High academic journal prices justify sharing of articles illegally

Jacob Schmidt

Last October, Russian neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan was indicted by a New York district court for creating a website that illegally uploaded over 47 million scientific journal articles to the web. Her case highlights the growing tension in the scientific community over the unfair business practices of journal publishers, which charge upwards of $35 a pop for articles that authors submit pro bono.

“[It’s] just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research,” Elbakyan said in an interview with TorrentFreak. “Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation.”

Enter Sci-Hub, Elbakyan’s website that has been deemed “the Pirate Bay of science.” With hundred of thousands of articles viewed each day, Sci-Hub gives students and researchers access to crucial resources they otherwise couldn’t afford. Many say they wouldn’t have been able to complete their masters thesis or lab project without it.

But the battle for “the right to knowledge” is far from over. Elsevier, the publisher that filed against Elbakyan’s website in October, won the case. Sci-Hub switched Internet domains to avoid being shut down.

“Sci-Hub, a pirate website, provides an example of how researchers create a ‘work-around’ to get access to research behind paywalls,” said Lorraine Haricombe, vice provost and director of UT Libraries. “The system is broken. I think we will continue to see increasingly bolder steps to create a work-around.”

But even institutions as large as the University of Texas are struggling to pay the massive fees for journal subscriptions. “The pricing of academic journals creates an ongoing challenge to maintain the rich depth and margin of excellence of UT Libraries’ collections,” Haricombe said. “We are losing buying power due to inflationary costs of approximately $600,000 per year. Lack of access to these resources will ultimately affect the research, teaching and learning as well as the status of UT Libraries as a Tier 1 research collection.”

The publish-and-pay model is losing steam as more scientists and researchers switch to open access platforms, but the change is not happening fast enough. Publishers such as Elsevier will not relinquish their market dominance without a fight.

“Society depends on universities and research organizations for new discoveries. It makes sense that the archival record of that research and ideas should be made available to the benefactors, or taxpayers, of that research,” Haricombe said.

She offers a list of ways to help restore accessibility to knowledge:

“Know your rights as an author;

Retain the rights you want to use and develop your work without restriction;

Deposit the final peer-reviewed manuscript in an open access repository (e.g. Texas ScholarWorks);

Develop an open access policy that commits the UT community to disseminate research and scholarship as widely as possible, to the people of Texas and the world.”

Support Sci-Hub and the open access movement on Facebook, Twitter and through a petition to Elsevier.

Schmidt is a physics and aerospace engineering sophomore from Austin.