What a marvelous idea

On September 5th, 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, created Sci-Hub, a website that bypasses journal paywalls, illegally providing access to nearly every scientific paper ever published immediately to anyone who wants it. The website works in two stages, firstly by attempting to download a copy from the LibGen database of pirated content, which opened its doors to academic papers in 2012 and now contains over 48 million scientific papers. The ingenious part of the system is that if LibGen does not already have a copy of the paper, Sci-hub bypasses the journal paywall in real time by using access keys donated by academics lucky enough to study at institutions with an adequate range of subscriptions. This allows Sci-Hub to route the user straight to the paper through publishers such as JSTOR, Springer, Sage, and Elsevier. After delivering the paper to the user within seconds, Sci-Hub donates a copy of the paper to LibGen for good measure, where it will be stored forever, accessible by everyone and anyone.

All illegal and being sued etc. however, three is something hinky about academic publishing. Knowledge is a public good, such research papers are meant to be read to spread it and almost all of the research was tax funded to boot. It does seem odd there’s a there’s a few gatekeepers waxing fat of the journals.

22 thoughts on “What a marvelous idea”

  1. I’ve been moaning about this for years. Academics are always insisting that knowledge should be free, it’s a public good, and so on, but then only let insiders see the actual knowledge.

    The journals were originally just a way for gentlemen scientists to communicate with one another. In an age of internets and so forth, is there any reason that journals should continue to exist at all? It’s one of those, “If it didn’t already exist, would you invent it now?” things.

  2. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Of course their major cost is the fees to the peer reviewers. Oh, wait, they do that for free. So what exactly are they charging so goddamn much for?

  3. Point I’ve made here before. Universities & their academics aren’t for disseminating knowledge. Never have been. They control & restrict knowledge.

  4. The scientists themselves have incentives. Getting your paper published on crappyfreejournal.zz is nowhere near as prestigious as being published in Nature etc.

  5. But it’s only prestigious because their peers say it is prestigious.

    If the scientists of a particular community decide that from now on, they’ll publish in free journals then the prestige of the old paid-for one will soon evaporate.

    When I was looking up the URL for the Elsevier boycott, I stumbled across this from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cost_of_Knowledge:

    In 2006, the nine editorial board members of Oxford University’s Elsevier-published mathematics journal Topology resigned because they agreed among themselves that Elsevier’s publishing policies had “a significant and damaging effect on Topology’s reputation in the mathematical research community.” … In 2008, the Journal of Topology started independently of Elsevier, and Topology ended publication in 2009.

  6. “So what exactly are they charging so goddamn much for?”

    Quite, the actual cost of hosting must be approaching trivial by now. If AWS don’t already offer cheap ultra-low-access file storage they soon will. The access layer on top isn’t going to cause anyone to break a sweat.

  7. For all I know there are still journals that will charge you for publishing your paper. I say “charge you” – your research grant will presumably pay it if you happen still to have a relevant one.

  8. Any scientific research intended to influence public policy should be freely available to everyone, including data, assumptions and all information necessary to recreate the findings, so the science can be properly tested and debunked.

    Of course that’s a pipe dream as governments don’t want science, they want stuff they can use to pursue their policy goals. Policy first, evidence after.

  9. @dearieme: Paid journals that charge to accept a paper are basically vanity publishing for junk science.

    The old model for reputable journals was free publishing, charge for subscriptions. This made sense when all communications were on dead trees, physical copies had to be sent to multiple reviewers, possibly several times as changes were made, and then physical copies of the (very glossy and often heavy) journals had to be sent to a small number of subscribers around the world and many months delays between submission and final publishing were acceptable.

    There are two newer models coming in. One is the author(s) pay for publishing and/or self host (costs usually coming out of the relevant grant or fund), journals are online only, submission to available is as fast as reviewing allows, everything done electronically. The other is the arXiv.org model – everything is a pre-print, publication is instant and reviews are done post publication online by the community with no anonymity. For fast moving subjects, where a month old paper is a historical document, the arXiv model is the best, and personally I consider the reviewing to be more honest.

  10. There is some administrative cost in having a journal. An editor picks through submissions and decides which are important enough to include, someone has to coördinate peer review (select reviewers, send out pre-prints, make decisions when the reviewers disagree, return to the author and agree changes, etc), someone has to do layout. If there’s a paper copy, then there are printing and distribution costs too.

    Lower-level journals should be printing anything they receive that passes peer review (that way negative results get published, removing that excuse from the pharma industry), which removes the editorial filter element of the journal, but there still isn’t zero cost involved. Not much, though.

