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Who Owns Scientific Knowledge?

Pirate websites offer millions of scientific articles for free. A court case in India could decide whether for-profit gatekeepers can shut them down.

By Payal Dhar

Is access to science information a human right? [Credit: Shutterstock, Sharaf Maksumov]

When legality trumps ethics it is society’s loss. A court case in India, pitting the upstart pirate websites Sci-Hub and Libgen (Library Genesis) against the global giants of peer-reviewed publishing, should help decide a critical issue: whether scientific information should be available only for a fee, or available free to citizens who are already funding it with their tax money and to the rest of the world.

As repositories of tens of millions of research papers and other scientific articles, many of them normally available only behind paywalls, the pirate sites do technically venture beyond copyright laws. But in doing so they also reveal, as Mr. Bumble of Oliver Twist fame discovered, that the law is sometimes an ass.

Publicly funded research routinely ends up in journals that cost thousands of dollars a year to read. This barrier to access cuts off poorer institutions, independent researchers, and the general public from the scientific insights “protected” by this very profitable system. Websites like Sci-Hub and Libgen give readers free access to these resources without a commercial interest of their own.

Yet both sites are currently being sued in India for copyright violation by Wiley, the American Chemical Society, and Elsevier, all well-known publishers of academic journals. This is not the first time big corporations have tried to shut the websites down.

Sci-Hub was first sued by Elsevier in the United States in 2015 in one of the most significant copyright cases of this century. In that case, the legal system ruled that Sci-Hub infringed on Elsevier’s copyright, handing down $15 million in fines. This was followed by lawsuits in Europe, which led to Sci-Hub domains being blocked by ISPs in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Russia, Belgium, and France. Both Sci-Hub and Libgen are also on the European Commission’s piracy watch list.

Even though Sci-Hub’s founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, has never appeared in court or paid the fines, the URL has been blocked or deactivated several times. However, the website endures, thanks to mirrors and proxies. (Sci-Hub and Libgen are constantly changing their URLs to stay one step ahead of challenges, keeping the doors open through ever-shifting domains worldwide.)

The issue, however, is not whether the sites are guilty of copyright violation. The real question is this: Why is peer-reviewed scientific research, much of it funded by taxpayers, locked up behind paywalls in the first place?

Academic publishers argue that their long-held subscription-based models are essential to protecting the sanctity and quality of scientific knowledge. “Pirate sites like Sci-Hub threaten the integrity of the scientific record,” says a statement from the publishers that have been pursuing Sci-Hub in India for years. “They compromise the security of libraries and higher-education institutions, to gain unauthorized access to scientific databases and other proprietary intellectual property, and illegally harvest journal articles and e-books.”

Elbakyan, who started Sci-Hub in 2011, sees it instead as a solution to the problem of access to research literature for those unable or unwilling to pay heavy subscription fees. A researcher and computer programmer from Kazakhstan, she worked in Russia, Germany, and the United States When she came back to her country, however, she found herself hampered by restricted access to background publications and decided to do something about it.

She based Sci-Hub on the philosophy that scientific knowledge should be freely accessible to everyone and rejects the idea of copyright for scientific and educational resources. Paywalled access is “a great threat to science,” Elbakyan wrote in an email to Nature in 2021, adding that this threat is exacerbated when a whole body of scientific knowledge becomes the private property of big corporations.

If knowledge is held behind paywalls, then it is only accessible to people who have the money.

I

n the current Indian case, the petitioners contend that aside from illegally publishing copyrighted information, the sites also compromise the security of university and personal data. They want Sci-Hub and Libgen completely blocked in India.

“The argument of the petitioners is that [Sci-Hub and Libgen] will destroy science, it will destroy research, and it’ll destroy innovation,” says Lawrence Liang, a law professor at Ambedkar University Delhi and cofounder of the Alternative Law Forum, now working behind the scenes on the defense team for Sci-Hub and Libgen. “And [the defense] is saying, on the contrary, it’s actually what enables science.”

Yet a decision in an earlier case, at the Delhi School of Economics, leads many to believe that the Indian court may rule in Sci-Hub’s and Libgen’s favor. In 2012, three international publishers sued the University of Delhi and a photocopy shop on its premises for alleged infringement of copyright. The shop had been producing study bundles comprising photocopied sections from various textbooks. These were sold at nominal rates to students who could not afford to buy the entire books. The case was eventually dismissed by the Delhi High Court in 2016 after a judgment favoring a progressive interpretation of the fair-use provisions of copyright for education and research.

The argument that paywalls are necessary to preserve the sanctity of knowledge collapses under scrutiny. “Open communication is [a] fundamental property of science,” Elbakyan wrote to Nature in 2021. “It makes scientific progress possible.”

Shahid Jameel, a virologist at Ashoka University in Sonepat just north of Delhi, concurs. “If knowledge is held behind paywalls, then it is only accessible to people who have the money,” he says. “So that really pushes the knowledge systems more toward universities and institutions that are rich, which essentially means [institutions] in the developed world.”

He calls academic publishing the perfect scam. “Journals which are charging so much money, what have they put into the system exactly? The knowledge is generated by the researcher. The work is usually funded by either public money . . . or maybe some philanthropic foundation. All the work is peer-reviewed by [unpaid] experts . . . The authors also have to pay charges or article processing fees,” Jameel continues. The journal may claim to increase the reach of your research, but given the reality of a paywall that keeps so many out, he adds, “that isn’t true.”

