Friday, March 4, 2016

Let's Talk about Sci-Hub

I so badly don't want to go into the background of what Sci-Hub is. If you want to read more about what this is and why a lot of people's feathers are ruffled about it, you have many options. Here's the tl;dw (the w is for write) version: Sci-Hub is a repository of stolen research articles that allows users to get access to the usually pay-walled articles (translation: articles that need to be paid for to be read) for free.

That sounds good, right? In fact, I think (on the surface) it sounds pretty awesome. I've long said (and stood by it enough to make it my Twitter description bit): "Information (the good stuff) could save the world if only those who need it could find & access it." I'm strongly in favor of increased free access to information and pretty cranky at how inexplicably expensive most information is. Plenty of people writing about Sci-Hub are cranky about that and other things, but there are some points that everyone seems to be glossing over, missing, or not mentioning at all that I really want to get out and into the conversation. Let's discuss the players and the things being said about them.

Publishers. The Big 5 publishers, to be exact. They charge an arm and a leg for articles, journals, and cleverly designed journal packages. This is not good. Libraries aren't particularly well funded but are the ones who must pay for this stuff. When libraries can't afford it, they often offer inter-library loan but all the same get grumbles from researchers and students that things aren't immediately available. When publishers try to play the open access game, they charge often totally absurd fees to authors, and sometimes the library pays those, too. This is all ludicrous because the research that libraries are paying for their institution to read about was done by people at other institutions, many of them public. The institutions paid the salaries of the researchers, whose job it is to do research and, explicitly or not, to write about what they found. The research may additionally have been paid with public funds from, say, the NSF or NIH. So the publishers didn't have one thing to do with creating the research or paying for researchers to do it, but they're profiting from it. By wide margins. Really, really wide margins. I have no complaints about how Sci-Hub commenters have been painting the publishers. The Big 5, at least. Crankiness is deserved.

Sci-Hub. So Sci-Hub is making some folks cranky and others cheer for joy. The joy is due to the sticking-it-to-the-man-iness of it and, you know, the making stuff free. That's fine. Those are things to be joyful about. For the huge number of researchers who otherwise don't have access it's an invaluable service. The crankiness is for a few things. Firstly, what Sci-Hub is doing is definitely illegal. Not only are the articles generally owned by the publishers, but they are stealing log-in credentials from people at universities to get the articles through the libraries' subscriptions. It's that latter thing that makes me cranky, and not just because of the security risks involved. And this is the point that I don't think others have really driven home that upsets me most: Sci-Hub still relies on the broken publishing system we have. Sci-Hub requires that publishers keep publishing stuff and libraries keep paying for it. This is not a solution. It also has the potential to exacerbate the problem as publishers could certainly raise their prices claiming the need to recoup the costs lost to Sci-Hub.

Another major problem that isn't being talked about as much as it should be is how Sci-Hub joins libraries paying the bill and access to ILL in obscuring the extent of our broken system from the privileged researchers who, ultimately, are the ones who could fix it. If they have access to everything they need, and everyone else has access, too, then they don't need to change their behavior, right? Spoiler alert: They do need to change their behavior.

Last but not least, Sci-Hub's founder and runner, Alexandra Elbakyan is upsetting me by tweeting and commenting on things about how she's making these works open access. Sci-Hub is not making anything open access. Things that are open access are not stolen and not under the copyright that these works are under. You don't have to steal open access works because they were born free. Don't believe this nonsense that having your work in Sci-Hub means you've met public access or open access policies set by your funder or your institution. There are legitimate ways to make your work open access like publishing in open access journals, paying author fees to make your work open access in a closed access journal, or self archiving in reputable IRs.

Libraries. There's some crankiness at libraries for a few reasons. I'm biased, because I am a librarian, but I think a lot of this is over-blown or unfair. First, libraries pay the Big 5 publishers for their content. This is largely true, but, really, we don't have a choice. As stated previously, researchers and students want and need access to these articles and grumble when they don't have it. We can't just not subscribe, even if Sci-Hub exists (because Sci-Hub needs our subscriptions to get its own content, remember). We could probably have been doing a better job at not getting as entangled with publishers in the first place, but we can't really fix the past yet, can we? Next claim for crankiness: libraries haven't done enough to get the Open Access thing going. We've been yelling about this for years. Since 1994 at least. We have events. We have workshops. We have scholarly communications librarians sending emails to people everyday asking them to publish open access. The truth is no one listens to librarians (that's why everyone thinks we're so quiet). We'll talk more about this point in a second. Finally, libraries are taking flack for being either too for or against Sci-Hub. We teach people about copyright, so we're pretty well aware that, from a legal standpoint, Sci-Hub is doing something wrong. But we also like information to be available to as many people as possible. So, yeah. I'd say most of us are a little conflicted. I'm not that conflicted. And that's due to our final, least often discussed player here.

Researchers: Meet me at at camera 3.

I love ya. But you're the reason the publishing system is broken.

You're the ones who could and should be insisting that you keep your author rights (remember when I said the publisher probably owns the article?) so you could archive a copy of your work in a reputable, open repository -both things a librarian has probably offered to help you with at some point.

You're the ones who should be publishing in open access journals to begin with whenever you can afford it. A librarian could easily point you to good ones that aren't scams. There are lots that aren't scams. You library might even have a fund to pay those fees for making it open for you.

You're the ones who, at the very least, could be critical thinkers when looking for places to publish. A journal with a high impact factor might seem like the best choice, but if that journal publisher has questionable business practices (like not giving free or discounted access to lower income institutions or developing countries or having 30+% profit margins) or if your library can't afford to pay for it - find a different publisher! You could totally ask an acquisitions, electronic resources, or scholarly communications librarian about it if you aren't sure. Librarians know stuff and are generally nice.

You should be talking about this with people in your discipline, trying to find new ways to publish stuff. Look at physics and You're not totally off the hook, physicists, but good job with arxiv. Don't stop using it.

And, to those of you on promotion and tenure committees, why are you using impact factors and h-indexes for rating researchers anyway? These are deeply flawed metrics and a librarian has probably told you that, too. Shouldn't we be rewarding people for doing research well and making their work available to help other people make more discoveries? Isn't that the point of science? When did it become a secret club that only people at wealthy universities in wealthy countries could partake in? Doesn't this all seem crazy to you? I bet a librarian or two has been trying to tell you this makes no sense for a long time. Maybe it's time to listen to them.