The scientific community has become embroiled in a debate around online piracy after Alexandra Elbaykyan, a graduate student based in Russia, setup Sci-Hub—an online database of 50 million stolen scholarly journal articles. After encountering paywalls for scientific journals, she setup Sci-Hub because she said she believed that scientific information should be free to use and share. Elbaykyan can try to justify it in whatever way she wants, but what she is doing still involves the theft of property that is not her own.
Sci-Hub has garnered some support in the online piracy debate as the business model used by scientific publishing firms has clearly not caught up to the digital age and is in need of reform. The firms commonly charge as much as $35 for a digital copy of a journal article. Yet, an annual subscription to a top journal, such as The Lancet, costs $233 for both digital access and a print copy. This means, assuming four journal articles per weekly issue, that they charge 31 times more for a single digital article than a paper one, with zero marginal costs for the digital. While journals are typically sold to universities and others as parts of large packages of many journals, it adds up, especially as some top-tier journals cost upwards of $40,000 each. Something must be wrong with the business model when Harvard University, one of the richest universities in the world, says it cannot afford access.
Like any business, developing the content for and publishing (whether in print or online) scholarly journals costs money. Whatever concerns users have about pricing, there are a wide range of costs that go into disseminating thousands upon thousands of journal articles, some on very specific subtopics of relevance to only a small group of specialists, such as the peer-review process.
Sci-Hub has certainly revived the debate about how scientific research is published and disseminated. Unfortunately, those who argue that government-funded research results should be free and that they currently pay twice (once through funding the research and then for access) miss the point. Sure, as the funder and owner of research, the government can decide to make its research free to access, as it has. Similarly, if researchers want their work to be in an open access journal, such as on the Directory of Open Access Journals, that is their prerogative. As is their choice to pay for the article to be published and made free, such as with PLOS One. But for those signing a contract with a commercial publisher, it costs money to publish these articles, so if piracy is rampant, then there will be fewer journals and more articles of questionable quality.
Elbaykyan states, “Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation,” especially researchers, graduate students, and others in developing countries who cannot afford a journal subscription. The disparity between universities is clear: Harvard subscribed to 98,900 different journals in 2008, while a major Indian school, the Indian Institute of Science, subscribed to only 10,600, while many universities in sub-Saharan Africa had none. But as is often the case with debates about online intellectual property protections, the debate is being co-opted by those who are fundamentally opposed to the core process of paying or gaining permission before using intellectual property, which then distorts the debate about realistic alternatives.
To be sure, a better solution to piracy would be for publishers to use a business model that provided special access programs for developing countries by providing free or low-cost access, expanding some existing programs. However, those involved in this debate should be clear about the hypocrisy that many of the same people that justify piracy also vociferously oppose the means by which companies enable such price differentiation: geo-blocking. This process uses IP addresses to identify a user’s location, allowing companies to provide discounted pricing to individuals located in particular geographies. However, if geo-blocking is ruled out, as the European Commission is proposing, it means the end of place-based discounts, since companies will not be able to prevent individuals living in higher-income geographies from paying the discounted price.
The current academic journal business model is indeed in need of a shakeup, particularly to provide lower prices for digital access as compared to print. But this should be led by the key participants—publishers, universities, researchers, and the government—to present and push toward a better, legal alternative, as we’ve been able to do with music and movies. Differentiated access and pricing should be one of those options. However, the intellectual property embodied in scientific journal articles should not be treated any differently to other material stolen and copied online. Regardless of its supposedly noble purpose, the Sci-Hub process should be called what it is—illegal piracy—and treated accordingly, not as a viable alternative.
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