From The Chronicle of Higher Education:
It’s been a rough few months for Sci-Hub, the beloved outlaw repository of scientific papers. In January its Twitter account, which had more than 180,000 followers, was permanently suspended. In response to a lawsuit brought by publishers, new papers aren’t being added to its library. The website is blocked in a dozen countries, including Austria, Britain, and France. There are rumors of an FBI investigation.
And yet Alexandra Elbakyan, the 32-year-old graduate student who founded the site in 2011, seems more or less unfazed. I spoke with her recently via Zoom with the assistance of a Russian translator. Elbakyan, who is originally from Kazakhstan, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and coded Sci-Hub herself. She lives in Moscow now and is studying philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Back when she started the site, which offers access to north of 85 million papers, she didn’t expect to be fending off lawsuits and dodging investigations a decade on.
“I thought Sci-Hub would become legal in a couple of years,” she said. “When the laws are obviously in the way of scientific development, they should be canceled.”
. . . .
It hasn’t been that simple. In 2017 a New York judge awarded Elsevier, the multibillion-dollar publishing company behind more than 2,500 journals, a $15-million default judgment against Sci-Hub for copyright infringement. The same year, a Virginia judge awarded the American Chemical Society $4.8 million. (With Elbakyan overseas and Sci-Hub’s financial situation somewhat mysterious, neither publisher is likely to collect a dime.) Courts have repeatedly forced Elbakyan to switch domain names.
The latest lawsuit, filed in India by three academic publishers, including Elsevier, asks the High Court of Delhi to block access to Sci-Hub throughout the country. While the case is pending, the court has instructed Sci-Hub to stop uploading papers to its database. The order is not unusual; what’s surprising is that Elbakyan has complied. She has a history of ignoring legal rulings, and the Indian court has no power over Sci-Hub’s activities in other countries. So why has she chosen, at this moment, to give in?
One reason is that Elbakyan believes she has a shot at winning the case, and her odds might improve if she plays by the rules. “I want the Indian court to finally support free access to science,” she said. If that happened, it would mark a significant victory for Sci-Hub, with reverberations likely beyond India. Victory remains a longshot, but Elbakyan thinks it’s worth the hassle and expense. She didn’t even bother to contest the two lawsuits in the United States.
In coverage of Sci-Hub over the years, Elbakyan is usually cast as an idealistic young programmer standing up to publishers who resell science at a steep markup. There’s some truth to that. Elsevier brings in billions in large part by charging colleges and universities for bundled access to its journals. Those without subscriptions often pay $31.50 for access to a single article. For an independent researcher, or one who works at a small institution that can’t afford to sign a deal with Elsevier, the cost of merely scanning the literature is prohibitive.
And you could argue, as Elbakyan does, that the company’s paywalls have the potential to slow scientific progress. She’s not the only one: More than 18,000 researchers have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier journals because of its business practices.
The other option is to download a journal article’s PDF from Sci-Hub free. About a half-million people each day choose the latter.
Pirates and Publishers
So what’s wrong with using Sci-Hub? According to the publishers who brought the case in India, quite a bit. Pirate sites like Sci-Hub “threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal data,” a joint statement reads. It goes on to say that sites like Sci-Hub “have no incentive to ensure the accuracy of scientific articles, no incentive to ensure published papers meet ethical standards, and no incentive to retract or correct articles if issues arise.”
For the record, there’s little evidence that Sci-Hub is actually a threat to the scientific record. The papers on the site are the same papers you can download through official channels. It’s almost certainly true that articles that have been retracted or corrected remain up on Sci-Hub, but academic publishers themselves have a less-than-stellar record of policing and pruning the literature. Plenty of research that has failed to replicate, or should never have passed peer review in the first place, can be found in Elsevier’s archives.
The charge that Sci-Hub is a threat to personal data stems from Elbakyan’s practice of using, let us say, borrowed logins in order to download papers. That’s necessary because whenever publishers determine that a login is being used to download an unusual number of papers, they cut off access, forcing Elbakyan to constantly seek new logins. She’s done this for years and makes no secret of it. The publishers also allege that she uses “phishing attacks to illegally extract copyrighted journal articles.”
