Charting The Future Of Academic Publishing In The Digital Age – Forbes
Sci-Hub, an article pirating service, is one of the Webâ€™s best-kept open secrets. But lately, it has been in the news, transcending debates that usually involve a small band of academics, publishers, and open science activists. An item in Science Insider, for instance, speculated on the vastness of the siteâ€™s cache, as recently recalculated by Daniel Himmelstein. Quartz, picking up on the same publication, announced somewhat bombastically that Sci-Hub â€œcould bring down the whole establishment.â€ But what is Sci-Hub, who occupies its crosshairs, and why should anyone care?
Sci-Hub allows you to download research papers, even when they hide behind publishersâ€™ paywalls. Such articles are inaccessible to all but a lucky few who work in rich research institutions (like me) or can afford to purchase them independently ($29.95 is a common price). The service, therefore, challenges a pay-to-play mentality that has come to plague scholarship, running counter to the academic spirit of the free exchange of ideas. Unlike Napster, which was accused of undermining artistsâ€™ livelihood, Sci-Hub is mostly liberating research that has already been paid for, to everyoneâ€™s benefit. Everyone except academic publishers, that is, which is why they are the ones suing Sci-Hub, in keeping with their approach to science as a business.
How did we get here? For decades, even centuries, publishers provided scholars, learned societies, and universities with crucial editorial, printing, marketing and logistical services. Yet digitization, desktop publishing, social networks and the Internet, among other recent developments, have rendered some of these services redundant and reduced the cost of others dramatically. Publishers could still boast a well-oiled apparatus and brand recognition and they preempted wisely. Relying on scholarsâ€™ conservatism and addiction to prestige, and cashing in on institutional inertia, they not only weathered the storm but in fact became the global gatekeepers of academic research. Instead of disappearing into thin air, conglomerates specializing in academic publishing, including Elsevier, Sage, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and Taylor & Francis, began charging increasingly higher fees, which are currently estimated at $10 billion annually.
These and other publishers, including some major university presses, may have shielded and even increased their revenue streams, but they couldnâ€™t solve the basic problem. Embargoing the results of research, which is often funded by taxpayersâ€™ money, is not only inherently anti-academic, it also reinforces social and global inequalities, with devastating consequences to scientists and the public at large. The tiny club benefiting from huge subscription and processing fees has created, sometimes with the willing consent of academics, a situation whereby universities and governments are buying access to their own scholarsâ€™ work (including in the form of peer review and editorship) at prices even Harvard canâ€™t afford.
Universities and some learned societies may be complicit in this state of affairs, but at least they (still) have a budget to work with and some leverage when it comes to negotiating with publishing conglomerates. That is rarely the case outside European and North American academia. Journalists, foundations, NGOs and think-tanks that require similar access to do their jobs, myriad government agencies, legal and medical clinics in and beyond the global north, teachers and students seeking to educate themselves and expand their horizons, families facing an important medical or financial decision, and of course scholars across the world: unless they open their walletsâ€”againâ€”they stay separated from the insights of and debates among key experts. Millions thus turn to Sci-Hub, which circumvents the current system on their behalf, and in a manner declared illegal by a US court last June.
If you have a pressing need to read an academic paper thatâ€™s hiding behind a paywall, your quickest course of action may well be to use Sci-Hub. Less myopically perhaps, you should also ask the paperâ€™s authors why they continue to cooperate with those for-profit publishers whose high prices have made breaking the law your path of least resistance (ignorance, careerism, apathy, lack of alternatives?). You may also want to inquire with your local government or university how much they spend a year subscribing to journals that contain their own tax-paying citizensâ€™ and salaried employeesâ€™ research (millions), how these terms were negotiated (in secret, sometimes at the publishersâ€™ insistence), what impact that has on the free exchange of ideas (devastating), and whether that is a responsible way of spending public funds (hardly).
Perhaps the most important question, however, is what can be done to change the status quo and move towards a workable, sustainable solution? Sci-Hub is responding to a genuine injustice that has come aboutâ€”at bestâ€”through government incompetence, institutional inertia and scholarsâ€™ apathy. But saving science from the clutches of covetous publishers has to be accompanied by real alternatives for producing and sharing research. Sci-Hub offers nothing by way of publishing, curating or a social academic network; itâ€™s simply a search engine. If the current business model of publishers collapses due to Sci-Hub, how will scholars go on publishing quality research, and how will others find it? If your hopes are hung on venture-capital-backed sites such as Academia.edu or Research Gate, consider that their ultimate goal is to pay investors back, big time. As such, they can be bought at any moment by the highest bidder, ending even those services that ostensibly promote open science, as the examples of SSRN and Mendeley are beginning to reveal. That bidder? Itâ€™s most likely another for-profit publisher seeking to grow their market share.
Ironically, then, if publishing conglomerates continue to have their way, Sci-Hub may well starve them out of existence, since no one will need to pay their extortionate fees. For their de facto monopoly not to backfire, for-profits have begun to seek revenues elsewhere, for instance selling user data. This has potentially horrendous implications for the quality of research as traffic begins to outweigh it as a primary goal. For those who do not see research as a gateway to harvesting data for marketing, or at least recognize the inherent tension between the two domains, the most viable option is to sever the tie between academic research and profit-driven publishing. Creating sustainable platforms for scholarly communications, modeled for instance on the Open Library of Humanities (on whose board I serve) or initiatives such as Humanities Commons, will help keep costs low, membership robust, and revenues steady. Humanities and social sciences are latecomers to open access, but their comparatively low level of anxiety about quick turnover and â€œimpact factorsâ€ makes them perfect incubators for testing new ways to resist for-profit publishing and move beyond Sci-Hub.
Write a Reply or Comment:
You must be logged in to post a comment.