The enemy of your enemy

The cost of knowledge

$13,000,000. No, that’s not Neymar’s  signing bonus. That’s how much the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) spent on access to electronic scientific resources in 2017. And what lavish prize does one claim for such a scandalous amount of tax payer’s dollars? One year of access to the results of publicly funded scientific research. I guess… how could you put a price on knowledge? And given this first-class ticket to scientific journal-access, what possible motivation could students at UPenn have to use the “pirate” website Sci-Hub? The simple answer is that they have more journals. Perhaps the real question should be, how does $13 million not buy you access to everything?

More information is locked up behind paywalls than ever before in history. (Kira Walker)


It’s true that the Russian-based website offers unparalleled access to scientific journals free of charge; by some estimates over 90% coverage of most major publishers. It’s also true that they’ve been sued twice, successfully, and ordered to pay over $20 million in damages to two of those publishers.

But that doesn’t seem to have slowed them down. Two years and countless domain names later, they’re still there, and for the general public, a world of knowledge is always only a few clicks away. But do we really need them?

According to recent estimates, roughly 75% of Sci-Hub’s usership comes from poor countries. Educational institutions in these parts of the world are not blessed with the endowment of UPenn. Thanks to Sci-Hub, their students and faculty have access to scientific research crucial to their academic and professional success. Perhaps better thought of as, our success.

Put simply, for some, Sci-Hub’s mission statement -“…to remove all barriers in the way of science”- is opportunity. Sounds noble. And strangely familiar?

Screen Shot 2018-04-22 at 14.29.02.png
“To remove all barriers in the way of science”- Sci-Hub (public domain)


A global movement

On the other side of the coin is Open Access (OA). OA is seen by a growing proportion of academia as the long term solution to “an absurd and broken publishing system“, but it’s far from a new idea. A quick glance at the Open Access timeline shows that it’s well over 2 decades in the making and picking up speed. And like any worthy cause, it has it’s champions.

peter suber
Peter Suber. Wikimedia (CCO 3.0)


Peter Suber is one of them. In his 2012 book Open Access he writes, “The idea is to stop thinking of knowledge as a commodity to meter out to deserving customers, and to start thinking of it as a public good, especially when it is given away by its authors, funded with public money, or both.”

But what is Open Access? A detailed description of the prevalence and impact of OA can be found in a recent study in the OA journal PeerJ. Its authors estimate that at least 28% of all scholarly literature is currently OA, and the most recent year analyzed (2015) also had the highest percentage of OA (45%). So clearly it’s on the rise. And, like your iPhone, it comes in different colors.

“Gold OA” is one of the fastest growing forms and refers to articles that are published in dedicated OA journals. Importantly, these are most often licensed for both read and reuse which is roughly equivalent to the popular “CC-BY” Creative Commons license. This allows the knowledge contained within to be used by professors when planning lectures or other researchers in their own work.

“Green OA” indicates articles that are published in “pay-for-access” journals, but are self-archived in repositories like ArXiv or those operated by universities. A growing number of subscription journals allow this, but usually following a waiting period; one year is common. Unfortunately, these articles are often licensed for read only, limiting their impact.

ResearchGate aka “Facebook for scientists”. UCSF library (public domain)

Another growing repository of green OA is the Berlin-based website ResearchGate where researchers are encouraged to connect with one another and self-archive their submitted papers. In its roughly 10 years of operation it has already proven to be an effective tool for sharing knowledge and boosting collaboration earning it the very exciting moniker “Facebook for scientists”.

Regardless of the flavor, the primary goal of Open Access is simple: to improve global health, fight disease and reduce poverty by maximizing collaboration. Increasing the availability and accessibility of scientific research is merely the first step in this process. When knowledge is wide open and allowed to flow freely through our increasingly interconnected world, our capacity to address the world’s biggest problems also increases. So what’s there to lose?

Actually, that may be the best part. The anticipated benefits for both science and society as a whole far outweigh the sacrifices necessary to realize this utopian notion. But, as is often the case, there are others with something at stake. Those that have worked hard to turn knowledge into a business stand to lose, and they aren’t going out without a fight. But many believe they are headed for a day of reckoning.


Paywalls prevent access to the results of publicly funded scientific research. (CCO 4.0)

A barrier to science

Expensive and elitist. Only concerned with profit. A barrier both within science and between academia & the outside world. These are just a few of the things being said around the world about “The Most Profitable Obsolete Technology in History”, the current academic journal publishing system. But is it really so bad?

