Major publishers want to censor research-sharing resource Sci-Hub from the internet, but archivists are quickly responding to make that impossible.
More than half of academic publishing is controlled by only five publishers. This position is built on the premise that users should pay for access to scientific research, to compensate publishers for their investment in editing, curating, and publishing it. In reality, research is typically submitted and evaluated by scholars without compensation from the publisher. What this model is actually doing is profiting off of a restriction on article access using burdensome paywalls. One project in particular, Sci-Hub, has threatened to break down this barrier by sharing articles without restriction. As a result, publishers are going to every corner of the map to destroy the project and wipe it from the internet. Continuing the long tradition of internet hacktivism, however, redditors are mobilizing to create an uncensorable back-up of Sci-Hub.
Paywalls: More Inequity and Less Progress
It’s an open secret at this point that the paywall model used by major publishers, where one must pay to read published articles, is at odds with the way science works which is one reason researchers regularly undermine it by sharing PDFs of their work directly. The primary functions paywalls serve now are to drive up contract prices with universities and ensure current research is only available to the most affluent or well-connected. The cost of access has gotten so out of control that even $35 billion dollar institutions like Harvard have warned that contract costs are becoming untenable. If this is the case for Harvard, it’s hard to see how smaller entities can manage these costs– particularly those in the global south. As a result, crucial and potentially life-saving knowledge is locked away from those who need it most. That’s why the fight for open access is a fight for human rights.
Indeed, the past year has shown us the incredible power of open access after publishers made COVID-19 research immediately available at no cost. This temporary move towards open access helped support the unprecedented global public health effort that spurred the rapid development of vaccines, treatments, and better informed public health policies. This kind of support for scientific progress should not be reserved for a global crisis; instead, it should be the standard across all areas of research.
Sci-Hub and the Fight for Access
Sci-hub is a crucial piece of the movement towards open access. The project was started over 10 years ago by a researcher in Kazakhstan, Alexandra Elbakyan, with the goal “to remove all barriers in the way of science.” The result has been a growing library of millions of articles made freely accessible, running only on donations. Within six years it even became the largest Open Access academic resource in the world, and it has only grown since, bringing cutting-edge research to rich and poor countries alike.
But that invaluable resource has come at a cost. Since its inception, Sci-Hub has faced numerous legal challenges and investigations. Some of these challenges have led to dangerously broad court orders. One such challenge is being addressed in India, where courts have been asked to block access to a site by publishers Elsevier, Wiley, and American Chemical Society. The courts have been hesitant, however, as the site has clear public importance, and local experts have argued that Sci-Hub is the only way for many in the country to access research. In any event, one inevitable truth cannot be avoided: researchers want to share their work– not make publishers rich.
Archivists Rush to Defend Sci-Hub
With these challenges ongoing, SciHub’s Twitter account was permanently suspended under the site’s “counterfeit policy.” Given the timing of this suspension, Elbakyan and other academic activists believe it was directly related to the legal action in India. A few months later, Elbakyan shared on her personal twitter that Apple had granted the FBI access to her account data after a request in early 2019.
Responding to these attacks last week, redditors on the archivist subreddit r/DataHoarder have (once again) rallied to support the site. In a post two weeks ago, users appealed to the legacy of reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz and called for anyone with hard drive space and a VPN to defend ‘free science’ by downloading and seeding 850 torrents containing Sci-Hub’s 77 TB library. The ultimate goal of these activists is to then use these torrents, containing 85 million scientific articles, to make a fully decentralized and uncensorable iteration of Sci-Hub.
This project should ring utopian to anyone who values access to scientific knowledge, a goal publishers and the DOJ have taken great pains to block with legal obstacles. A fully decentralized, uncensorable, and globally accessible database for scientific work is a potential engine for greater research equity. The only potential losers with such a resource might be the old gatekeepers who rely on an artificial scarcity of scientific knowledge, and increasingly tools of surveillance, to extract exorbitant profit margins off the labor of scientists.
It’s Time to Fight for Open Access
Journal publishers must do their part to make research immediately available to all, freely and without privacy-invasive practices. There is no need for such a valuable resource such as Sci-Hub to live in the shadows of copyright litigation. While we hope publishers make this change willingly, there are other common-sense initiatives that could help. For example, there are federal bills like the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), or state bills such as California’s A.B. 2192, which can require government-funded research to be made freely available. The principle behind these bills is simple: if the public-funded the research, the public shouldn’t have to pay again to access it.
In addition to supporting legislation, students and academics can also advocate for Open Access on campus. Colleges can not only provide a financial incentive by breaking contracts with publishers but also support researchers in the process of making their own work Open Access. The UC system for example has required all research from their 10 campuses be made open access since 2013, a policy more public institutions can and should adopt. Even talking about open access with peers on campus can stir interest in local organizing, and when it does our EFA local organizing toolkit and organizing team (firstname.lastname@example.org) can help support these local efforts.
We need to lift these artificial restraints on science imposed by major publishers and take advantage of 21st-century technology. Initiatives taken by archivist activists such as those supporting Sci-Hub shouldn’t be caught in a game of cat and mouse but supported by policy and business models which allow such projects to thrive and promote equity.