Last week in popular media, Alexandra Elbakyan got a lot of screen time (also known as free advertising) and the response has been interesting. For those that have not been paying attention, Elbakyan runs Sci-Hub, a site that provides illegal access to over 47 million scholarly journal articles.
“I developed the Sci-Hub.org website where anyone can download paywalled research papers by request. Also I uploaded at least half of more than 41 million paywalled papers to the LibGen database and worked actively to create mirrors of it. I am not afraid to say this, because when you do the right thing, why should you hide it?” Elbakyan told Torrentfreak.
Despite a court injunction, Sci-Hub is still up. Forty-seven million articles are still illegally posted. For details on how this all actually works, you can read David Smith’s post here.
Elbakyan is believed to be somewhere in Russia, is a citizen of Khazakstan, and has moved her website out of the reach of US authorities. Now that I have tried to briefly identify the problem, I would like to explore the reactions of different communities to Sci-Hub.
Advocates of Open Access
A potential tragedy lurking in the background of this issue is what damage it will do to the larger open access (OA) movement. Advocates for OA, admittedly, have a good story to tell: science should be open to everyone. It’s incomplete, but still a good story. But advocacy can be a hard thing with a movement that has little organization. Loud individuals can appear to speak for the majority and you never know what you will get.
While many serious OA folks have been cautious, or silent, on the issue of Sci-Hub, mainstream media coverage, which may or may not be aided by a public relations firm working on Sci-Hub’s behalf, links the OA movement to support for Sci-Hub in almost every article. Here’s one example from Vox:
“Opponents, particularly the publishers of journals, argue that there are all sorts of costs that go into publishing science and those costs need to be recovered. Without publishers, they argue, there would be no arbiters of science. Enter Alexandra Elbakyan. Hailed as a hero by open access acolytes, she’s on a mission to make the world’s science accessible to all.”
Publishers are warned all the time that free content is not OA content. Certainly stolen content still under copyright of the publisher, is not open access content.
Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, an organization funded by libraries to advocate for OA, spoke on NPR’s Weekend Edition recently claiming that lack of access to pay-walled content has “forced” researchers to find a work-around to access what they want and Sci-Hub is delivering.
What Joseph and Elbakyan have left out of their interviews is that there are all kinds of ways for researchers (and the public) to legally access papers, some of it free: interlibrary loan; free or low-cost access to developing countries via HINARI, Research4Life, EIFL, INASP; or even using Google Scholar to see if there is an accepted manuscript version hosted on the authors’ website, a university open repository, a funding agency repository, or a social sharing site. Low cost options include DeepDyve or article rentals which can be as low as $1.
Of course, saying that high prices drive people to break the law is sort of a losing argument if you don’t then condemn the theft in the next breath. It was disappointing that Joseph did not condemn the illegal actions of Elbakyan in her NPR interview, especially given Joseph’s role as chief “lobbyist” for public access mandates on behalf of the Association of Research Libraries members.
The self-proclaimed OA advocate that has been promoting Sci-Hub relentlessly on Twitter is Jon Tennant, the Communications Director for ScienceOpen. He even posted a bookmark on his Github page that automatically adds the Sci-Hub web extension to any DOI link you happen upon.
This all seems pretty radical for the employee of a company that appears to have an honest approach to providing authors with an OA solution. ScienceOpen has recently started approaching publishers about partnerships around indexing of content. I am not sure that having your Director of Communications actively openly advocating for copyright infringement against those partners is helpful in building those collaborations.
The OA movement has made great strides in the last decade. Folks are starting to come around to thinking that not all OA journals are predatory or chock full of junk science. Public access to federally funded research, something threatened for years, is now a reality. No question, some people are doing things right. But when the people who are doing things right don’t condemn the folks that want to burn the place to the ground, their message goes up in smoke right along with it.
This whole situation is leaving librarians in a bit of a quandary as well. Sci-Hub is accessing publisher platforms via “donated” credentials coming from university library patrons. The libraries have paid for the credentials that their patrons are “donating” to Sci-Hub. At least one library also claims that Sci-Hub, or someone on their behalf, obtains credentials through fraud and email phishing scams.
Many publishers watermark the PDFs with information about from where and when the article was downloaded. It is not unusual to see the university name or the actual user if they are registered on the platform included in the watermark. At a minimum, the IP address is included. It is quite easy to see where Sci-Hub is pulling from and where LibGen hosted content originated. We have found our own PDFs with watermarks from University of California, University of Colorado, Florida Atlantic University, Pennsylvania State University, and so on.
