IN 2011, DEVELOPER and researcher Alexandra Elbakyan launched Sci-Hub, an online archive that shares research articles freely and openly without paywalls or restrictions. Four years later, as the archive passed 48 million articles, academic publishing giant Elsevier filed a copyright infringement claim against the site. Sci-Hub has ignored an injunction to stop distributing copyrighted articles because it is hosted in Russia, beyond the influence of the US courts. A March 17 hearing offered little change to stem the flow of research articles flowing from Sci-Hub to eager researchers.
Sci-Hub is obviously committing copyright infringement, and publishers are calling on open access advocates to denounce the site. But saying that Sci-Hub is about copyright infringement is like saying the Boston Tea Party was about late-night vandalism. In fact, it’s a rebuke of the thoughtless, conciliatory acts of governments, institutions, and the public that are preventing the most valuable product of our society—human knowledge—from being freely available to drive discovery and innovation. And not just by the academic elite, but by all of us. Elbakyan’s civil disobedience has forced the issue on behalf of a society that continues to allow the knowledge it creates to be locked away from the public that pays for it. And it has the potential to disrupt academic publishing forever.
If it wasn’t so well-established, the traditional model of academic publishing would be considered scandalous. Every year, hundreds of billions in research and data are funded, in whole or in part, with public dollars. We do this because we believe that knowledge is for the public good, but the public gets very little access to the fruits of its investment. In the US, the combined value of government, non-profit, and university-funded research in 2013 was over $158 billion—about a third of all the R&D in the US that year. Publishers acquire this research free of charge, and retain the copyrights, even though the public funded the work. Researchers aren’t paid by publishers for their research as it’s sold piece-by-piece or by subscription through academic journals. The reviewers who evaluate the research aren’t paid either. So we pay for it, and then we have to pay again if we want to read it.
It’s in our nature to share, and in a crisis, it’s easier to act on that impulse. As we urgently seek a vaccine for the Zika virus, leading journals have stepped forward to make new findings free to all. It’s an admission that copyright barriers and paywalls restrict access and slow innovation. But these exceptions are rare, despite calls from the WHO and others to share research and data. Some argue that those at universities already have access, but who knows where the next discovery will come from? Einstein was a patent clerk, not an academic elite, and 100 years later we’re still proving his theories to be true—even the ones he thought to be wrong.
Public investment is a powerful and vital collective act—something we do together that we could never do individually. When we are at our best, we invest in discovery, share the results, and create the conditions for innovations wherever they can occur, even in the least likely of places. NASA is a shining example: The open source code that allowed NASA researchers to remove blur from the flawed images from the Hubble Telescope would later be repurposed for breast cancer screening. There’s no way anyone can know what research and data can reveal unless we set it free. Innovation can come from anywhere—not just academics—but only if we allow for a non-linear and unrestricted approach to inquiry and discovery.
When we push for more open access, publishers’ response is to charge the researchers to publish their own work. Publishers argue that they add significant value through peer review, editing, and distribution, and the prestige of their storied journals offers credibility. Many offer programs to allow some unpaid access to certain groups. In exchange, publishers claim the authors’ copyrights, and collect significant profit margins, sometimes as much as 30 percent. Publishers do add value, but that value doesn’t justify the cost or the lost opportunities for those who can’t (or can’t fully) access the research.
We need to change the model, not just tweak around the edges. An alternative system, where all publicly-funded research is required to be shared under a permissive license, would allow authors to unlock their content and data for re-use with a global audience, and co-operate in new discoveries and analysis. Works shared under a Creative Commons CC BY, or attribution license, for example, can be used in any way, so long as they are credited and linked back to the original author. CC licenses are the gold standard for open access to research, creating a global commons of content and data with over 1.1 billion licensed works that anyone can read, copy, and re-use. If the Web has achieved anything, it’s that it’s eliminated the need for gatekeepers, and allowed creators—all of us—to engage directly without intermediaries, and to be accountable directly to each other.
Publishers, governments, and leading foundations all know the current publishing model has to change. As it is with the oil industry, so it will be with academic publishing: The current model will end; it’s just a matter of when and how. The US government has moved towards more open access, but has also at times capitulated to publishers by giving them embargo periods before research can be made available and allowing research to be free to read, but not open to use—denying the access necessary for text and data mining. By contrast, the Gates Foundation recently passed a policy that all of their nearly $1 billion in annual research funding will require the results to be published free and openly licensed from day one. It’s an incredible act of leadership, and a strong statement that Gates’ focus is on creating the greatest public good with their significant investments.
There is a growing consensus that open access drives more and faster innovation and discovery, but some are still skeptical. In his final State of the Union, President Obama called for a “cancer moonshot,” and issued a challenge to double the rate of progress to cure cancer. So let’s do what scientists do and test our hypothesis—let’s open up all the cancer research and invite the world to meet the challenge laid out by President Obama. Napster’s Sean Parker just pledged $250M towards collaborative cancer research, but the US government funds nearly 10 times that amount every year: An average of $4.9B annually, but nearly all of that research will sit behind paywalls when it is published. Imagine if instead we said, “We will no longer conceal cancer’s secrets in paywalled journals with restricted datasets, and instead make all that we know open to everyone, so the world can join a global campaign to end cancer in our lifetime”?
Think of the the potential of students, citizen scientists, educators, researchers, corporations, non-profits, and more all working together on a grand global challenge that would benefit all of us for generations. I get inspired when I think about what we’d be capable of if we agree to work together without restriction. This is humanity at its most powerful, and we only need to unlock the research that we have already paid for to do it.
Autor: Tommaso Koch