By Stephen Wyber, Policy and Research Officer at IFLA (stephen.wyber[at]ifla.org)
Sci-Hub is a free and open repository of some 50 million academic articles, almost all of which are copyrighted. It obtains its content, it appears, by using log-ins from people signed up to academic institutions. There is debate as to whether these log-ins are handed over voluntarily or through phishing.
Using this log-in information, Sci-Hub then allows visitors to find and download articles using a simple search interface. These visitors, who download 200 000 articles a day, come from all over the world, frequently from institutions that have access to subscriptions. Sci-Hub has been described as the Napster of scholarly publishing.
No-one is claiming that Sci-Hub is legal. However, Alexandra Elbakyan, its founder, has made the moral case for its existence, by letter to the New York court where a major publisher was seeking to take the website offline. Like Napster and the music industry, Sci-Hub poses a serious challenge to the scholarly publishing system where publishers and libraries have co-existed for years.
Clearly the current publishing business model is undermined when it is possible to avoid paying them to access their content. But Sci-Hub also risks doing librarians out of a job. Libraries face existential issues when there are alternative ways of accessing copyrighted works for free. In the short term, it means fewer users. In the longer term, it undermines the information supply chain in its current form.
So, what is the appropriate response?
For some, it is anger. Copyright offers a number of exclusive economic rights to authors. Under the traditional model, they then sign these over to publishers, who invest in editing, organising peer review and publication, and promotion, and in return collect revenues from sales. For Sci-Hub to take the fruits of these efforts and make them available for free creates a lot of indignation. It has seen publishers engage in an ongoing court case to have the site taken down and its creator arrested.
For some in the library world, it is jealousy. Libraries are institutions operating under the law, and on a budget. It is understandable that they can feel envy for Sci-Hub, with its simple interface, near-complete repository, and cavalier disregard for copyright as (unfairly) doing a better job of providing free and universal access to knowledge than they often can.
For others, there is despair. A short piece in The Lancet sets out the quandary facing a doctor who needs to update their knowledge ahead of an operation. The price of accessing a single article, outside a subscription, is still beyond the reach of many, especially in countries which are just above the thresholds set for free access. For people like this doctor, the choice may be between risking infringing copyright, and risking a life. While this is a particularly dramatic situation, the issues raised by Sci-Hub turn the balancing role of libraries – providing remuneration to creators and free access to users – into a conflict. Enough to drive cause a conscientious librarian to despair.
But a call to arms? Rather than defence (or resignation), there are a number of offensive options on the table.
The seemingly unstoppable rise of Gold Open Access offers one possibility, as long as it is designed in a way that does not limit the potential to publish to those institutions rich enough to pay high Article Processing Charges. The conclusions of European Ministers in the spring, calling for all European research to be open access by 2020 shows the way. If scholarly articles are available to all for free, the argument goes, demand for Sci-Hub falls.
Sufficient legal clarity to allow for document supply between libraries, within and across borders, is another. This can never replace a full subscription to a journal, but fills in gaps on an ad hoc basis. Given its non-commercial nature, and the inadequacies of a licence-based solution (as evidenced by the British Library’s failed Non-Commercial Document Supply service), an exception to copyright is clearly in order. Once again, giving access to articles this way could offer an answer to the doctor, student or researcher otherwise tempted to use an infringing copy.
Finally, and more generally, there is the argument that the sustainability and continued legitimacy of the copyright system would be best served by focusing not on maximising short-term profits, but on building the widest future production and consumption of information and knowledge possible.
We’d be interested to hear your reactions.
Image credits: The photo was taken by participant/team Sheila as part of the Commons: Wikipedia Takes Manhattan project on April 4, 2008. CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported.