This started out as a simple post on copyright and publishers vis à vis Sci-Hub but then John Dupuis wrote a think piece (with which I disagree somewhat) on the situation in a Feb. 22, 2016 posting on his blog, Confessions of a Science Librarian. More on Dupuis and my take on it after a description of the situation.
Before getting to the controversy and legal suit, here’s a preamble about the purpose for copyright as per the US constitution from Mike Masnick’s Feb. 17, 2016 posting on Techdirt,
Lots of people are aware of the Constitutional underpinnings of our copyright system. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 famously says that Congress has the following power:
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.
We’ve argued at great length over the importance of the preamble of that section, “to promote the progress,” but many people are confused about the terms “science” and “useful arts.” In fact, many people not well-versed in the issue often get the two backwards and think that “science” refers to inventions, and thus enables a patent system, while “useful arts” refers to “artistic works” and thus enables the copyright system. The opposite is actually the case. “Science” at the time the Constitution was written was actually synonymous with “learning” and “education” (while “useful arts” was a term meaning invention and new productivity tools).
While over the centuries, many who stood to benefit from an aggressive system of copyright control have tried to rewrite, whitewash or simply ignore this history, turning the copyright system falsely into a “property” regime, the fact is that it was always intended as a system to encourage the wider dissemination of ideas for the purpose of education and learning. The (potentially misguided) intent appeared to be that by granting exclusive rights to a certain limited class of works, it would encourage the creation of those works, which would then be useful in educating the public (and within a few decades enter the public domain).
Masnick’s preamble leads to a case where Elsevier (Publishers) has attempted to halt the very successful Sci-Hub, which bills itself as “the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers.” From Masnick’s Feb. 17, 2016 posting,
Rightfully, this is being celebrated as a massive boon to science and learning, making these otherwise hidden nuggets of knowledge and science that were previously locked up and hidden away available to just about anyone. And, to be clear, this absolutely fits with the original intent of copyright law — which was to encourage such learning. In a very large number of cases, it is not the creators of this content and knowledge who want the information to be locked up. Many researchers and academics know that their research has much more of an impact the wider it is seen, read, shared and built upon. But the gatekeepers — such as Elsveier and other large academic publishers — have stepped in and demanded copyright, basically for doing very little.
They do not pay the researchers for their work. Often, in fact, that work is funded by taxpayer funds. In some cases, in certain fields, the publishers actually demand that the authors of these papers pay to submit them. The journals do not pay to review the papers either. They outsource that work to other academics for “peer review” — which again, is unpaid. Finally, these publishers profit massively, having convinced many universities that they need to subscribe, often paying many tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for subscriptions to journals that very few actually read.
Simon Oxenham of the Neurobonkers blog on the big think website wrote a Feb. 9 (?), 2016 post about Sci-Hub, its originator, and its current legal fight (Note: Links have been removed),
On September 5th, 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, created Sci-Hub, a website that bypasses journal paywalls, illegally providing access to nearly every scientific paper ever published immediately to anyone who wants it. …
This was a game changer. Before September 2011, there was no way for people to freely access paywalled research en masse; researchers like Elbakyan were out in the cold. Sci-Hub is the first website to offer this service and now makes the process as simple as the click of a single button.
As the number of papers in the LibGen database expands, the frequency with which Sci-Hub has to dip into publishers’ repositories falls and consequently the risk of Sci-Hub triggering its alarm bells becomes ever smaller. Elbakyan explains, “We have already downloaded most paywalled articles to the library … we have almost everything!” This may well be no exaggeration. Elsevier, one of the most prolific and controversial scientific publishers in the world, recently alleged in court that Sci-Hub is currently harvesting Elsevier content at a rate of thousands of papers per day. Elbakyan puts the number of papers downloaded from various publishers through Sci-Hub in the range of hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to a running total of over 19 million visitors.