More and more evidence indicates that the current model of subscription publishing is unsustainable. Rising subscription fees have consistently dwarfed inflation; rising an estimated 250% in the past 30 years. This trend has surprised many economic analysts who expected the advent of the digital age to lead to reductions in the costs associated with publishing, and allowed the biggest names in subscription publishing to quietly collect profits as high as 40% of revenue: significantly higher than the tech-giants Google, Apple & Amazon.

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The cost of 24 hour-access to a single article in the Elsevier owned scientific journal Cell. Screenshot. (public domain)

This raises two major issues. On the business side of the equation, 40% profits amounts to billions of dollars annually leaking into the private sector instead of being reinvested in education. But perhaps more importantly, as subscription rates climb higher and higher, the population of people who can afford to access the material locked up behind these “paywalls” shrinks. In notable examples, even two of the world’s richest universities, Harvard and MIT, have found the cost of access to academic publishing prohibitively high.

This frightening trend is damaging on several fronts. First, researchers suffer as the academic impact of their work decreases. Entrepreneurs and business leaders suffer as they face the growing difficulty of incorporating scientific discovery in the business world. And perhaps most of all, the general public suffers as the divide between them and scientific advancement widens.

There was a time not long ago when the pursuit of objective truth was considered a community service free from the corrupting nature of big business. To better understand the world was simply man’s prerogative, and to better understand each other was to the benefit of society as a whole. Why should that change?


The Gatekeepers of Science

Recently, the number of OA journals in existence has exploded. These newcomers to the market have done the unthinkable and made their business models and operating costs transparent. Many estimate their per-article costs to be as low $500. Many subscription publishers however claim they cannot estimate their per-paper costs, and the ones that do provide much larger numbers. In an extreme case, Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, estimates his journal’s internal costs at $30,000–40,000 per article.

Subscription publishers claim these extra costs are the result of their selectivity. Some boast publishing rates as low as 7%, and each rejected article drives up the price of the one eventually chosen. The end result is a snail-like filtration process in which articles are routed to their “appropriate” publication and a small subset inherits the added prestige of appearing in the most expensive journals. This, they say, is an essential service they provide and a great benefit to science. For it is only through their hard work, that we are best able to recognize good science.

While this point is certainly debatable, the counterargument is at least equally sound. Thanks to our never ending pursuit for technological advancement, our capacity to spread ideas is simply unprecedented. Modern filtration metrics like downloads, citations and posting & sharing on social media allow good science to more speedily and objectively stand on its own two legs. In the end, who do you think should decide what is and what is not quality science; the science community? Or major publishing companies?


The common goal

Open Access and Sci-Hub are two very different solutions to the same problem: difficulty accessing and sharing scientific publications. However, these articles are symbolic. Regardless of where you stand on the business side of things, the current system undeniably restricts access to knowledge, and as modern politics have taught us well, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Although, of far greater burden than its propensity for abuse, is our diminished capacity. With each passing generation we see more clearly that the challenges facing our species are global. Which means they’re BIG. So big we can’t reliably measure them. Which is roughly equivalent to saying; so big we don’t actually know that we can solve them. We simply cannot afford to work with a less than optimal strategy.

In the short term, Sci-Hub has demolished paywalls forcing open the world of information they had once concealed. And in doing so, turned a spotlight on the shortcomings of commercial publishing and the necessity for OA. But with mounting legal pressure, it’s clear that this “go for the jugular” approach is not sustainable. Sci-Hub, like us, depends on OA. That is the future.

Online petition against the academic publisher Elsevier. (public domain)

So what do we do next? Do we join the boycott? Call our congressman? Shout “cruel world!” from the rooftops!? (By rooftops I mean Twitter) Those are all options of course. But, like everything else in this world, we get what we want by demanding it.

For policy makers and administrators, that means removing roadblocks to facilitate the transition to OA. For scientists, that means practicing the principles of Open Science and choosing to publish in OA journals whenever possible. For entrepreneurs and business leaders, that means staying current on the rapidly evolving OA market and investing in its future. For the rest of us, our job is simple. Don’t settle for mediocre sources of information. Demand access to the results of the research you pay for. Demand knowledge.

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