Under the current economic systems, Robin Hood would be jailed for at least a decade with a $100k fine hanging over him, if not more. Of course, he was taking something tangible, not digital, and helping out a people sorely in need. Today, he is heralded as a legendary provider of the people against the wickedness of a tyrannical monarchy, even though he only exists in fiction. His acts are summarized entirely by that simple phrase, “Rob the rich to feed the poor.” Is this an honorable phrase or one of a criminal?
Edward Snowden is in a similar, but modern lighting: He is heralded as a freedom-promoting informant by some and as a traitor by others, but you’re view of him depends on your personal world view and objectives. If you believe in strong government and ignorance is bliss, Snowden sacrifices loyalty to your homeland to give you information you could do without. If you believe the checks-and-balances system of the United States has failed, and that one day, the obvious political aristocracy (albeit being shaken up by Donald Trump) will sacrifice American freedoms on the altar of supremacy of the state, then Snowden is a standard bearer, even a hero. Is he justified in his actions? Depends on your viewpoint. He believed the average citizen had the right to know. Like Robin Hood, he took something from those in power and gave it to the people, and he was consequently chased away by the authorities. Snowden retreated to the land of Russia, where from comes our next actor to the theater of the present age. (Aren’t my transitions great?)
Digital age history has brought into play another character, Russian in origin (… er, make that “from Kazakhstan”), but no less human. Alexandra Elbakyan has risen to the stage as the standard bearer for academic freedom, but her actions have stirred up the ever pressing question: Is it Freedom or is it merely Piracy?
Elbakyan was a poor student who needed access to academic papers. Unfortunately, scientific papers cost alot of money, and they are guarded by pay-walls. (On average, I see prices between $16 and $35, and that’s after subscription.) (To be clear how expensive it can get, you could be spending thousands of dollars on papers in a month, as Meysam Rahimi found out.) So, like any typical Russian (imo), she programmed a hack. To be more precise, she created software to walk around the pay walls. Her efforts eventually led to her creating Sci-Hub, a site devoted to letting researchers rip research articles off popular pay-wall sites for free. (Nevermind the cost of bandwidth.)
Elsevier, publisher of tons of articles, took notice… and took her to court. Now, a few things must be said about this case. First, Elsevier, among other scientific journals, doesn’t pay authors as far as I know. That’s reason enough for many to not like them, but let’s admit that such practice is normal in the scientific community, and in fact many if not most scientists consider it an honor to be published. The scientific community has been like that for years, so no hurt feelings. The money itself goes towards ensuring papers are high quality. That’s nice, although I do need to segway for a moment to address this:
~ Some notes about Scientific Papers… ~
Scientific journals still hold bad papers. Open-access journals are not as bad as open-contribution journals, where people can publish anything (and consequently, you get alot of garbage). Review is good, so a reviewing papers to filter them out saves trouble for the rest of us. That’s how good scientific progress is made, although I’d like to see more connectivity in hyperlinks with regards to related papers. As it is, searching for related papers (including papers that verify the research of other papers) can be irritating at times, especially if they are on different sites that use different search filters.
Scientific articles are not always great science, paid article or not. You still have to use your brain to make sure the logic is sound. That said, paying for an article sort of gives this superficial notion that the article has been examined for scientific accuracy, and maybe it has depending on the publisher and the guys or gals in the department it was published in. Who knows.
From all this, it is important to note that we are not talking about bona-fide gold being horded. We’re talking about ideas that cost money to find out.
~ In the case of Elsevier ~
Back on topic, Elsevier has a case in that they do provide a service of quality. It is good for the scientific community at large to have, in some ways, gates. Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of Science Journals has some points to make in this regard. I won’t go into that, but in short: it’s only getting more expensive to publish papers, so there’s a reason for the heftiness of the price-tag.
The legal case, however, is a bit more complicated. Copyright law in the United States is funny. Ownership belongs to the author unless sold. As far as I know, no scientific journal forces authors to sign over all rights to their papers. That means that the copyright still belongs to the authors. And yet, here is Elsevier trying to legally go after Elbakyan. If you’ve been keeping up with the copyright news and software, one company should come to mind at this point: Rightshaven. A refresher on the story: Rightshaven was a copyright troll who went around suing people on behalf of the real copyright holders. The courts declared this action unlawful, effectively smashing the Rightshaven business model and turning the tide against any such middlemen. Assuming these are the legal grounds of the lawsuit, I don’t see Elsevier standing a chance. But as you know, the legal situation is always more complicated than the obvious, even if it really isn’t. Edit: I guess a New York judge agreed with Elsevier, creating an injuction against the site, but that’s nothing surprising from New York. Which is why Sci-Hub is “on the run” so to speak.
