Scholars and activists stand in solidarity with shuttered research-sharing sites

This week, the scholarly publishing giant Elsevier filed suit against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, two sites where academics and researchers practiced civil disobedience by sharing the academic papers that Elsevier claims -- despite having acquired the papers for free from researchers, and despite having had them refereed and overseen by editorial boards staffed by more volunteering academics.

This is the latest salvo in a long-simmering battle between people who value scholarly and scientific knowledge as a commons that must be shared to be valuable, and multinational corporations that see returns to shareholders as their first duty, with academic advancement and knowledge creation taking a back-seat.

An open letter to Elsevier signed by open access advocates puts the case that Library Genesis and Sci-Hub were doing the morally correct thing by sharing academic work:

In Elsevier's case against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, the judge said: "simply making copyrighted content available for free via a foreign website, disserves the public interest"8. Alexandra Elbakyan's original plea put the stakes much higher: "If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge."

We demonstrate daily, and on a massive scale, that the system is broken. We share our writing secretly behind the backs of our publishers, circumvent paywalls to access articles and publications, digitize and upload books to libraries. This is the other side of 37% profit margins: our knowledge commons grows in the fault lines of a broken system. We are all custodians of knowledge, custodians of the same infrastructures that we depend on for producing knowledge, custodians of our fertile but fragile commons. To be a custodian is, de facto, to download, to share, to read, to write, to review, to edit, to digitize, to archive, to maintain libraries, to make them accessible. It is to be of use to, not to make property of, our knowledge commons.

More than seven years ago Aaron Swartz, who spared no risk in standing up for what we here urge you to stand up for too, wrote: "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?"9

In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub

Notable Replies

  1. The system is ridiculous - that we do the research, write the manuscripts (even typeset them), and review them, all free of charge for the publishers - and then buy back the results. But it is very hard to change as a junior researcher. You need publications, and you need them in journals with high impact factor (yes, I know impact factor is a dumb measure unsuited to individual researchers). A really effective way to force change is already happening - that funding bodies demand that results they have funded are published open-access. It's public money after all. This should be encouraged, supported, and campaigned for at every opportunity. Once open-access publishing becomes the norm (we're rapidly getting there), then we can talk about publishing fees.

  2. I think the letter makes the leap from "the public has a right to knowledge" to "the public has a right to knowledge for free." The one doesn't imply the other, any more than a right to eat implies that all groceries should be free. Not to defend Elsevier in any way, but it's obviously fair for whoever hosts the papers to charge something.

    I think that you'd be hard pressed to find any research that hasn't been publicly subsidized in some way. Even if we don't fund it the way we should, the academic world really is public infrastructure. Seeing some corporate types like Elsevier try to stake a claim to a public good like this ties my stomach in knots.

    There's plenty of money available to pay for this. It's just a matter of agreeing that it's something we should pay for.

  3. knappa says:

    I didn't really read this article very closely but, at least in my field, the complaints have largely been about steep price increases for subscriptions and forced bundling of many journals. No one was really complaining when Elsevier was charging more modest fees and not trying to see how much they could squeeze out of a captive market.

  4. Cornell University Library has had a great series of "sticker shock" exhibits (the most recent is available as a pdf here), and as others have already said a large part of the problem is Elsevier jacking up prices significantly.

    Libraries have been able to keep costs down with "big deals", but those deals come with some pretty tangled strings. For one thing these are multi-year agreements and a library can't cancel a particular journal covered by the "deal" unless they replace it with another one of equal or greater value. This sometimes means having to skip subscribing to a journal not published by Elsevier or other big deal publisher because all the available money is tied up in the "deal".

    I can also speak from experience about an Elsevier subscription that went up by 20% from one year to the next in spite of the library having a "big deal" that capped increases at 3%. Elsevier explained that because it was a newly added journal it was an exception to the price cap agreement. But there was no exception to the prohibition on cancelling.

    These "big deals" also used to contain a secrecy clause that prevented institutions from sharing how much they were paying. At a 2010 NASIG conference a librarian from the University of Indiana said they were deleting these clauses from their contracts. And I have to wonder why the clauses were allowed in the first place. How could Elsevier prevent a publicly funded institution from sharing with the public how much was being spent on Elsevier journals?

    These "big deals" can also be so complicated it's impossible for librarians to keep up with what's included and what isn't because anyone who's dealt with Elsevier customer service--or Springer or Wiley or Taylor & Francis--knows that the publishers themselves can't keep track of what's included and what isn't. The time spent negotiating and maintaining these "big deals" is something I'd call a hidden cost, and it can be very big indeed.

    And libraries may be able for now to maintain post-cancellation access through services like Portico and LOCKSS but I'm afraid that's a future lawsuit just waiting to happen.

    On the other hand I do think publishers like Elsevier provide a valuable service in hosting and archiving research. The question more and more institutions are going to have to start asking, though, is whether the cost is worth it.

    TL;DR: It's complicated.

  5. I HAVE MANY OPINIONS ABOUT THIS. SO MANY OPINIONS.

    ACADEMIC PUBLISHING IS A MONOPOLY, NOT ALL JOURNALS ARE CREATED EQUAL. YOU CAN'T DO A PERFECT 1:1 COMPARISON OF JOURNALS. MOST RESEARCH IS PUBLICALLY FUNDED VIA GRANTS/ACADEMIC TUITION AND WE DON'T GET ACCESS TO YOUR ARTICLE EVEN IF WE PAID YOU TO DO IT.

    like, I spent 2 weeks pouring over spreadsheets regarding access to journal articles not just the citation and abstracts to save us what is going to amount to 32k over the next 3 years.

    A certain publisher quoted us a price in the 100,000 range for journal ACCESS. not a subscription where we own the content... ACCESS.

    Another lowered their rate to 27k after being 35k for years because we got a group discount. We pay for access on a system that only works nights and weekends on campus.

    When people can't get access to their articles, they yell at the librarians. We, being librarians, are not made of money and can't pay 5k for ONE journal.

    I have many incoherent feelings right now, but they generally form the shape of a middle finger.

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