The Ethics of Research Piracy

What do Kanye West’s newest album, Game of Thrones and millions of scientific research papers have in common? Not much at first glance, however, more often than not all three of these things are locked behind pay walls. Kanye West’s latest album is currently only available on the music streaming service Tidal and to watch Game of Thrones (in the US at least) you must have a HBO subscription. In the case of scientific research papers/journals you are forced to pay for the latest research on a paper by paper basis unless you, or the organisation you are part of pays a subscriber fee to have consistent access to journals. This is not the case for everyone. Elsevier is one of the largest academic publishers around and the cost to access one individual article is approximately $30. This is a staggering amount considering the amount of articles needed to undertake significant research. Costs can quickly mount, and when judging whether to pay for access to an article based on the quality of the abstract the costs incurred may not be money well spent.

However, as with most things on the internet, when things are stuck behind a paywall, the internet, like in most situations inevitably finds a way to make these resources freely available. Game of Thrones frequently breaks its own record for most pirated/illegally downloaded television programme with every passing series premiere, Kanye’s latest effort Life of Pablo was torrented more than half a million times in the first two days of release. In the case of those research articles accessible on a pay per a paper basis, due to the ingenuity, a neuroscientist from Kazakhstan, millions of these articles became freely available, no longer stuck behind the frustration of a pay wall. How was this achieved? Sci-Hub.

At time of writing Sci-Hub has a repository of over 48 million articles and scientific academic papers with more papers uploaded daily. Sci-Hub began as a direct reaction to the high cost of research papers stuck behind pay walls. The primary goal of Sci-Hub was to promote the spread of research and increase the spread of knowledge. Sci-Hub has been extremely popular, particularly with less affluent/privileged institutions and countries. However, much like pirating Game of Thrones and Kanye West this is an illegal act. Accordingly, one publisher, Elsevier, launched a legal case against Sci-Hub which resulted in the seizure of Sci-Hub’s original web domain with legal action still ongoing. Despite these efforts, Sci-Hub is still easily accessible under a different address.

The issue with Sci-Hub is the function and actions of the website are definitely questionable but you have many advocates insisting that the scientific knowledge and research contained within the millions of these papers should be freely available. However, when you get to the crux of the matter these acts are illegal. Copyright infringement is just like torrenting files from sites like the infamous Pirate Bay. The difference here is that there is an ethical argument that scientific knowledge should not be locked behind a paywall, that intellectual advancement should not be available to only those that have means to afford it. Alexandra Elbakyan has cited Article 27 of UN Declaration of Human Rights that states it is a basic human right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” as justification for Sci-Hub. However, there is no legal grey area here. Publishers such as Elsevier have the copyright to the research they have published and they can charge people to access it regardless of whether we feel it is right or wrong. How did we reach such a point that business model which is universally hated still continues to prosper?

If you wish to gain a good position in academia you have to publish research in high impact journal. Sometimes there will be a fee that must be paid by the author to ensure their work is published. However, the prestige achieved by having research published in a reputable journal with name recognition can provide all important career advancement. However, this leads to the majority of the research being stuck behind a pay wall if you wish for it to be published in a high impact journal. An alternative to this is open access journals. In theory open access journals are great. Much like larger journals open access journals will charge a fee to authors for publication, but after this everyone will have access to that paper, free of charge. The drawback of this model is that the quality control of open access journals is wildly variable. Publishing in one of these journals could result in loss of credibility for the author and when trying to achieve success in academia (i.e. positions of tenure) this can be a definite no-no.

This leaves authors/researchers wanting to achieve career success left publishing in high impact journals playing and paying by the rules that the publishers have set. By sending your work to one of these journals you agree that the journal retains certain rights, mostly copyrights. This helps to maintain the pay per paper model that so many despise.  This in turn has given rise to the creation of Sci-Hub and the opposition from publishing companies to the creation of Sci-Hub which continue to profit from this business model.

If you have read any of my previous blogs you will know I have written about the cost involved in being able to access the latest research evidence. My stance on this subject is rather conflicted. I consistently wish to better myself as a physiotherapist by taking part in evidence based practice but to do so I must consistently be able to read upon the latest evidence. Across multiple platforms it has been shown that if people are given the opportunity to pay a fair price for a service, more often than not they will. There will always be those who trumpet that knowledge should be free and readily available but I also cannot condone theft of intellectual property any more than theft of physical property. While I personally do not approve of the business model that is the norm at present, rules are rules and they must be obeyed. What has unfolded between Elsevier and Sci-Hub has shown that companies hate to compete with free and that people hate to pay over the odds. Eventually, there will be change.

Unfortunately, to facilitate this change it takes something inherently illegal like Napster, The Pirate Bay or Sci-Hub to change the rules of the game. Just complaining does very little to change anything. People only notice when someone attempts to do something of this magnitude resulting in the rules being adjusted accordingly.

What's at stake is the question of who has access to scientific knowledge: just wealthy institutions who can afford to pay for it, or anyone with an internet connection and a sense of entitlement?



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