In 2001 the World Health Organization worked with the major publishers to set up Hinari, a system whereby researchers in developing countries could get free or very-low-cost access to health journals. There are similar systems for agriculture, the environment and technology. Why would the publishers give access to their journals to researchers at institutions that hadn't paid anything?
The answer is that the publishers were not losing money by doing so. There was no possibility that institutions in developing countries could pay the subscription. Depriving them of access would not motivate them to pay; they couldn't possibly afford to pay. Cross-subsidizing their access cost almost nothing and had indirect benefits, such as cementing the publishers' role as gatekeepers for research, and discouraging the use of open access.
Similarly, peer-to-peer sharing of papers didn't actually lose the major publishers significant amounts of money. Institutions that could afford to subscribe were not going to drop their subscriptions and encourage their researchers to use these flaky and apparently illegal alternatives. The majority usage of these mechanisms was from researchers whose institutions would never subscribe, and who could not afford the extortionate pay-per-view charges. Effective techniques to suppress them would be self-defeating. As I wrote in The Maginot Paywall:
Copyright maximalists such as the major academic publishers, are in a similar position. The more effective and thus intrusive the mechanisms they implement to prevent unauthorized access, the more they incentivize "guerilla open access".Then last June Elsevier filed a case in New York trying to shut down Library Genesis and Sci-Hub. Both are apparently based in Russia, which is not highly motivated to send more of its foreign reserves to Western publishers. So the case was not effective at shutting them down. It turned out, however, to be a classic case of the Streisand Effect, in which attempting to suppress information on the Web causes it to attract far more attention.
The Streisand Effect started slowly, with pieces at Quartz and BBC News in October. The EFF weighed in on the topic in December with What If Elsevier and Researchers Quit Playing Hide-and-Seek?:
Sci-Hub and LibGen have now moved to new domains, and Sci-Hub has set up a .onion address; this allows users to access the service anonymously through Tor. How quickly the sites have gotten back on their feet after the injunction underscores that these services can't really be stopped. Elsevier can't kill unauthorized sharing of its papers; at best, it can only make sharing incrementally less convenient.But the Streisand Effect really kicked in early last month with Simon Oxenham's Meet the Robin Hood of Science, which led to Fiona MacDonald's piece at Science Alert, Kaveh Waddell's The Research Pirates of the Dark Web and Kieran McCarthy's Free science journal library gains notoriety, lands injunctions. Mike Masnick's Using Copyright To Shut Down 'The Pirate Bay' Of Scientific Research Is 100% Against The Purpose Of Copyright went back to the Constitution:
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 famously says that Congress has the following power:and the 1790 Copyright Act, which was subtitled "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning." Encouragement of learning is what Sci-Hub is for. Mike Taylor's Barbra Streisand, Elsevier, and Sci-Hub was AFAIK the first to point out that Elsevier had triggered the Streisand Effect. Simon Oxenham followed up with The Robin Hood of Science: The Missing Chapter, making the connection with the work of the late Aaron Swartz.
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.
Barbara Fister made the very good point that Universities don't just supply the publishers with free labor in the form of authoring and reviewing:
Because it is labor - lots of labor - to maintain link resolvers, keep license agreements in order, and deal with constant changes in subscription contents. We have to work a lot harder to be publishers' border guards than people realize.and she clearly lays out the impossible situation librarians are in:
We feel we are virtually required to provide access to whatever researchers in our local community ask for while restricting access from anyone outside that narrowly-defined community of users. Instead of curators, we're personal shoppers who moonlight as border guards. This isn't working out well for anyone. Unaffiliated researchers have to find illegal work-arounds, and faculty who actually have access through libraries are turning to the black market for articles because it seems more efficient than contacting their personal shopper, particularly when the library itself doesn't figure in their work flow. In the meantime, all that money we spend on big bundles of articles (or on purchasing access to articles one at a time when we can't afford the bundle anymore) is just a really high annual rent. We can't preserve what we don't own, and we don't curate because our function is to get what is asked for.The Library Loon has a series of posts that are worth reading (together with some of their comments). She links to A Short History of The Russian Digital Shadow Libraries by Balázs Bodó, a must-read analysis starting in Soviet times showing that Sci-Hub is but one product of a long history of resistance to censorship. Bodó has a more reflective piece In the Name of Humanity in Limn's Total Archive issue, where he makes the LOCKSS argument:
This is the paradox of the total piratical archive: they collect enormous wealth, but they do not own or control any of it. As an insurance policy against copyright enforcement, they have already given everything away: they release their source code, their databases, and their catalogs; they put up the metadata and the digitalized files on file-sharing networks. They realize that exclusive ownership/control over any aspects of the library could be a point of failure, so in the best traditions of archiving, they make sure everything is duplicated and redundant, and that many of the copies are under completely independent control.The Loon's analysis of the PR responses from the publishers is acute:
Why point this effluent at librarians specifically rather than academe generally? Because publishers are not stupid; libraries are their gravy train and they know that. The more they can convince librarians that it is somehow against the rules (whether “rules” means “law” or “norms” or even merely “etiquette,” and this does vary across publisher sallies) to cross or question them, the longer that gravy train keeps rolling. Researchers, you simply do not matter to publishers in the least until you credibly threaten a labor boycott or (heaven forfend) actually support librarian budget-reallocation decisions. The money is coming from librarians.Last weekend the Streisand Effect reached the opinion pages of the New York Times with Kate Murphy's Should All Research Papers Be Free?, replete with quotes from Michael Eisen, Alicia Wise, Peter Suber and David Crotty. Alas, Murphy starts by writing "Her protest against scholarly journals’ paywalls". Sci-Hub isn't a protest. Calling something a protest is a way of labelling it ineffectual. Sci-Hub is a tool that implements a paywall-free world. Occupy Wall Street was a protest, but had it actually built a functioning alternative financial system no-one would be describing it that way.