In one fell swoop, a network has been created that likely has a greater level of access to science than any individual university, or even government for that matter, anywhere in the world. Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge. This is important now more than ever in a world where even Harvard University can no longer afford to pay skyrocketing academic journal subscription fees, while Cornell axed many of its Elsevier subscriptions over a decade ago. For researchers outside the US’ and Western Europe’s richest institutions, routine piracy has long been the only way to conduct science, but increasingly the problem of unaffordable journals is coming closer to home.
… This was the experience of Elbakyan herself, who studied in Kazakhstan University and just like other students in countries where journal subscriptions are unaffordable for institutions, was forced to pirate research in order to complete her studies. Elbakyan told me, “Prices are very high, and that made it impossible to obtain papers by purchasing. You need to read many papers for research, and when each paper costs about 30 dollars, that is impossible.”
While Sci-Hub is not expected to win its case in the US, where one judge has already ordered a preliminary injunction making its former domain unavailable. (Sci-Hub moved.) Should you be sympathetic to Elsevier, you may want to take this into account (Note: Links have been removed),
Elsevier is the world’s largest academic publisher and by far the most controversial. Over 15,000 researchers have vowed to boycott the publisher for charging “exorbitantly high prices” and bundling expensive, unwanted journals with essential journals, a practice that allegedly is bankrupting university libraries. Elsevier also supports SOPA and PIPA, which the researchers claim threatens to restrict the free exchange of information. Elsevier is perhaps most notorious for delivering takedown notices to academics, demanding them to take their own research published with Elsevier off websites like Academia.edu.
The movement against Elsevier has only gathered speed over the course of the last year with the resignation of 31 editorial board members from the Elsevier journal Lingua, who left in protest to set up their own open-access journal, Glossa. Now the battleground has moved from the comparatively niche field of linguistics to the far larger field of cognitive sciences. Last month, a petition of over 1,500 cognitive science researchers called on the editors of the Elsevier journal Cognition to demand Elsevier offer “fair open access”. Elsevier currently charges researchers $2,150 per article if researchers wish their work published in Cognition to be accessible by the public, a sum far higher than the charges that led to the Lingua mutiny.
In her letter to Sweet [New York District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet], Elbakyan made a point that will likely come as a shock to many outside the academic community: Researchers and universities don’t earn a single penny from the fees charged by publishers [emphasis mine] such as Elsevier for accepting their work, while Elsevier has an annual income over a billion U.S. dollars.
As Masnick noted, much of this research is done on the public dime (i. e., funded by taxpayers). For her part, Elbakyan has written a letter defending her actions on ethical rather than legal grounds.
I recommend reading the Oxenham article as it provides details about how the site works and includes text from the letter Elbakyan wrote. For those who don’t have much time, Masnick’s post offers a good précis.
Sci-Hub suit as a distraction from the real issues?
Getting to Dupuis’ Feb. 22, 2016 posting and his perspective on the situation,
My take? Mostly that it’s a sideshow.
One aspect that I have ranted about on Twitter which I think is worth mentioning explicitly is that I think Elsevier and all the other big publishers are actually quite happy to feed the social media rage machine with these whack-a-mole controversies. The controversies act as a sideshow, distracting from the real issues and solutions that they would prefer all of us not to think about.
By whack-a-mole controversies I mean this recurring story of some person or company or group that wants to “free” scholarly articles and then gets sued or harassed by the big publishers or their proxies to force them to shut down. This provokes wide outrage and condemnation aimed at the publishers, especially Elsevier who is reserved a special place in hell according to most advocates of openness (myself included).
In other words: 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.
I think Dupuis is referencing a conflict theory (I can’t remember what it’s called) which suggests that certain types of conflicts help to keep systems in place while apparently attacking those systems. His point is well made but I disagree somewhat in that I think these conflicts can also raise awareness and activate people who might otherwise ignore or mindlessly comply with those systems. So, if Elsevier and the other publishers are using these legal suits as diversionary tactics, they may find they’ve made a strategic error.
ETA April 29, 2016: Sci-Hub does seem to move around so I’ve updated the links so it can be accessed but Sci-Hub’s situation can change at any moment.