In recent days it has been announced that the EU wants all scientific research papers funded through its programs to be released under Open Access by 2020*. Newspaper coverage has credited the combined efforts of the Dutch government and EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Carlos Moedas, for the initiative. Moedas caught my attention in April due to a speech he gave on ‘open science’ which began with a reference to Alexandra Elbakyan and the controversy around Sci-Hub. He went on:
“Elbakyan’s case raises many questions. To me the most important one is: is this a sign that academic journals will face the same fate as the music and media industries? If so – and there are strong parallels to be drawn − then scientific publishing is about to be transformed.
So, either we open up to a new publishing culture, with new business models, and lead the market… Or we keep things as they are, and let the opportunity pass us by. As I see it, European success now lies in sharing as soon as possible, because the days of “publish or die” are disappearing. The days of open science have arrived.”
Until recently it would have been impossible to imagine an institutional figure use Sci-hub as a springboard for a positive vision rather than an occasion for vitriol.
While legal action by Elsevier against Sci-Hub and Elbakyan grinds on in the US, it has succeeded only in generating large amounts of positive publicity for both – Elsevier’s attack on a library that once existed in the shadows has ended up biting the behemoth in the ass. Despite a court decision in their favor, the website remains online and usable.
Seeking to disable free access to scientific articles otherwise available only through overpriced subscriptions was never going to be a winning PR strategy. That Elsevier made an operating profit of 34% in 2014 doesn’t help their case, nor does the fact that the authors are not paid. Commentators have instead treated the liberation of academic work from copyright restrictions as an enlightenment gesture in favor of universal access to knowledge (which it is). There is sympathetic coverage all over, from Science to Le Monde ** – it’s all a far cry from the quiet annihilation of Library.nu/Gigapedia in 2012.
Academic work is special…
Such an outpouring was never going to emerge from the cases against Napster or the Pirate Bay – the shared objects at the centre of those trials were seen merely as trifling entertainment commodities. This is odd given how important shared cultural works are for shaping our identities, but somehow they are tainted by their association with pleasure and fun. Academic papers, on the other hand, are no terrain of indulgence; they are the stuff of seriousness, discipline, painful memories of homework…
Risk and Reward
With all this attention, use of Sci-Hub and Library Genesis is booming and presumably growing its holdings. Given that the entire collections are available for download via torrent it will be interesting to see if services on top of the corpus – text mining etc. Until now such techniques have been the preserve of the database owners or companies like Google, with the resources for both mass scanning efforts and sustained legal defense involved in their Library/Book project. So let’s see the unauthorised repositories become the substrate for experiment, analysis, and additional layers of meaning.
Elbakyan is now carrying a lot of personal risk and is owed our support. Aside from the injunction against her there are claims under the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act (the same law used to prosecute and intimidate Aaron Swartz). She is cagey about her location and is concerned about the threat of extradition to the US. But this must be weighed against what she has achieved: assembling and stewarding a system of self-provision for all those with inadequate access to literature wherever they are. Right now it is important that all those who believe in LibGen/SciHub state that support openly. Later this may also meant to step up and support her also materially
*There are caveats however, enabling exceptions for reasons of security… and intellectual property rights – an exception which could utterly undermine the rule depending on how it is interpreted.
**See also: Justin Peters’ article critiquing Science’s defence of their business model; a piece from Aaron Swartz’s former colleagues at The Baffler; the very useful bibliography regarding Sci-Hub/LibGen maintained by Stephen Mclaughlin.
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