The result of the Streisand Effect has been, among other things, to sensitize the public to the issue of open access. Oxenham writes:
vast numbers of people who read the story thought researchers or universities received a portion of the fees paid by the public to read the journals, which contain academic research funded by taxpayers.This clearly isn't in Elsevier's interest. So, having failed to shut down the services and garnering them a lot of free publicity, where does Elsevier go from here? I see four possible paths:
- They can try to bribe the Russians to clamp down on the services, for example by offering Russian institutions very cheap subscriptions as a quid pro quo. But they only control a minority of the content, and they would be showing other countries how to reduce their subscription costs by hosting the services.
- They can try to punish the Russians for not clamping down, for example by cutting the country off from Elsevier content. But this would increase the incentive to host the services.
- They can sue their customers, the institutions whose networks are being used to access new content. In 2008 publishers sued Georgia State for:
pervasive, flagrant and ongoing unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materialsEight years later the case is still being argued on appeal. But in the meantime the landscape has changed. Many research funders now require open access. Many institutions now require (but fail to enforce) deposit of papers in institutional repositories. Institutions facing publisher lawsuits would have a powerful incentive to enforce deposit, because their network isn't needed to leak open access content to Sci-Hub.
- They can sue the sources of their content, the individual researchers who they may be able to trace as the source of Sci-Hub materials. This would be a lot easier if the publishers stopped authenticating via IP address and moved to a system based on individual logins. Although this would make life difficult for Sci-Hub-like services if they used malware-based on-campus proxies, it would also make using subscription journals miserable for the vast majority of researchers and thus greatly increase the attractiveness of open access journals. But the Library Loon correctly points out that Sci-Hub's database of credentials is a tempting target for the publishers and others to attempt to compromise.
“Prices are very high, and that made it impossible to obtain papers by purchasing. You need to read many papers for research, and when each paper costs about 30 dollars, that is impossible.”It seems I was somewhat prophetic in pointing to the risk pay-per-view poses for the publishers in my 2010 JCDL keynote:
Libraries implementing PPV have two unattractive choices:Elsevier and the other major publishers have a fundamental problem. Their customers are libraries, but libraries don't actually use the content access they buy. The libraries' readers are the ones that use the access. What the readers want is a single portal, preferably Google, that provides free, instant access to the entire corpus of published research. As Elbakyan writes:
Placing a premium on finding the open access copy is something publishers should wish to avoid.
- Hide the cost of access from readers. This replicates the subscription model but leads to overuse and loss of budget control.
- Make the cost of access visible to readers. This causes severe administrative burdens, discourages use of the materials, and places a premium on readers finding the free versions of content.
On the Internet, we obviously need websites like Sci-Hub where people can access and read research literature. The problem is, such websites oftenly cannot operate without interruptions, because current system does not allow it.Sci-Hub is as close as anyone has come to providing what the readers want. None of the big publishers can provide it, not merely because doing so would destroy their business model, but also because none of them individually control enough of the content. And the publishers' customers don't want them to provide it, because doing so would reduce even further the libraries' role in their institutions. No-one would need "personal shoppers who moonlight as border guards".
The system has to be changed so that websites like Sci-Hub can work without running into problems. Sci-Hub is a goal, changing the system is one of the methods to achieve it.