The access gateways and proxies used by libraries are also used to connect to other university services. Potential copyright infringement liability aside, one would think that librarians and administrators would not be happy knowing that lawbreaking organizations now have access to their private networks and potentially, all the confidential information about students and employees that they contain.
In this article posted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, librarians are again slow to condemn the service and instead have chosen to focus on the “broken system.” The universities have a responsibility to detect and stop this behavior of their patrons. Is it not up to a university to expect a simple code of conduct from their students and faculty?
Publishers Whose Names Don’t Start with “E”
If you hang around on Twitter and follow folks who are passionate about open science, you will quickly notice a pattern — everything Elsevier does is evil! The big dark dirty secret is that almost all scholarly publishers do things the same way as Elsevier. We have similar platforms, similar tools at our disposal, and similar concerns in many cases.
All that said, Elsevier takes almost all the flack and truth be told, many other publishers appreciate that. Flying “under the radar” is what scholarly publishers do best.
Many of us use the same company to find pirated content online and many of us are wasting time sending loads and loads of take-down notices to Sci-Hub and LibGen. Now is the time to take the next step.
It may have taken a while but publishers have certainly embraced the OA model and are proponents of giving authors choices, even if those choices aren’t popular with the OA folks. Never has there been a time when authors can choose a license or negotiate terms with a publisher for journal content like they can now. Re-use of content is more relaxed, prior use of content is taking off! Pre-print servers are popping up and publishers are NOT slamming the door.
Publishers are also adapting to the public access mandates. Some are even funding a “clearinghouse” to make things easier and cheaper for federal agencies while also helping to make FREE versions of content more discoverable and accessible to the public.
I’m not saying that all is perfect and I am not calling the publishers “progressive”. I will admit that some of this comes with a lot of kicking and screaming. What I am saying is that a line needs to be drawn. Stealing content and reposting it for free is over that line.
Elsevier is leading the legal fight against Sci-Hub and LibGen, and thank goodness they are. Publishers who have the means should be joining them. Those that don’t should be speaking out. If Elbakyan actually has over 47 million articles, then she probably has your stuff. I highly doubt her usage is as high as she claims but with this publicity tour, it will go up.
So what can publishers do? Work with your library administrators. Work with your platform providers on access control issues. Talk about the consequences of Sci-Hub (the list below is a start).
Talking about the consequences of Sci-Hub is another post altogether. But I have been collecting a few as I discuss the issue with others in the industry.
Credentials. As David Smith has pointed out, the security of the library credentials is poor and allowing criminal elements into the system should be terrifying. Publishers could insist on more robust (perhaps expiring credentials) from the universities as part of the future licensing agreements. This would be inconvenient, at best, for the universities.
More restricted download counters. Most publishers have fraud detectors built into the platforms that monitor heavy downloads from within an institution. The threshold is different depending on the publisher. If the fraud monitor is tripped, the entire university loses access until the publisher and the library have a chance to clear things up. The future could hold more stringent monitors with more disruptions of service.
More restrictions on the use of content. Like PDFs? Say goodbye to them. Publishers could opt to change access models restricting the download of PDFs on servers or just eliminate the PDF altogether. The PDF has always been a “leakage” problem and publisher have been trying to get rid of them for years. They are expensive to create, offer limited use of advanced features, and don’t help us keep the “eyeballs on the page.” The problem is that they are insanely popular with almost all scholarly content users. Publishers are investing a lot of money in readers (ReadCube, colwiz, etc.) and in personal library storage systems (Mendeley, ReadCube, colwiz, etc.). Eliminating PDFs and instead only providing an online collection of links could be coming to a desktop near you.
Financial implications. While it may be a favorite past-time for some to think about the destruction of commercial publishers, the societies go down in flames with it. Elsevier, Wiley, Sage, Springer, Taylor & Francis may make a lot of money but they also help hundreds of societies make money on their publications in order to serve up continuing education, k-12 outreach, professional development, etc. Independent societies are much more vulnerable to harm from Sci-Hub than the big corporations.
There is no question that Sci-Hub is illegal. They are keeping the site live despite a legal injunction. Elbaykan is happy to talk to the press and make specious legal arguments, but has never actually had the courage to show up in court. As the OA advocates, librarians, and publishers try to create a more open and collaborative environment, they should condemn this solution and realize the harm their silence will cause.