Whatever else Sci-Hub may or may not be, it’s becoming apparent that it functions as a litmus test. It focuses people’s thoughts on the problems of scholarly communication, and draws out their ideas in their clearest form.
For example, on one side, you have Duke librarian Kevin Smith, whose radical thoughts about Sci-Hub are radical in the literal sense of the word: going to the root. He goes back to what the actual purpose of copyright is — To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts — and discusses the consequent moral and legal standing of copyright:
Laws come in different forms and carry different kinds of moral authority. Lawyers distinguish, for example, between illegal acts that are “wrong in themselves” (malum in se) and those that are only “wrong because prohibited,” or malum prohibitum. […] Copyright infringement is, of course, the latter; a violation of the law but not of any moral imperative. Such a law merely enshrines a decision about the distribution of resources, and it can be changed without causing the collapse of human society. Precisely the kind of situation where acts of civil disobedience to provoke discussion and change are most supportable.
Very interesting stuff, and carefully argued. While it would be overstating things to say that Smith is pro-Sci-Hub (at least based on what he’s said in the linked post), he is certainly sympathetic. Maybe more important, he’s interested in what Sci-Hub has to tell us about the present situation in scholarly communications.
At the more radical end, we have Björn Brembs, who writes of Sci-Hub As Necessary, Effective Civil Disobedience. He points out that while twenty years of careful, polite negotiations with publishers have won only slow, incremental progress for the open-access movement, Alexandra Elbakyan has simply blown right past the barriers. He characterises her as a David taking on the Goliath of Elsevier:
Collectively, these two decade-long concerted efforts of the global OA community, to wrestle the knowledge of the world from the hands of the publishers, one article at a time, has resulted in about 27 million (24%) of about 114 million English-language articles becoming publicly accessible by 2014. Since then, one single woman has managed to make a whopping 48 million paywalled articles publicly accessible. In terms of making the knowledge of the world available to the people who are the rightful owners, this woman, Alexandra Elbakyan, has single-handedly been more successful than all OA advocates and activists over the last 20 years combined.
Let that accomplishment sink in for a minute.
There’s no ambiguity about where he stands:
Clearly, two decades of negotiations, talks and diplomacy have led us nowhere. In my opinion, the time to be inclusive has come and passed. Publishers have opted to remain outside of the scholarly community and work against it, rather than with it. Actions of civil disobedience like those of Aaron Swartz and Alexandra Elbakyan are a logical consequence of two decades of stalled negotiations and failed reform efforts.
But is it fair to characterise publishers as enemies? I’ve done it myself, and been criticised in response by publishers (not that I accepted that criticism). But have things changed since 2012? Have scholarly publishers started to come round to the idea that they have been entrusted with a mission rather then merely handed a cash-cow?
Sadly, publishers’ responses to Sci-Hub do nothing to suggest any softening of their position. Unsurprisingly, The Scholarly Kitchen is leading the way — not so much with its posts (a mostly pretty thoughtful piece by Angela Cochran, and a more reactionary one from Joe Esposito) but with the comments.
A PDF is a weapons-grade tool for piracy: a fixed document that can be passed around the conversational channels of the Internet without alteration (it is the Portable Document Format, after all).
But it’s in the comments that things get really weird. Even the usually reliable David Crotty writes Elbakyan off as:
… a criminal [who] visits a professional forum and tries to spread misinformation in an attempt to justify her criminal actions to the very people she is stealing from.
A grotesque misrepresentation that is not worthy of him.
How about mounting a “denial of service” attack on her website? What would she do–go to court to challenge such action?
Seems ironic that DoS attacks would be illegal against sites that are themselves illegal. If those harmed cannot fight back, what are they to do? Gee, maybe drone attacks? Hire Blackwater operatives?
(To be fair, in a later comment he claimed that the latter part of this was a joke; but it should give pause that it’s not easy to tell. As far as I can tell, the suggestion of a DoS attack was deadly serious.)
