Blowing Up Academic Publishing

Jason Shen has a very interesting post on how Sci-Hub is blowing up academic publishing. For those who don't know, Sci-Hub is a site that offers free access to over 51,000,000 scientific journal articles. These papers are collected when a user with access to a journal's collection—usually through a university library—downloads the paper from the publisher and subsequently uploads it to Sci-Hub.

I'm a bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, it's easy to characterize what's going on as stealing. The publishers are in the business of publishing these articles in their journals and selling subscriptions to university libraries and others who can afford the hefty1 subscription price. The problem is that individual researchers write the articles, other academics review them, and still others serve as journal editors. None of these people are paid for their efforts. The publishers might do some minor tweaking of the papers' \LaTeX, print them in the journals, and essentially sell the academics' work back to them.

Alexandra Elbakyan, a neurotechnology researcher from Kazakhstan, founded Sci-Hub to deal with one of the externalities of this process. Researchers from poor areas or those unaffiliated with a university must pay fees of about $30 per paper to get access to the research. Sci-Hub seeks to remedy this by making the papers available to anyone for free. It's easy to see Sci-Hub as a moral and legitimate reaction to an intolerable situation.

I can see both these points of view, hence the confliction. Meanwhile, academics—especially in Mathematics—have mounted their own gorilla action against the publishers by refusing to submit their papers to or referee for the worst abusers. It's easy to be on the side of the academics who are boycotting Elsevier but some—especially the publishers who are, of course, suing—have problems with Sci-Hub. What do you think?

Footnotes:

1

The University of California spends about $8.7M per year on subscriptions from Elsevier alone.

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  • David McWilliams

    It should also be pointed out that most of the research that is published is publicly funded and should therefore be available to the public. As an out of work scientist (6 weeks, now), I am finding it difficult to stay current.

    • jcs

      Yes, I meant to mention that in the post. It makes the situation doubly infuriating: pay for the research; pay to see the results.