Is the Pirate Queen of Scientific Publishing in Real Trouble This Time?

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.

  1. Elsevier and its associated companies obtain valuable intellectual property at no cost.
  2. Elsevier, etc., obtain expert editing and review of valuable intellectual property at no cost.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)

8 thoughts on “Is the Pirate Queen of Scientific Publishing in Real Trouble This Time?”

  1. From a researcher’s point of view, this is much the same thing as young women (and men) paying far too much for jeans that have a famous designer’s label on them – it’s the status, not the money or the quality of the apparel.

    (I also believe that major universities complaining about the costs of the subscriptions is rather disingenuous. One of their competitive advantages in attracting high powered talent to add to their prestige is that they offer access to the prestige of the journals – while the cost is prohibitive to less well-funded institutions that some of those talents might well prefer. Not all fields require million dollar plus laboratories, but all fields do require access to the work being done by others.)

  2. Then, too, within legal academia there is more than a little disdain for the “student-edited” journals.

    This is what happens when one assumes that the only acceptable motivation for people doing something well, or efficiently, is “profit.” It’s the old “necessary but not sufficient” problem…

  3. The NIH and NSF are already well on the road to mandating public access to research they fund, so there is a large chink in the armor of the likes of Elsevier, so the need for those expensive subscriptions is going down. As far as I know, NIH’s PubMed is inclined to index traditional journals rather than the likes of arXiv.org and bioRxiv.org, which makes the incumbents more visible. This is particularly important, because the real game in academia is to have your articles get cited frequently by other academics in your field. Having your articles read by people doing searches in the likes of PubMed makes this more likely.

    The likes of Stanford and Harvard would probably have to undercut Elsevier on pricing for their journals and services. This would not be because they have less perceived value, but because it would trigger a backlash in the academic community. There is considerable room for viewing Elsevier’s profits as an academic institutions opportunity, but in light of the trends toward open source learning, it might be very difficult to do this as an academic project which has no intent to derive revenue.

    What might be a more productive avenue for a much needed change in academic publishing might come from NCBI which runs PubMed, and state governments which subsidize most of the land grant research institutions. If PubMed were to get behind the arXiv organization by producing a strong Yahoo front page or Wolfram-esque search landing page to highlight the best papers in each discipline, and state governments would push back on the journal subscription fees, then the dam might break.

    Apologies for mostly focusing on biology publishing. It’s what I’m vaguely familiar with, and more importantly, almost all of the money in academia is focused on medical advancements and the biology behind those advances.

  4. A couple of thoughts on this after recently leaving academia.

    “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.”

    In my own experience, this strikes me as right. The professors I knew were mostly good-hearted, well-meaning people. I have little bad to say about them.

    But they do not come from a situation that encourages creativity or innovation. The majority of people I knew in the university were “go along to get along” types. The university bureaucracy was bad enough to manage before getting into all the intrigues and unspoken politics.

    Inertia, an unwillingness and inability to innovate, and as Writing Observer said above, the status games of the university & academia, all work to keep things as they are.

    It’s interesting to me that PG points out an aspiring academic publisher could publish the same papers and monographs on KDP, or on a blog or personal website, or a Substack, but it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

    Self-publishing doesn’t carry the prestige, exclusivity, and widespread acceptance of publishing in the big journals.

    That said, I’ve been quite interested in the possibilities for “freelance academics” to do exactly this — create their own business models out of their research, using the same self-publishing tools that fiction authors and non-academic nonfiction authors use to build audiences and spread their ideas.

    Though I suspect that would take a rather more radical rewiring of the academic’s mindset.

    • What fields are those folks in?

      In the STEM fields Venture capitalists are always trolling the top schools (MIT, STANFORD, PURDUE, NORTHWESTERN, ETC) and the bigger schools have their own inhouse VENTURE CAPITAL FUNDS. Plus students themselves get into the act. Even Universities without their own VC operations have dedicated Technology Transfer/Licensing Offices.

      https://www.quora.com/How-many-universities-have-venture-capital-funds-and-which-ones-are-most-prominent

      Mostly you have to get away from the “prestige” universities that think of Engineering disciplines as “too vocational” to be respectable (Yale) or the Marxist ones. s

      As an example, OXFORD spawned off 21 startups in 2016.

      A lot of the startups are launched off very raw concepts so backers know to be patient. The more typical 3-5 year Wall Street VCs don’t have the patience to get involved with those but they are, Lois Bujold put it, those are “get rich big” schemes instead of the “get rich quick” types. (Stanford Spinoffs alone account for half the revenue of tbe companies in SiliValley, $100B a year.)

      The practice exploded in the ’80’s. No shortage of entrepreneurial types in those circles once SiliValley grew up.
      I imagine it helps to have tenure when with comes to pursueing blue sky concepts. That way if/when they fail you’re still covered. 😀

      (BTW, take note of the linked related response. The tginks you run into online.)

