Global publishing giant wins $15 million damages against researcher for sharing publicly-funded knowledge
From Privacy News Online:
It’s not every day that one of the world’s largest publishing companies is awarded $15 million in damages for copyright infringement against a site set up by a Kazakh neuroscientist. That makes the almost total lack of wider coverage of Elsevier’s win in New York against Sci-Hub surprising. But it is only the latest development in a saga that is of great interest for the deep flaws it exposes in both scientific publishing and copyright itself.
The court awarded $15 million damages to the scientific publisher on the basis of 100 articles published by Elsevier that had been made available without permission on Sci-Hub and a similar site called LibGen. At the time of writing, Sci-Hub claims to hold 62 million scientific research papers – probably a majority of all those ever published – most of which are unauthorized copies. According to a report in the scientific journal Science last year, it is Elsevier which is most affected by Sci-Hub’s activities:
“Over the 6 months leading up to March , Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents. More than 2.6 million download requests came from Iran, 3.4 million from India, and 4.4 million from China. The papers cover every scientific topic, from obscure physics experiments published decades ago to the latest breakthroughs in biotechnology. The publisher with the most requested Sci-Hub articles? It is Elsevier by a long shot – Sci-Hub provided half-a-million downloads of Elsevier papers in one recent week.”
Those figures help to explain why Elsevier has been pursuing Sci-Hub doggedly for some years. Back in December 2015, the same New York judge who has just awarded the $15 million to Elsevier issued a preliminary injunction against the site’s operator. Access to the original domain – sci-hub.org – was suspended, but it carried on using a different domain. Its servers, meanwhile, remain beyond the reach of US law, since they are located in Russia. In the age of VPNs, attempts to block the site are similarly pointless.
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Most of the papers published by Elsevier and the other academic publishing houses and found on Sci-Hub were written by scientists and academics whose research grants were paid for by the public. Once written those papers were submitted to a relevant journal, where an editor or editorial board chose which ones should be considered for publication. To that end, the papers were passed to referees who scrutinized them as part of the peer review system, whereby fellow academics read the text, and judge whether it deserves to be published as is, or needs revisions and corrections. Typically, neither editorial boards nor peer reviewers are paid for their work, which is carried out as a kind of academic responsibility accepted by all as part of the job, and done for the greater good of society.
That is, most of the work writing, checking and editing a paper is carried out completely for free. The only costs that academic publishers incur are typically for production, which are limited if publication is purely digital, as is increasingly the case. Given the extremely efficient nature of the academic publishing system, it will come as no surprise to learn that leading companies in the sector – including Elsevier – have consistently achieved profit margins between 30% and 40%, levels almost unheard of in other industries.
Such elevated profit margins have come as the prices paid by academic libraries to subscribe to titles have increased rapidly. While the cost of living increased by 73% between 1986 and 2004, the expenditure by research libraries on subscriptions to academic journals went up by 273% in the same period. The trend has continued since then.