In response to Boris’s description of the problems of getting copies of older papers — especially those whose authors have died, so can’t be asked for copies — David Wojick offers perhaps the most bizarre suggestion of the thread:
Boris, I suggest you try to get a grant to dig up these old papers.
The comments on the second piece are, in places, simply inexplicable. Harvey Kane asks, apparently with a straight face:
In what manner are publishers and holders of copyright denying anyone access to their materials?
He argues that access is not denied because:
I can go to my local university library with my drivers license in hand and access all their holdings and all the holdings they have access to.
For a person in a third world country lack of access was and is a matter of economic decisions on behalf of the government in power.
Got that? Because magic building syndrome provides a “solution” in Kane’s case, the lack of even that stopgap for third-world researchers can be ignored because it’s the fault of their own country.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about that. From this perspective, it’s more important to obey a copyright law which is achieving the exact opposite of what it was intended for, than to help a third-world researcher struggling under an oppressive government.
But as before, it’s David Wojick who takes the biscuit:
I personally doubt that there are large numbers of people who (1) have the expert knowledge required to read and benefit from the scholarly literature but who (2) cannot find a way to access what they need. The arguments I have seen to this effect are completely unconvincing.
This is one of the fundamental fallacies of OA, namely that non-experts should read journals. […] Only a few people can understand the typical journal article. (Local government officials are certainly not among them.)
This is the kind of arrogance and elitism that makes so many people want to throw up their hands and walk away completely from the encumbents in scholarly publishing. That leave people wanting to say “Well, screw you then” and go straight to Sci-Hub. I find it literally incredible that the Everyone Who Needs Access Has It myth still lives on in some minds. If all the people on Who Needs Access? and the millions like them truly mean nothing to publishers, then I guess the publishers mean nothing to them, either.
But the last word undoubtedly belongs to Joe Esposito:
I do not agree that unaffordable access is a problem for many. Access is a privilege of membership (e.g., being a student at a university), not a right. Can we stop this debate now and simply agree that we have no common ground upon which to base a conversation?
No common ground? That’s certainly how it looks. (Björn Brembs’ response to this comment simply takes Esposito at his word: Academic Publishers: Stop Access Negotiations.)
As previously noted, my position on Sci-Hub has been “Heck if I know”. It’s complicated. Sci-Hub offers real value, and also poses a real danger. There is no reliable way to estimate how great either the value or the danger is, so it’s hard to land on a firm position.
But I’m getting there. Reading recent pieces, both for and against, is helping me start to condense the cloud of ideas into some more solid and defined thoughts.
I found it very helpful when David Crotty pointed out that parents of sick children can gain some free access through PatientInform and PatientAccess. It crystalised my thoughts. It made me realise that, as with HINARI and its kin, we’re seeing a very fundamental problem here. All these programs, laudable though they are, amount to special boons handed down from on high by the grace of publishers who still maintain ultimate control. Researchers, teachers, doctors, parents and all the rest are reduced to the status of peons, going cap in hand to the almighty publishers in the hope of picking up some of the scraps from under the table. That is simply not acceptable.
Sandy Thatcher rightly says “It is not the purpose of private enterprises to serve the public interest; it is to serve the interests of their stockholders”. That is precisely why private enterprises must not be handed control over scholarship.
What we see at the Scholarly Kitchen is that Esposito’s post is the work of someone who believes the whole purpose of scholarly publishing is to make money for publishers. At least you have to credit him for not hiding his position: as he’s argued before, “Scientific and technical publishing is a business.” But we simply cannot entrust the critical process of scholarly communication to people who don’t, or won’t, see that it’s a mission — and that the publishers are servants of that mission, not its masters.
So all in all, I am finding myself increasingly lacking in sympathy for publishers whose arrogance and sense of entitlement doesn’t generate a lot of warmth; and increasingly inclined to be positive about Sci-Hub, which ultimately is about providing something that people need.
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