Making Knowledge Free
Cicero once wrote “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”*. The effort to provide every human a garden seems sadly stalled at the moment, however, there are a few people who can legitimately claim to be providing a library to every (internet connected) human on the planet. Unfortunately, the efforts of these people to liberate human knowledge are under threat from a collection of scientific publishers who have brought legal action in India in an attempt to shut down Sci-Hub and Library Genesis (LibGen). If this lawsuit succeeds, two of the greatest libraries ever assembled will shut down, kneecapping the ability of citizens, journalists and scientists alike to access information about the world around them.
Sci-Hub and the shambles that is academic publishing
The Sci-Hub website** performs a simple job; it allows you to search for journal articles and, if it has a copy of the article you’re looking for, provides it to you free-of-charge, usually as a PDF download (LibGen does essentially the same thing, but has a focus on providing access to books rather than journal articles). The only other way to access the materials provided by Sci-Hub is to either buy journal articles separately (this usually costs between $30 to $50 per article) or to possess a subscription to the journal. Most academics working at institutions in the developed world can expect to have institutional subscriptions purchased via their library, however, there’s no guarantee that every journal of interest to an academic will be covered, and even incredibly rich universities like Harvard are starting to balk at the high costs of such subscriptions. Academics in the developing world, and citizens and journalists everywhere, are effectively shut-out of the academic conversation because of the high fees charged to access original research reports.
The high fees charged to access scientific publications benefit scientific publishing companies like Reed-Elsevier and Wiley. It’s possible this could be justified if these companies were the ones who funded the research being written up in their journals. However, that is almost never the case. Researchers at universities usually have their work funded through some combination of public and private money, but publishing companies don’t typically provide any money to researchers. In fact, many journals charge researchers to have their work published in a journal. What’s more, publishing companies often get academics to perform peer review on other scientists’ work without paying them. This means that taxpayers often end up paying for research two or three times over. In the first instance, public money often funds the basic research that provides the raw material for journal articles; in the second instance, post-doctoral researchers who perform the bulk of unpaid peer-review work are often receiving bursaries or grants from public sources and it’s this money that allows them to take on unpaid work for journals; and in the third instance, when a citizen tries to access research articles, they’ll find themselves paying once more, just to get past a paywall which is blocking access to findings they may have already funded.
Through essentially an accident of history, a handful of publishing companies have come to occupy a strategic chokepoint in the infrastructure used to disseminate scientific findings. For the companies that engage in this there are massive profits to be made. Reed-Elsevier reported a 37% profit margin in 2018, which rivals the profits of Google and Apple.
Showdown in Delhi
Until recently, scientific publishers have waged a restrained war against Sci-Hub and LibGen, mostly consisting of efforts to suspend the URLs these websites use, which forces Sci-Hub to periodically change its web address. However, in December, Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society filed a joint suit in the Delhi High Court which seeks an outright ban on the Sci-Hub and LibGen websites in India. If successful, the suit would strangle the academic sector in India, where researchers and institutions often can’t afford the high fees charged to access journal articles and books. It would also undoubtedly encourage the publishers to pursue similar suits in other jurisdictions. The Breakthrough Science Society, a society of students and scientists dedicated to the advancement of science in India, is organizing a petition against the legal action. BSS has also hosted a seminar where they question the legality of the action brought against Sci-Hub and LibGen.
In any sane society, Alexandra Elbakyan (the founder of Sci-Hub) and the anonymous team behind LibGen would be celebrated for performing the great service of making knowledge more accessible to all. Instead, they find themselves continually harassed and criminalized by a handful of companies who profit from research they didn’t fund, reviewed by people they didn’t pay. The Great Library of Alexandria, which was once the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled, was destroyed by accident in a fire. Should the legal action against Sci-Hub succeed, the library of Alexandra Elbakyan will be destroyed on purpose. Every thinking person should be opposed to this act of intellectual self-mutilation.
* Although according to this source, it seems like this might have been landscaping, rather than philosophical, advice
** An exciting element of using Sci-Hub and LibGen is that they are continually changing their URL (I presume due to legal issues), which makes it slightly difficult to link to them—just use a search engine if you want to find this week’s URL.
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