Elbakyan denies employing phishing attacks — that is, sending emails that trick people into revealing their login information — but allows that some of the accounts Sci-Hub has used might have been obtained with that technique. “I cannot check the exact source of the account that I receive by email,” she said. There’s no indication that Sci-Hub is using the logins for some other nefarious purpose.
Even so, courts have found that what Sci-Hub does isn’t legal. The question is whether, in the cause of sharing scientific information, her systematic ransacking of academic publishing is justified. In short, is Elbakyan doing more good than harm?
Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education
Disclosure: A very long time ago, PG spent an unhappy three years working for what is now called RELX , which is the owner of the Elsevier which is the focus of the OP. (Combine Dutch and English top executives and you can come up with some of the most stupid company names in the universe.)
The business in which Elsevier and related companies is massively profitable for the following reasons.
- Elsevier and its associated companies obtain valuable intellectual property at no cost.
- Elsevier, etc., obtain expert editing and review of valuable intellectual property at no cost.
- Elsevier, etc., employees perform the most mundane tasks involved in putting together this free material into printed and (reluctantly) electronic publications for which they charge research academic libraries obscene prices to receive printed copies and access electronic copies of this material.
- Libraries at academic research institutions (every major and most minor universities, colleges, schools of law, medicine, etc., plus research institutions, etc.) must have access to this information so their scholars can perform research for a variety of purposes, including, prominently, writing new articles to submit to the editors of Elsevier’s prestigious journals to be considered for publication.
- The engine that drives this entire boat is called (at least in the United States) publish or perish. If you wish to move from a lowly graduate student into the world of assistant professors, associage professors, full professors, deans, etc., and have your employment in such roles protected by tenure, you need to publish in the sorts of journals Elesevier owns. The exact same work published via KDP won’t do the job.
By PG’s potentially-blinkered lights, this sort of system is possible because the people paying for these journals and funding the writing and review of the journal articles are spending other people’s money.
There is no direct cost to the dean of a medical school who requires that any candidate for an assistant professorship at the medical school have published a lot of articles in respected medical journals published by Elsevier or similar publishers.
In PG’s mind, there is no reason that an entrepreneurial University president could not start a University publishing organization that operates in the same manner as Elsevier and others do. Harvard University has had its own press for a long time but, to the best of PG’s knowledge, has limited itself to publishing books, not periodicals, The Harvard Business Review, published by the Harvard School of Business, is an example of a prestigious journal published by a private university.
On the law school front, many law schools have published law reviews in which law professors seek to have scholarly publications published. Publications in law reviews satisfy the publish or perish obligations of law professors at a wide range of institutions. One cool feature for law schools is that quite a bit of work on the law reviews is performed by second and third-year law students who have performed well in law school. Indeed, being invited to become a member of the law review’s staff is an important résumé entry for a starting lawyer looking for a job.
Why can’t the medical school and the biology and chemistry and English departments do exactly the same thing? If the Stanford Medical School announced it would be starting a series of medical journals devoted to issues important to a variety of medical specialties and staffing it with the same sort of people Elsevier uses, Stanford publications would very quickly take their place at the top of the journal rankings and receive gobs of submissions from graduate students and professors elsewhere. Stanford could charge others for subscriptions to these publications and substantially burnish the medical school and the university’s already stellar reputation.
Yes, it would cost a university some money to start its own series of professional and scholarly journals, but such publications would allow a university to earn extremely large sums of money that its libraries and the libraries of other colleges and universities pay to Elsevier and its ilk.
Professors at colleges and universities would be happy to scratch each other’s backs by exchanging peer review services for colleagues at other institutions.
PG suspects that the reason that universities do not start these sorts of entrepreneurial ventures goes back to the Other People’s Money problem and a desire for a quiet life.
If others with to comment, criticize, expand, dismiss, etc., etc. PG’s thoughts on this subject, they should feel free to do so in the comments, in their own blogs (hopefully linking back to this post, but PG’s not going to sue anyone who quotes him with or without attribution plus ideas are not protected by copyright laws.)