Open access: returning science to its true essence

The private publishing industry is keeping science a secret. For Elbakyan (creator of Sci-Hub) and many other advocates of open-access science, this privatization conflicts with the nature of scientific discovery — communal and revolutionary.

It was in 2011 when student Alexandra Elbakyan decided to create Sci-hub, a shadow library website that provides access to scientific research papers locked away by paywalls. Elbakyan, a Kazakhstani programmer and neuroscientist, was a frustrated student who needed to complete a research project. Outraged by paying USD 30 per article (only a couple dollars short of Kazakhstan’s 38 dollar monthly minimum wage at the time), she found a way to pirate the papers to complete her studies.

A decade later, 40,000 daily users have now used Sci-hub to obtain access to paywalled articles and are considered by the research community as an indispensable tool. In the span of six months, the site received 28 million download requests from both poor and rich countries. Because of its widespread use among researchers, multiple publishers decided to sue the site and its founder for copyright infringement. Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS), two of the biggest publishers in the world, filed lawsuits against Sci-hub in 2015 and 2017, resulting in a USD 20 million fine that she has yet to pay. Ignoring the courts’ judgments, she proceeds to spread knowledge from a new overseas domain.

Since 2019, Sci-hub is yet again being sued in India for the same issue. Amidst the court case, Sci-hub’s Twitter account was suspended by Twitter for violating its policy against promoting “counterfeit contents.” The said account contains numerous testimonies from Indian scientists, researchers and professors who support the site, claiming the site empowered their careers as researchers, doctors and scientists. Before the suspension, Elbakyan intended to use these tweets as part of the defense to the court.

The possibility of the site winning the case increases due to the country’s Copyright Act of 1957 stating that fair dealings such as teaching and research are exempt from copyright. If the site wins, there is a chance that the increasing cost of journal subscriptions will decline. Everyone, at least in India, will be free to download research papers on Sci-hub. On the other hand, losing the case will mean the end for the website in India, keeping academic papers with limited access for their researchers. Whatever the case is, it is guaranteed that the whole academic community will be affected.

The great wall of subscription

The creation of the scientific publishing industry was all not-so-thanks to the infamous fraudster Robert Maxwell. He was a media baron who came up with a way to make a huge profit out of other people’s labor at almost no expense to him. A well-known owner of multiple publishers, Maxwell realized that he can make scientists work for him without spending a penny. He plastered this capitalist business model with the name “a perpetual financing machine.” After his death, it was revealed that he stole $600 million worth of employee’s pension funds from his companies. 

Maxwell sneakingly managed to keep the ball of the industry rolling by selling his company to Elsevier before his death. As if passing the baton of capitalism, Elsevier has since implemented the same business model. In 2019, Elsevier revenues reached $9.8 billion. 

Academics send their research articles, which are mostly taxpayer-funded, to publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley, and Sage to publish. One may think that researchers get to earn by sharing their knowledge to these companies, but as a matter of fact, researchers who contribute to these journals don’t get paid at all. Instead, they often have to pay fees to get published in a journal. Additionally, peer reviewers, or the people who check for errors and edit articles don’t get paid either. 

The people who work without pay for publishers are often volunteers with the intent of obtaining experience in their careers. One of the main reasons why they spend their time and contribute without compensation is job security. Aside from developing their skills, being able to work under a big publisher is a chance for more citations. Many believe that generating citations is one way to build reputation in the scientific community. Listing these kinds of journals in a scientist’s curriculum vitae is one step higher in the academic ladder of recognition. In other words, working under these commercial publishers can secure their job, growth, and development.

After a quality check, academic works will then be distributed through the publishers by selling them to other researchers, libraries, and universities – oftentimes the same institutions that researchers and peer reviewers hail from. Publishers are making insane profit from distributing academic articles, and then sell them back to the same institutions that fund their authors. Ironically, these institutions have to spend vast amounts of money to access the work authored by their own academics. 

One cause as to why big publishers like them can put an exorbitant price tag on scientific articles is because of a monopoly. The plaintiffs of the Sci-hub case — Elsevier, Wiley, and American Chemical Society— own around 40 percent of all the existing journals in the world. A chunk of a university’s budget is dedicated to journal subscriptions and the cost is increasing by 5% each year. For instance, the cost of a one-year subscription to the Journal of Computational Physics is USD 8320 (approximately PHP 425,000). This is just one journal, and a university must subscribe to multiple ones from different fields of studies to support their researchers and students. UPLB, for example, subscribes to at least 31 journals, including ScienceDirect and Scopus both owned by Elsevier. 

The private publishing industry is keeping scientific knowledge secret which can only be unlocked for a $350 yearly subscription fee. For Elbakyan and many other advocates of open-access science, the privatization of science conflicts with the nature of scientific discovery. While major publishers consider Sci-hub as a “threat to science”, what Sci-hub is actually threatening is the publishing industry. Instead of spending thousands of pesos for a single journal, most of the members of the academe acknowledge and use alternatives, like Sci-hub and other similar-working shadow libraries. As Elbakyan put it, “open science is returning science to its true essence.” 

The ideological battle behind

Elbakyan agrees to being called the “Robin Hood of Science” only if the main idea is social justice and not robbery. Inspired by the communist ideology from a young age, she believes that knowledge should not be an intellectual property, but a common one. Unfortunately, the scientific publishing industry operates opposite this – the whole system is parallel to a bully forcing you to give him your notebook full of notes, expecting you to buy it back from him so you can study and pass your exam. Elbakyan’s battle for communism in science led her to create Sci-hub. For her, the site is a communist project and eventually became one of the most fundamental tools in contemporary research, while also being a revolt against private property and capitalist fraud.

The twisted legacy left by conman Robert Maxwell had led to years and years of profit for publishers and suffering for researchers. The model was specifically made to amass sums of money and it has accomplished this to date. Publishers operate through capital which is mostly the intellectual input of the public. Money is what makes the cycle of knowledge going for the industry, not the pursuit of science. 

The lawsuits against Sci-hub may have troubled the academic community, but the struggle for open science goes beyond civil matters. The war for open access is not only a fight for free knowledge, but also a battle between ideologies. Elbakyan considered Sci-hub as a revolt against capitalism, by way of communal scientific knowledge. Losing the lawsuit means putting the great wall back between the academic community and the knowledge that they wish to produce. With the hindrance of paywalls, the development of scientific information may slow down and remain in the hands of private institutions and corporate funders. On one hand, losing the case also means continuation of capitalists making profit off of other people’s work.

Knowledge is power, and power does not equate itself with exclusivity and privatization.  For Elbakyan, open science returns science to its true essence. That is, to unravel the secrets of nature notwithstanding private property and copyright.  [P]

graphics by Leojave Anthony Incon

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