One other point of note is that many authors publish papers on their own personal sites. Rather than going to top journals, I have found a number of papers on university websites. Granted, the graphics aren’t pretty, the layout of the pages may be messy, there may be more typos, and so forth, but at least it is available.
I should also mention arXiv, whose rising popularity may have hurt Elsevier as much as if not more than Sci-Hub has currently (though that has probably changed as I speak).
~ Considering Morals ~
Whether what Elbakyan did is moral or not is an interesting question I’d like to discuss. Elbakyan is in a way the Robin Hood of Academia, although there are certainly some notable differences that ought to be pointed out. For one thing, Robin Hood was helping people live and eat. Elbakyan is giving them free access to something that is not necessary for their current survival, but may be necessary for survival in the future. For example, access to special articles on cancer may enable researchers to find cures faster.
One might ask: Who foots the bill, though? To be precise, today, research is funded by government grants, funding programs from private sponsors and companies, and your student bills, etc. But let’s assume for a moment that all of this is paid for (by somebody).
Is the taking of academic articles from being pay-walls without paying for them morally and/or ethically acceptable?
To answer this, I want to take several steps back, out of the American mentality of copyrights and piracy and civil rights and British occupation and so forth and so on, all the back to Biblical times. Whether you agree with the Holy Bible or not, at least hear me out – it has some points to make. Out of the Ten Commandments, one was “You shall not steal”. Beyond it’s simpleton expression, this command is so horribly ambiguous that it’s not even funny. What classifies as “stealing”? Does it mean taking something without asking? I have friends of mine who let me do that and they don’t consider it stealing so long as I bring it back. Plus, what happens if someone dies? If someone is buried with something, people consider it grave-robbing to take it out (unless, of course, it’s the state that does it), but if the property is above ground, somehow that means it’s fair game for the relatives. Obviously then, the “taking” isn’t really an innate part of “stealing”. It’s more of an assumed associated action.
Recorded in Scripture, God complains about the actions of His people many times related to the subject of physical property. Sometimes it involves taking, such as “devouring widows’ houses”, but sometimes it involves withholding, such as withholding wages or not caring for one’s brother or family. If we were to examine all of the commands of God to see what they lead up to, we would find, consequently, that the root of all sin is selfishness. Naturally, then gluttony and hording are as equally wrong as taking for personal gain. Therefore, my own conclusion is that stealing encompasses all such selfish possession, whether it be taking for the intent to keep for one’s personal use or refusing to share, without reason, even things that do belong to me. In it’s own way, this is a rather convicting thought. But no time for that now… back to academia!
~ Concluding Thoughts ~
If “stealing” is a kind of reservation at the expense of others, then one could blame all journals and papers with an expensive pay-wall from refusing to help the rest of society at a reasonable cost. However, if stealing is a kind of taking for oneself at the expense of others, no doubt the copying of articles being done by Elbakyan and the countless others using Sci-Hub is in that category, as it is hurting the employees of Elsevier.
If you are running a scientific journal, you might be wondering what can be done. Can it be helped? Can academic papers be made affordable? Or is the world of academia becoming too expensive?
That last question certainly rings true for most individuals who attended higher education in the past decade. As of now, college education has become the norm, but the trend may reverse as prices rise and student loan debt inflates. The benefits are drying up, and while schooling may still be prized, information is so much cheaper online. Academia will then suffer two-fold. First because information online can be horribly inaccurate, so quality of science will go down. Second, because many people will not attend schools as much, academia will have less money, and thus less influence, real or digital. On a positive note, I can see technical schools rising to fill the void of “higher educational institutions”.
Overall, I can’t say I agree or disagree with Elbakyan. While Elsevier is taking an approach that I
don’t didn’t believe they could win (not without help) and they are certainly not affordable, I still sympathize with their plight, and I don’t want to see academic journals reduced to data dumps no better than Wikipedia for the sake of cutting costs. (And maybe they’re lying, and it’s not as expensive as they claim, or maybe they only make a few pennies on the dollar. Who knows…)
That said, I believe there are better ways to obtain the information than simply siphoning off papers from journal sites. As I mentioned before, many papers are already on academic websites, and you can always look up the authors of a paper you want to read and, assuming you can find an email or a phone number, ask them if you can read the paper. Who knows – maybe some of them would say “Yes”. Some papers are not available elsewhere, and some people are hard to find. But polarizing this issue by making it a matter of freedom vs finances just redraws the same battle-lines we’ve already got elsewhere and doesn’t really help solve the problem.
Maybe humanity can finally sort this out, and we can avoid having another loss like Aaron Swartz.
~ As it is very late, this article may contain errors and incoherent thought, and thus may be edited at my discretion in the future.
Addendum: I’m very much in favor of automating processes for speeding up and simplifying the overall process of getting things published. I’m not aware of what the current obstacles are to speeding up the publishing business, so I’d love it if someone would pitch in.