    More importantly, as many people have pointed out, most research is grant-funded. If the grant included a small amount for publication costs, then things could be published in an open-access journal. PLoS, one of the more expensive open-access publishers, tends to charge between $1500 and $3000 per paper – this includes a cross-subsidy element so papers from researchers in poor countries can still get published.

    There aren’t many research grants for which that would be much more than a rounding error.

    And it would align cost and benefit more closely – the researcher benefits much more from being published than the readers do from reading.

  11. “Paid journals that charge to accept a paper are basically vanity publishing for junk science.” That may be true now but it wasn’t when I started in research. There were respectable journals that had page charges.

    “The old model for reputable journals was free publishing, charge for subscriptions.” You are wrong: your claim is too sweeping.

  12. Well, we have a market out there that can tell us the price. And if you want to publish open-access, it will cost you, the author, in the region of $3000. I belive the costs at a journal like nature are rather higher (but borne by subscribers, mostly university libraries that get charged eye-watering rates, rather than the authors).

    There is a hybrid model where you pay for open-access to your papers in a prestigious journal. I know a lot of pharma companies use it.

    But I don’t think you are going to eliminate (or much further reduce from this point) the costs of publication. The only question is whos hould bear those costs – and again the market is telling us there is space for more than one model.

    Why Tim should think this should suck is beyond me.

    Oh, and I hate many of the scientific publishers, just that someone has to do the job.

  13. So…journal-subscribers get access to peer-reviewed and carefully edited papers, while the rest of us can read online papers that are not peer-reviewed and carefully edited.

    What’s the problem?

    None, until group-think appears. Consider “climate change”, where it is almost impossible to get a paper even remotely sceptical of AGW published in any major scientific journal.

  14. This is mostly not the fault of academics, most of whom are starry-eyed leftists who think all their research should be available to everyone, and should be read by everyone. (Exceptions include jargonistas who would be embarrassed by Joe Public reading their ravings, and scientists doing sensitive research.)

    Most academic journals, though, want to either cover costs, or even make a profit (esp. the Dutch ones like Kluwer and Elsevier). To do that they charge a subscription. That’s the simple explanation of why these things usually aren’t free.

    However, the opposition to journals that charge has been growing strongly in recent years within academia, and many academics have started up ‘open-access’ e-journals, which are free. With these the editors donate their time for free (like the reviewers, although many editors on the older journals also work for free), and there’s no print costs.

    There is now a very strong move within academia to force academics to publish in these open access journals. In fact many of the funding bodies are now making this mandatory, and the Research Exercise Framework is also attempting to do this.

    Basically, various bodies are trying to push this through and it looks like it will become mandatory within a few years in many fields.

    But the problem is that many of the most prestigious journals aren’t open-access. So on the one hand academics are being strongly pressured to publish in the best non-open-access journals, while also being pressured to publish in open-access journals, most of which are crappy. Like a lot of things in academia this doesn’t add up, although there’s also a side move in which strong pressure is also being applied to many journals and publishers to become open access. However, it’s not clear how many will survive doing this. Without subscription money many journals will simply go to the wall.

    Another method that many Unis are using is to put their academics’ published work in an ‘open access’ repository that anyone can see. But this involves paying the publishers inordinately large amounts of money for the permission to do so, so it’s not ideal. (Amusingly, many academics simply re-publish their published papers on their own websites without ever asking permission from the original journal to do so.)

    So the situation is a lot more complicated — and f*cked up — that it seems. The basic fact is that journals cost money, and apart from the likes of Nature there’s not much money in journals. There are some journals that have a stash of money already gained through some charitable donation in the past, and they can work their way through this money Guardian-style. But generally that isn’t there. Journals aren’t given lots of government money to function (there is a bit here and there, but generally not a lot). That’s a good thing, though. We want journals to be independent of government.

    Some already have institutional support, ie. they are attached to a University department, who provide some resources, but without the sub money these departments couldn’t afford to run the journal.

    And OUP and CUP aren’t about to give away their numerous journals, are they?

    It appears to me, though, that in the next decade open-access publishing will become the norm, simply because there is now so much pressure to do this. That would also suit the Universities in one way, because then they can stop having to spend so much money on journal subscriptions. But it’s going to cause a lot of problems for the journals, and not just the ones run by the Dutch assholes.

