The Exploitive Business Model of Academic Publishers Fuels Piracy

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For many researchers, a publication in a high-impact academic journal is the holy grail. However, this goal comes at a price. Authors often have to sign over their copyrights to major publishers, who put the research behind a paywall. This model is detrimental to science, according to Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan, who remains determined to break the stranglehold.

A few years ago I reached out to an academic researcher, asking for a copy of a paper that was just published in a prominent journal.

We regularly report on piracy-related research and many of these papers are hidden behind paywalls. Researchers are often willing to share a review copy, but not always.

Giving Up Copyrights

In this case, the author was very reluctant to share the article. While he would like to see the work covered by a news site, he feared repercussions from the publisher. Why? Because like most researchers, the author had to give up his copyrights in order to be published.

To outsiders, this may sound bizarre. Why would the person who came up with the idea, did the research, and wrote up the results, have to give up the copyrights? Welcome to the world of academic publishing.

While there may be some exceptions, the majority of the “high impact” academic journals are owned by for-profit publishers. These earn billions of dollars, in part by charging academic institutions for access. Yes, the same institutions that pay the researchers.

Paywall Barriers

To make matters worse, the paywalls prevent less fortunate academics from accessing the work of their colleagues. In some cases, researchers even find their own articles behind a paywall.

These billion-dollar companies essentially have a stranglehold on science. While copyright is supposed to “promote the progress of science,” the major publishers restrict access to millions of people, mostly in developing countries.

This system has led to a situation where academic researchers actively use ‘pirate’ sites to access research literature. For many academics, Sci-Hub has become the go-to site for unrestricted access to scientific papers.

The Sci-Hub ‘Threat’

Needless to say, the publishers are not happy. Companies such as Elsevier, Wiley and Springer Nature are taking countermeasures. US Courts have ordered Sci-Hub to pay millions of dollars in damages and publishers are actively trying to have the site blocked by ISPs.

The most recent blocking attempt is currently taking place in India. Despite the mounting pressure, Elkabyan refuses to give up what she stands for and continues to push back.

Sci-Hub Founder Highlights Publisher Problems

In a recent interview with the Indian news site The Wire, Elbakyan neatly summarizes the “exploitive” business model of the publishers.

“The careers of researchers depend on journal publications. To receive funding or secure positions at the university, a scientist must have publications in ‘high-impact’ academic journals,” she notes.

In other words, the research only ‘counts’ if it’s published in high-profile journals, which are often controlled by large corporations. Putting exactly the same paper on a university site is pointless.

The publishers essentially have a monopoly on science. A pretty healthy one as well, because all the hard work is done by people they don’t have to pay.

Publishers are Organizers, Not Creators

“Researchers do the actual work: they invent the hypothesis, do the experiments and write the articles describing the results of these experiments. Then they publish this article in an academic journal,” says Sci-Hub’s founder.

“Publishers send articles they have received to other scientists for peer-review. Reviewers give their opinion on whether the work should be accepted in a journal or not, or if some additional work must be done. Based on these reviews, the article is published or rejected.

“Both reviewers and scientists work for free. They do not earn any compensation from the academic publisher. Here, academic publishers work as organizers of the academic community, but not as creators. The work of the academic publisher is organizational and not creative.”

Progress of Science

That last comment hits the nail on the head. While there are probably many nuances, most people would agree that the researchers are the real creators here. They are the definition of the “progress of science.” Paywalls certainly aren’t.

That brings us back to the author I requested a paper from a few years ago. After repeated requests, also to the publisher, I never managed to get a copy. The paywall worked, but does that help science?


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