My post today comes to you as many others in the past. It all started with a Twitter conversation that I dropped in on. The premise of the conversation was that all journals are harmed by piracy. The counter challenge was that open access (OA) journals are immune.
Even though Sci-Hub is billed as providing access to paywalled content, there appear to be thousands of open access articles in the host database. Sci-Hub provided usage of their services from 2015 to Science news writer John Bohannon with the full data set. Reviewing just the data from December 2015, I found that over 200 users accessed PLOS ONE content, over 450 users accessed Hindawi content, and a whopping 2,145 users accessed BioMed Central content.
So yes, even when people have free access to content under OA models, they are still using Sci-Hub to access OA content. I really can’t explain that one but if you have a good theory, share it in the comments.
Today I am offering some thoughts on how Sci-Hub harms OA journals. Many of these reasons are the same for subscription journals and the amount of harm may be more, less, or the same depending on the business model of the journals affected.
Survey after survey shows that when authors are asked why they choose to pay to publish in OA journals, the two most common answers are increased visibility/citations and funder requirements. Funder mandates are obvious but there is actually a lot going on with the visibility/citations answer.
Considering that an author pays model is a transactional experience, it is normal for an author to want to quantify whether they got what they paid for. My editorial office gets calls all the time from authors wanting to know how many times their paper has been downloaded. I think it’s safe to assume that download counts are being included in tenure and promotion packages.
One way to quantify success is to use article level metrics, which will include downloads. In fact, if memory serves, PLOS was the leader in developing article level metrics to show authors exactly what they were paying for. If you don’t think visibility is important to paying authors, you likely weren’t on Twitter much last week when posts such as this were popping up all over the place:
When papers are downloaded from Sci-Hub and the associated LibGen database, the publisher site loses the download counts. Now, the same can be said for all the papers in ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and institutional repositories. That said, initiatives like the STM Sharing Principles and CHORUS, are leveraging the existing infrastructure to connect download histories from various platforms. Sci-Hub usage would never be included giving paying authors and their universities that subsidize the OA activity a less than realistic way to quantify usage.
Every Journal Wants “Sticky” Pages
No matter what the business model is, all journals want to keep users on their pages as long as possible. Some OA journals sell advertising to supplement income. Others may try to “upsell” services and would use notifications on the site to tell users about those services. All of this is lost to those that use Sci-Hub to access OA content.
Big OA publishers such as PLOS and BioMed Central sell advertising on their sites and depressed usage due to piracy will hinder those efforts as well. Advertising income could certainly be used to help keep article processing charges lower or support waivers for APCs.
Do You Really Want Flat PDFs?
If I had a dime for every time someone lashed out at publishers for posting PDFs, I’d retire. And yet, that’s all you get from Sci-Hub and as John Bohannon’s piece for Science declared…everyone is using it.
Many of the larger OA journals have really reimagined the user experience. Many journal platforms are now modernized with a version of the eLife Lens. In fact, eLife recently announced a new redesign which boasts enhancement of figure display and the ability to cache the HTML locally. Notably, eLife has also created a “Magazine” to highlight all the editorial content that makes the pages “sticky” (see above section). It make sense that if you get to start from scratch, sites will be fresh and innovative. Of course, none of that development is necessary if users prefer to get PDFs from Sci-Hub.
If we can learn anything from Sci-Hub it’s that in exchange for easier access, users would be perfectly fine with peer reviewed, lightly formatted, author provided camera-ready copy in the form of a PDF. This would be a nightmare for the text and data mining folks but it’s an option for really inexpensive journals.
Free Is Not the Same as OA
The Internet is pretty evenly split with articles hailing Sci-Hub as the heroine of OA and articles reminding everyone that piracy is not the same as OA. But for the masses of people using Sci-Hub, do they care?
A year ago, I wrote about harm being done to the OA movement when some of the loudest advocates started shilling for Sci-Hub. For researchers still skeptical of OA (and there are still a lot of those), aligning the OA movement with piracy is a big mistake.
There are many reasons Sci-Hub is not OA, not the least of which includes:
- Reuse licenses are maintained from the original publication (most of it under copyright and not Creative Commons)
- Sci-Hub leaches off library subscriptions so it’s all paid for anyway
- Sci-Hub is not sustainable. Stealing stuff and giving it away to others is not a sustainable business plan.
- Due to various legal actions, Sci-Hub jumps from domain to domain and search functionality is often blocked.
Promoting a “No One Pays” Economy Is Very Bad for OA Journals
This may be the most damaging factor. Open access journals have been very careful about not calling things free because there are costs to publishing and nothing is free. This all came to a head a few years ago when PLOS ONE increased their APC and the collective world went nuts. Digging out tax documents showed that they pay vendors (just like every other publisher) and some of their supporters were aghast. The angst was misguided by the belief that publishing is cheap. Again, not a week goes by that someone tweets out that they could easily produce journal papers for pennies. Unless they are simply posting author created PDFs (see above), that’s not going to happen.
Most of these are issues for subscription journals as well but it is naïve to think that OA journals are immune to the damage being done.
What is “free” to many authors and users of scholarly content is the traditional model by which the access is purchased by their universities and publishing with a journal comes at zero cost for the author. Further, the library budgets aren’t exactly getting squeezed so the university can sink more money into research centers. On the contrary, these funds go to administrative overhead, new high tech student centers, and football stadiums. This does not engender sympathy pangs from academics in the actual “free-to-them” market. Even overlay journals built on arXiv are being supported with library funds.
OA was supposed to decrease the money, but 15 years in we haven’t seen that happen at all. The money is the same if not more, it’s just being paid from a slightly different bucket.
Versioning and Editorially Related Content Links Are Lost
Removing the published PDF from the journal page that provides links to related content is a problem for all journals. If Sci-Hub is the only source for a user, they will have no way of knowing if a paper has been corrected or retracted. They will not see any reviewer comments or associated editorials that may exist. The same is true for self-archived versions in repositories, which I remain concerned about in the long run.
Undermines the Need for OA Infrastructure
Why bother with the hassle and expense of OA when you can get it all free on Sci-Hub? This does not lead to the further development of sustainable open access models.
That’s my list. As stated in the beginning, most of these are issues for subscription journals as well but it is naïve to think that OA journals are immune to the damage being done. There is only one publishing industry with all different kinds of business models in it. Piracy is a threat to all of them.