Two years ago, writer Simon Oxenham at Big Think broke the story of Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan dubbed the “Robin Hood of Science”. Elbakyan started SciHub, which bypasses journal paywalls to provide illegal free access to anyone who wants them, in 2011. Elsevier, one of the biggest names in academic publishing in the world, has testified that SciHub was harvesting articles at the rate of thousands per day–Elbakyan stated that it was more like hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to more than 19 million users. Oxenham wrote that, with a database of over 48 million articles in 2017, “Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge.”

Many see Elbakyan as a crusader against an industry that has been unfair since large corporations took over academic publishing. Academic authors are not paid for their contributions, yet Elsevier has an annual income of over $1 billion US dollars; most academics have no choice but to publish in journals owned and operated by these international corporations as they are required to do so to obtain tenure. As Oxenham pointed out in a follow-up piece, virtually every step of the academic publishing process is carried out by volunteers, including editing, reviewing, and production. Journal paywalls make it impossible for people working as social workers, nurses, chemists, or planners to access the latest developments in their field–as they are no longer students or researchers at a university that pays hefty journal subscription fees. Many journals have introduced Open Access options in the past two decades, and about 70% of them do not charge authors publication fees to guarantee that readers can access their articles for free. The rest compound the problem by charging authors hundreds or thousands of dollars per article to be published.

Originally created for a very practical reason–universities in Kazakhstan couldn’t afford journals’ high subscription rates, which is no surprise since even Harvard and Cornell have been unable to keep up–SciHub was built upon the practice of sharing final or pre-publication versions of the articles with fellow researchers. Elbakyan was forced to find pirated articles this way as a student, being unable to afford to pay for every single article she needed to read. Having left Kazakhstan to work in computer security in Moscow for a year, she went to the University of Freiburg in Germany in 2010 to work on a brain-computer interface project. Returning to Kazakhstan and frustrated with the #icanhazPDF approach researchers had to use to find papers through Twitter, she used her coding and hacking skills to create SciHub, which automated the process and made it much more efficient. The process couldn’t be easier to use–just find the article you want to access and then add SciHub’s complete URL. Elbakyan operates the website from Russia using varying domain names and IP addresses.

As Oxenham pointed out, Elbakyan seems to have picked up the baton from Aaron Swartz, the genius inventor of RSS, Creative Commons and co-founder of Reddit. Swartz met a tragic end through suicide after he downloaded the entire contents of the JSTOR database and was beset upon with 13 wire-fraud felony charges. Though Swartz and Elbakyan never met or were aware of each others’ work, they seemed to share some common goals.

In 2015 Elsevier brought a case against SciHub. After Elbakyan’s story was published on Big Think in February 2016 and several other media outlets jumped onboard, Google blocked SciHub’s access to Google Scholar. John Bohannon at Science called SciHub “an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.” In a default judgement on June 21, 2017, a New York district court awarded Elsevier $15 million for copyright infringement by SciHub and the Library of Genesis (LibGen) project, where Elbakyan was posting content harvested by SciHub. But Elbakyan lives outside the court’s jurisdiction and does not have any US assets, so she can’t be forced to pay even if she could.

Where does that leave our female Robin Hood? Nature named Elbakyan, who calls her mission “scientific communism”, one of the top ten people who matter in science in 2016. As Ian Graber-Stiehl wrote on The Verge a few months ago, the publicity from the case only made SciHub more popular. It is now the biggest Open Access academic resource in the world, with over 64 million articles. Didem Kaya Bayram and Furkan Akyurek at TRT World called SciHub “a game changer for the industry”, arguing that even if it collapses, it shows that the current model of academic publishing is broken and publishers need to change their business model to stay relevant. This victory, shadowed by Swartz’s and her own legal problems, is offset by Elbakyan’s need to stay in hiding–she now studies the history of science at an undisclosed location, and will probably never be able to visit the US. Her role in ushering in a new academic publishing era is firmly established.