    Another issue is that Universitiy departments generally don’t give enough credit to their staff who spend their time editing, or associate editing, journals, or even reviewing. That means that many academics are reluctant to get involved in journals, because they are already overloaded with work, and this would mean even more of their dwindling spare time being spent on academic work. (And yes, academics do work long hours these days, so don’t go bringing up outdated sterotypes from 20 years ago about all the spare time academics have — there are still many valid criticisms you can level at academics these days, but being idle is no longer one of them.)

    I should add that peer review these days is mostly done by grad students, who get the papers for review passed.onto them by their profs, or by those with vested interests who choose to spend the time on peer reviewing in order to protect their turf, or help their friends.

  15. Yes it’s a scandal. The taxpayer funded the research, it should be available at cost price.

    What I found weird is when I read “popular” books at a normal price. Wanting to delve a bit deeper I look for the next one from the author, only to find it’s priced at £80 or $250 or whatever, without peer review or any other obvious cost inflation.

  16. My work involves research done by STEM profs (mostly math & engineering). I’m not a heavy user, only a few papers now & then. My experience is that profs are most helpful and happy to correspond with me about their work and have always sent me no-charge PDF copies as a courtesy, some of which have Copyright marks by publishers.

    There is a disturbing US case “ASTM, NFPA & ASHRAE v Public Resource” where the plaintiffs assert copyright ownership of their standards publications even when those standards become law. Public Resource has published their standards which have become law on-line for free. The plaintiffs charge $100s for their standards books and demand Public Resource stop making them freely available. It would cost many $1000s/yr to have all the standards needed to cover the US. Courts have ruled Copyright is not allowed for law as people need to have unlimited access to the law which they are compelled to obey under threat of fine & jail. So the plaintiffs lobbied gov agencies all over the US not to directly copy their standards into law but to write the laws as “such & such Standard by Reference.” The case against Public Resource is their publications are not the law, but only copyrighted material “reference by laws.” Everyone must still obey them. Their plaintiffs’ basic case is they write really good laws and if they own the laws they can afford to keep writing many more good laws.

    The non-profit, but very wealthy plaintiffs (some officers with salaries over $1M/yr) would easily have won already as Public Resource is a 1-man poor organization & the US is you pay your own atty fees & lose if you run out of money. PR only has a chance because atty’s are defending PR in the public interest, e.g. Electronic Frontier Foundation for defense & some University Law Profs have submitted briefs supporting PR.

  17. tex – we have a similar situation in the great white north and the Canadian Standards Association, which is attempting to assert copyright on the Canadian Electrical Code. The particularly galling issue is that the actual expertise to develop the Code (over 40 years) was donated time and labour of (public sector) electrical inspectors.

  18. It happens basically because bureaucrats fund the research. They’ve got no way to tell if work done is good or useful (how the heck do you tell if a paper in abstract topology is useful?) but they’re not allowed to just hand out free cash, regardless, so they invent metrics to decide who gets paid. The main measure they use is “number of publications in peer-reviewed journals, weighted by journal impact”, so of course the journals as gatekeepers on academic careers can ask for a slice of that free government money.

    If it was purely for the purposes of science, you’d have a central repository or two like archiv, some decent search engines to sort them by topic, quality, and importance, and a way for readers to add comments/reviews, and cross-link other papers confirming/refuting results. Administering such a website would cost peanuts (comparatively), and a bunch of universities could easily set it up and fund it as a joint project.

    But the basic problem remains – how do you fund science so that good science gets paid for and bad science gets driven out, without the system being trivially gamed, when most science is of a sort where the applications and benefits are not direct or immediately obvious?

    Markets fund industrial science – solve problem X cheaply enough for us to sell – not the blue skies stuff universities specialise in.

  19. The issue is one of branding. Academics would have you believe that they are selfless purveyors of knowledge. In reality they write papers to further their careers. Getting their name into ‘prestigious’ journals furthers their careers. There is no incentive for career driven academics to publish in free for all journals as it potentially damages their personal brand to be seen alongside the enormous amounts of dross or plagiarised rubbish which spouts out of academia globally. Hence the preservation of branded journals run by publishers who retain the quality and therefore prestige of the individuals who contribute. Like all branding, you are paying a premium in the belief that the publisher has eliminated the dross.

  20. Publications are positional goods, the more exclusive the journal the more the value of being published in it.
    There are traditional journals where the publisher is gatekeeper and has an interest in maintaining the quality because the quality is the value. There are Open Access journals, which would be a good idea (the funder pays for dissemination of research) if the quality could be maintained. And the are Predatory OA journals, hardly a day goes by without a barely literate spam landing in my inbox offering instant publication for a fee in a journal with fake issn and impact factors etc.

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