Developing story: Steal or be robbed

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

-Aaron Swartz, Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

Twitter has been filled with news of SciHub the last few days. In case you missed it, SciHub is a website (created by Kazakhstani researcher, Alexandra Elbakyan) that bypasses journal paywalls and allows users (illegal) immediate access to millions of academic papers. Or as Big Think explains 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. —Simon Oxenham

This, of course, is not the first time that independent researchers have gone after the heavily guarded research holds of large commercial publishers. Aaron Swartz attempted it with JSTOR at MIT, researchers via Twitter used #icanhazPDF to skirt around paywalls, and others (intentionally and unintentionally) posted their own work to systems, like, without thinking about agreements with their publishers.


SciHub website (likely blocked in your area)

The intention is pure, if not noble. Research is often done at the expense of federal or state dollars and then sold by publishers like Elsevier at high costs. In turn, the expensive subscriptions are paid for by the same federal or state dollars that supported the research in the first place. (Example: a university hires the researcher, provides the lab, and then buys back that researcher’s research in the form of an academic journal subscription.) The problem, however, is that Elsevier, and other large publishers, have and WILL win the legal battles. Not only does Elsevier have a large legal team with seemingly unlimited resources ($$$), but more importantly it has a signed publishing agreement for every research article. These publishing agreements transfer copyright to the publisher and give authors few rights.*

While sources like SciHub and hashtags like #icanhazpdf may solve the immediate need (researchers getting access), it may not solve the larger systemic issue of publishers, like Elsevier, becoming the copyright holder of so many research articles. What we, especially as librarians, need to do is further educate researchers about the importance of author rights and promote the use of an author addendum. SPARC has a great webpage and an addendum that authors can submit along with their manuscript to assist in retaining copyright.

Perhaps the movement just needs #icanhazaddendum…


*For subscription journals.



3 thoughts on “Developing story: Steal or be robbed

  1. “The problem, however, is that Elsevier, and other large publishers, have and WILL win the legal battles.”

    But the problem for Elsevier is that they have no way to enforce a judgement against someone in Russia. Which is bad news for them, but good news for people trying to get some actual research done.


  2. Pingback: Developing story: Steal or be robbed | Center for Digital Scholarship

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