 

8journalsAcademic publishers have had a stranglehold on university libraries, faculty members and graduate students for decades: though many have high rejection rates and slow response times, publishing in academic journals remains an important component of tenure review processes and obtaining grant funding for future research. A number of recent developments are sure to have big impacts on the world of academic publishing–and surprisingly, these changes are all about costs rather than the accelerating digital exchange of information.

In the past, many academic journals were developed and housed within university departments, like the Canadian Journal of Urban Research operating out of the University of Winnipeg. Now Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley own most of the more than 20,000 journals and account for about 42% of all journal articles published. Published articles are only available to those with subscriptions–typically university libraries and some of the larger public libraries. In recent years, open access options have increased, but most publishers charge authors publication fees to guarantee open access–retaining the standard option (publishing an article that can only be accessed to those who pay for the extremely expensive subscriptions) at no cost to authors. Many researchers working within universities support their work through public grants and other funding sources, which means that the output of publicly funded research is often locked behind a firewall of elitism and capitalism. A number of individuals have rallied against this practice, notably internet crusader Aaron Swartz, who pushed to make publicly-funded documents freely available and was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011 for downloading nearly all of JSTOR’s catalogue of publications. Since Swartz’ suicide in 2013, many of the mega-publishers have allowed short-term public access to their articles.

Faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, and Ph.D.s act as reviewers and editors as well as authors, as part of their salaried/funded work. Publishing articles, that is going through the tedious cycle of writing and revising to address reviewers’ concerns, takes up a significant amount of time–a recent article in The Guardian stated that researchers waste an estimated 15 million person hours annually on unpublished submissions to scientific journals. As I’ve written before, there are all sorts of other issues with spending a year or two to publish research findings that can now be shared instantly online.

As early as 2003, the first glimmerings of change in the centuries-old academic publishing practice began to appear: universities, who initiated the peer-reviewed publishing process in the first place, began to opt out of the system. Several announced that they would be cancelling subscriptions to these mega-publishers, beginning with Cornell University (2003) and the University of Illinois (2004). In 2012, Harvard University announced that it could no longer afford the increases in already high subscription fees charged by major journal publishers–which cost the university an average of $3.5 million per year. Harvard’s advisory council noted that many journals make profits of 35% or more, and prices for online access to articles increased 145% from 2006-2012 with some journals costing $40,000 or more. In an article in The Guardian, Ian Sample wrote that Harvard would be encouraging other universities to abandon their subscriptions, encourage their professional associations to take charge of publishing, consider submitting their work to open access journals, and consider resigning from editorial boards of journals that are not open access. The article quoted Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a US-based international library membership organization: “Other universities are likely to follow Harvard’s example on this. If it starts at a university with the stature of Harvard, they will take a long hard look at whether this is something that makes sense for them to do as well. People watch Harvard. There’s no grey area there.”

The same year, more than 14,000 academics joined a boycott of Dutch mega-publisher Elsevier in protest at its journal pricing and access policies. The website The Cost of Knowledge, prompted by frustrated mathematics professor Tim Gowers at Cambridge University, allows researchers to register their protest against the publisher. In a 2012 blog post, Gowers wrote that he would no longer submit or review articles for any journal published by Elsevier. Like the Harvard action against mega-publishers, Gowers’ stature as a Fields Medal winner and that of his institution had an important impact on the boycott.

In Canada, Brock University announced that it would cancel its subscription to its package of 1,363 journals published by Wiley-Blackwell on December 31, 2014. Brock stated that the cumulative effects of annual price increases and the higher American dollar are forcing them to make this decision. Students will still be able to access back issues from 2002-2014, and can get access to new articles through free interlibrary loans.

Can universities–faculties, students, and administration–adapt to new forms of publishing, such as open access? Will publishers be willing to trim down the costs of subscriptions to these journals? Universities have already moved to non-traditional forms of teaching and seem to be slowly replacing tenure-track positions with precarious, lower-paid adjunct positions. Is publishing in peer-reviewed journals, one of the last bastions of academia, finally crumbling?