad.
I intentionally neglected to mention the common public as one of the benefactors of piracy-mediated open access to research papers, and this concerns the dissemination of science and the role the OA mandate plays in this context. In principle, the argument can be made, and rightly so, that the taxpayer has a legal right to access and read any research that was paid for with her tax money. But research papers are fundamentally technical documents, and as such, assume a fair amount of background knowledge on the part of the reader. Scientists from within a field or a discipline often find papers dealing with specialisations other than their own unintelligible, and this leads me to wonder what a non-scientific member of the public would gain by reading a research paper. Not that such a person cannot gain anything out of her reading, but does that suffice as effective dissemination of science? Is it effective communication if the material is agnostic to the background of its audience? I think not, and it is therefore important to guard against the convenience of assuming that the mandate of science dissemination is fulfilled by making all research open to access. I would argue instead that we return to the spirit of the principle that dictates research to be open access. The taxpayer holds the right to the information that she paid to be generated, and it is a collective responsibility of the research community that she gets this information through legible channels. They are often the best people to talk about our research, and must therefore learn not just how to write articles for scholarly journals, but also contribute to other channels that seek to inform a wide audience. The scientific community must collectively re-imagine their roles to be, not merely practitioners of science, but also effective communicators and participants in community-wide dialogues about the relevance of scientific findings, and the importance of the scientific methodology. I stress on participants instead of the common sobriquet of “educators”; there is a grain of high-handedness in the latter that I think we must seek to eschew. Once again, I must credit Sci-Hub for making this realisation possible, but piracy cannot be the answer to the dissemination of science; that is a job for all scientists.
My piece is hardly complete without an ivory tower reference, so here it is-making popular science communication an integral part of the practice of science requires a paradigm shift that would have scientists descend from their ivory towers of privilege and (relative) comfort, and act as equal participants in the scientific discourse of the day. This is a mandate that must become important, independent of the questions surrounding open access and piracy.
Vibishan B. is a PhD scholar at IISER-Pune.