      • Primary example of what Felix is talking about:

        Mosaic.

        Every modern browser is a descendant of it, some (Firefox) more directly than others (Safari). It was developed as a combined class and out-of-class project by engineering students at the University of Illinois — sponsored, in part, by the NCSA, and there we’re getting into Interesting Side Issues — and the University of Illinois Foundation. (Yeah, that one — the loser in Blonder Tongue, but that just shows that it’s not exactly new.)

  5. I find this area a fascinating area, I must admit. Lots of loops and whirls to study, similar to fingerprints. But after I went down a couple of thousand rabbit holes in recent years, I find myself coming back again and again to only two lines of argument.

    First, the mis-informed one that “information wants to be free” essentially. This is a complete misrepresentation of what “free” means…it doesn’t mean $0 cost, it means freely circulated, it wants to be shared. Books in any form are almost never free for cost. So this area doesn’t interest me much, despite it’s frequent use by the least intelligent pirate to simply rationalize being cheap. On the positive side, it can be argued that information is a public good, but even public goods cost someone something (taxes, etc.). It isn’t quite a straw man, but it sure doesn’t hold up very far.

    Second, similar to the argument by the Queen Bee, the business model is wrong-headed and exploitative. It simply costs too much and there is profiteering involved. Ergo, it is okay to steal it because the owner deserves it, aka the Robin Hood explanation.

    However, if you said, “Okay, what if you had to only pay $1 per year to access all of it?” and all — literally all proponents — say yes.

    In effect, the two arguments disappear. Soooo, what we have is clear recognition that the person owns it and is entitled to charge money for providing it and that the pirate is clearly taking it without paying.

    Which sounds suspiciously like the classic joke…would you sleep with me for a million dollars? Yes. Would you sleep with me for $10? Hell no, what kind of person do you think I am? Well, we’ve already established what KIND of person you are, now we’re just negotiating price.

    Piracy is theft, theft is wrong, and you can’t rationalize a way around it, Les Miserables notwithstanding.

    And yet…

    I was wondering if PG might have a different take / line of discussion, not to poke him unnecessarily. This is a bit of a sister area to his own blog. He curates other content, excerpts stuff that is arguably fair use, gives links back to the original, and provides us with a service at no profit to him (I doubt his affiliate profits even cover his hosting fees.) Yet, one could argue, particularly where he references a site with a paywall, that he is doing something similar to the OP subject i.e. lifting content from another source and sharing for free. The difference is, in effect, scope. PG doesn’t share the entire doc, avoiding you from paying WSJ, and he has links back, etc.

    Apart from PG’s suggestion of alternate business models, the line between bad business models and piracy vs. curation fascinates me.

    If the Queen Bee above was a curator who shared excerpts only, not whole access, I would probably feel it was fair game. I’m not sure that I would ever 100% agree that there’s no element of infringement, but if it is not profiting off the original work, I’m more okay with it. A chance to see some content without having to subscribe to the big journals directly, with links to the full text if you want it. Obviously that is way beyond her scope and closer to David’s.

    But if I agree up front that it *is* still infringement of some copyright, albeit fair use, am I basically saying it’s okay to hold hands, or to get paid to kiss people but not have sex with them? Am I merely okay with the idea that first base is free, paying for second is fine and third are questionable, and home runs are clearly prostitution?

    Are we negotiating price or debating exploitation? I don’t know. I just find it a fascinating area. Don’t get me started on calculating co-efficients of loss/gain to authors and publishers of book piracy or estimating if ANY loss occurs in the OP where most of the people accessing probably wouldn’t have paid in the first place. Like the pirate who has 50K ebooks in their collection, and have only ever read about a hundred of them. But that’s a DIFFERENT rabbithole. Very fascinating rabbitholes, both economically and philosophically. 🙂

    Paul

    • Good analysis.
      The “public goods” bit could use a bit of added examination, though, because a the information being monetized was created by others who in any if not most cases *paid* to be distributed, and was created using public funds, in most cases.
      Also, this particular disfunction is just one of the many things wrong in academia. (C.f., the recent SCOTUS decision on student athletes.) So what is where their proprietary interest/added value come from that justifies taking ownership of the info? It would be one thing if, like KDP, they material were also available via alternate channels but here the matter is material that should be CC being privatized. (Because that’s how it used to be and if it was good enough for grandpappy…)

      By contrast, publicly funded research conducted via Federal agencies like NASA is freely distributed to all comers both electronically (something the Academic world seems to forget about come info distribution) and via the GPO, the single largest publisher in the world.
      Here’s a recent release about their long reach:

      https://www.gpo.gov/who-we-are/news-media/news-and-press-releases/northern-virginia-library-joins-gpo-program-that-keeps-america-informed-on-the-federal-government

      If the information is paid for by everybody and can be distributed to everybody via GPO, why throw bags of money at a legacy moneygrubber? Yet another rabbit hole? I wonder about kickacks. Because how today’s world rolls.

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