Protestors in Ukraine in November 2018 attend a rally for transgender rights, one protestor holds a sign that reads first gender will be banned, then Sci-Hub, in Ukrainian.
Demonstrators attending a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, on November 18, 2018, want transgender rights and access to the pirate website Sci-Hub: "First gender will be banned," the placard reads, "then Sci-Hub too."

The publish-or-perish model of academia is the lifeblood of large publishing monopolies and their “authority of knowledge,” according to Liang: “It’s a self-serving system in which a handful of publishers maintain tight control” over knowledge.

Researchers who publish in these journals and have access to their archives benefit the most. Continuing exclusivity even gives them a leg up when it comes to the performance reviews on which their jobs and salaries are based. In short, it is a self-serving system where insiders benefit by keeping outsiders out.

Ntasha Bhardwaj, a researcher at Rutgers University, agrees that merely publishing is not enough. It is an elitist system, she says, in which publication in the “right” places represents your academic rigor. “This whole thing is like intellectual masturbation, where we’re in this ivory tower just enjoying each other’s work but there’s no real-world consequence.”

Although publication in reputable journals can ensure accuracy and accountability, it also places barriers to entry that only the most privileged researchers can overcome. To be published in a journal of standing, researchers may have to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars, which is prohibitive for scientists in low- and middle-income countries. Moreover, paywalls mean that they lack access to their own intellectual property unless their institution provides it. Whether a potential reader is a student, researcher, teacher, or journalist, access is often granted on the basis of one’s ability to pay—typically at least $2,000 per year for a single journal subscription and up to $6,700 for some medical journals.

If you’re in the global South, turning to “piracy” becomes imperative. For example, as a science journalist based in India, I often depend on the kindness of strangers: fellow writers willing to use their access to institutional subscriptions or the ability to afford subscriptions to pull out research papers and other material essential for background research. The high cost of access puts scholars and writers from the global South at an immense disadvantage given the difference in the value of currency. Even a $10 fee can be prohibitive outside the United States and Western Europe. Without the likes of Libgen and Sci-Hub, untold numbers of researchers, students, journalists, and anyone else with an interest in scientific knowledge would be locked out.

It is a self-serving system where insiders benefit by keeping outsiders out.

Access to information has long plagued academics and researchers in India. Aqsa Shaikh, a community medicine specialist who teaches at Jamia Hamdard University in Delhi, says that when she was studying medicine—before the era of Sci-Hub, “we needed almost 20 to 30 medical books per year . . . and a lot of these foreign authors’ books would be $50 to $100—not possible for us to purchase. So we used photocopies in our entire medical education.”

Fast forward to 2022, where the internet and specialized apps tend to function as the great equalizers. “From photocopies we have shifted to PDFs,” Shaikh notes. “You have academic WhatsApp groups [in which] PDFs of [text]books are shared.” Now, when students find out that they can access a paywalled article for free, there is really no moral or ethical dilemma for them.

In countries like India, only the top universities can afford to subscribe to relevant journals or have enough copies of books. “When it comes to smaller universities or those in far-flung areas, they can’t afford to subscribe because some of these subscriptions can be worth millions of rupees,” Shaikh says.

The pandemic has narrowed access for innumerable students and faculty members, no matter where they live. This is because individual students often lack independent remote access to databases; instead, they must be physically on site, at the university library, to retrieve documents. Since in-person visits to libraries has been impossible for many over the last two years, access to information is further curtailed.

While people all over the world have trouble gaining access, it’s more difficult in the global South. Ayushi Nayak is a Ph.D. student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, studying prehistoric human activities that have led to the hyper-diversity on the Indian subcontinent today. She has worked outside India her entire career and finds a stark contrast in how things are for her compared with her collaborators based in India, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka. She doesn’t need a resource like Sci-Hub for now, but she knows she will if she exits academia but continues her research—“because I can’t be pouring a million dollars into just accessing information.”

Nayak finds the pay-for-knowledge model frustrating. “It really highlights all of the inequities that already exist in how science is done across the world,” she says. “Despite our lofty ideals about how science should be free and democratic and easily accessible, the way that we mostly operate is completely contrary to that.”

The industry needs big disruptions, agrees Shaikh, and one of the ways to shake it up is to reject the exploitative models that judge and gatekeep academic knowledge. She believes governments should take up the matter to enable access through public funds as a long-term, sustainable strategy to improve access to research knowledge. For instance, under the One Nation, One Subscription plan proposed in India in 2020 and still under review, the government would negotiate with scientific publishers to set up nationwide subscriptions, rather than many agreements with individual institutions. That way, scholarly literature would be accessible to everyone in India for free.

It's worth paying attention to this kind of trend. The "One Nation, One Subscription" model is catching on in other countries, and open access laws are gaining traction even in Europe. This is a policy approach that people can support regardless of where they live, and one that would benefit free inquiry around the world.

You can’t stop piracy through legal decisions or technological control.

“Under review” and “undecided” seem to define the state of play. After numerous hearings since December 2020, there is still no end in sight to the lawsuits India. A ruling in favor of Sci-Hub and Libgen here would add to the increasing international pressure for fundamental reforms opening access to scientific research. Until then, pirate websites will remain a symptomatic relief to a rot that spreads deep into the system.

Piracy is not a moral failure, Liang says; it is a market failure. You can’t stop piracy through legal decisions or technological control. “The only way that you can win over piracy is through market correction.”

April 21, 2022

Payal Dhar

is a freelance science and technology journalist living in India.

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