Some Thoughts on Academic Publishing and “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone” from Science | AAAS

Who's downloading pirated papers? Everyone by John Bohannon(Science | AAAS)
An exclusive look at data from the controversial web site Sci-Hub reveals that the whole world, both poor and rich, is reading pirated research papers.

Sci Hub has been in the news quite a bit over the past half a year and the bookmarked article here gives some interesting statistics. I’ll preface some of the following editorial critique with the fact that I love John Bohannon’s work; I’m glad he’s spent the time to do the research he has. Most of the rest of the critique is aimed at the publishing industry itself.

From a journalistic standpoint, I find it disingenuous that the article didn’t actually hyperlink to Sci Hub. Neither did it link out (or provide a full quote) to Alicia Wise’s Twitter post(s) nor link to her rebuttal list of 20 ways to access their content freely or inexpensively. Of course both of these are editorial related, and perhaps the rebuttal was so flimsy as to be unworthy of a link from such an esteemed publication anyway.

Sadly, Elsevier’s list of 20 ways of free/inexpensive access doesn’t really provide any simple coverage for graduate students or researchers in poorer countries which are the likeliest group of people using Sci Hub, unless they’re going to fraudulently claim they’re part of a class which they’re not, and is this morally any better than the original theft method? It’s almost assuredly never used by patients, which seem to be covered under one of the options, as the option to do so is painfully undiscoverable past their typical $30/paper firewalls. Their patchwork hodgepodge of free access is so difficult to not only discern, but one must keep in mind that this is just one of dozens of publishers a researcher must navigate to find the one thing they’re looking for right now (not to mention the thousands of times they need to do this throughout a year, much less a career).

Consider this experiment, which could be a good follow up to the article: is it easier to find and download a paper by title/author/DOI via Sci Hub (a minute) versus through any of the other publishers’ platforms with a university subscription (several minutes) or without a subscription (an hour or more to days)? Just consider the time it would take to dig up every one of 30 references in an average journal article: maybe just a half an hour via Sci Hub versus the days and/or weeks it would take to jump through the multiple hoops to first discover, read about, and then gain access and then download them from the over 14 providers (and this presumes the others provide some type of “access” like Elsevier).

Those who lived through the Napster revolution in music will realize that the dead simplicity of their system is primarily what helped kill the music business compared to the ecosystem that exists now with easy access through the multiple streaming sites (Spotify, Pandora, etc.) or inexpensive paid options like (iTunes). If the publishing business doesn’t want to get completely killed, they’re going to need to create the iTunes of academia. I suspect they’ll have internal bean-counters watching the percentage of the total (now apparently 5%) and will probably only do something before it passes a much larger threshold, though I imagine that they’re really hoping that the number stays stable which signals that they’re not really concerned. They’re far more likely to continue to maintain their status quo practices.

Some of this ease-of-access argument is truly borne out by the statistics of open access papers which are downloaded by Sci Hub–it’s simply easier to both find and download them that way compared to traditional methods; there’s one simple pathway for both discovery and download. Surely the publishers, without colluding, could come up with a standardized method or protocol for finding and accessing their material cheaply and easily?

“Hart-Davidson obtained more than 100 years of biology papers the hard way—legally with the help of the publishers. ‘It took an entire year just to get permission,’ says Thomas Padilla, the MSU librarian who did the negotiating.” John Bohannon in Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone

Personally, I use use relatively advanced tools like LibX, which happens to be offered by my institution and which I feel isn’t very well known, and it still takes me longer to find and download a paper than it would via Sci Hub. God forbid if some enterprising hacker were to create a LibX community version for Sci Hub. Come to think of it, why haven’t any of the dozens of publishers built and supported simple tools like LibX which make their content easy to access? If we consider the analogy of academic papers to the introduction of machine guns in World War I, why should modern researchers still be using single-load rifles against an enemy that has access to nuclear weaponry?

My last thought here comes on the heels of the two tweets from Alicia Wise mentioned, but not shown in the article:

She mentions that the New York Times charges more than Elsevier does for a full subscription. This is tremendously disingenuous as Elsevier is but one of dozens of publishers for which one would have to subscribe to have access to the full panoply of material researchers are typically looking for. Further, Elsevier nor their competitors are making their material as easy to find and access as the New York Times does. Neither do they discount access to the point that they attempt to find the subscription point that their users find financially acceptable. Case in point: while I often read the New York Times, I rarely go over their monthly limit of articles to need any type of paid subscription. Solely because they made me an interesting offer to subscribe for 8 weeks for 99 cents, I took them up on it and renewed that deal for another subsequent 8 weeks. Not finding it worth the full $35/month price point I attempted to cancel. I had to cancel the subscription via phone, but why? The NYT customer rep made me no less than 5 different offers at ever decreasing price points–including the 99 cents for 8 weeks which I had been getting!!–to try to keep my subscription. Elsevier, nor any of their competitors has ever tried (much less so hard) to earn my business. (I’ll further posit that it’s because it’s easier to fleece at the institutional level with bulk negotiation, a model not too dissimilar to the textbook business pressuring professors on textbook adoption rather than trying to sell directly the end consumer–the student, which I’ve written about before.)

(Trigger alert: Apophasis to come) And none of this is to mention the quality control that is (or isn’t) put into the journals or papers themselves. Fortunately one need’t even go further than Bohannon’s other writings like Who’s Afraid of Peer Review? Then there are the hordes of articles on poor research design and misuse of statistical analysis and inability to repeat experiments. Not to give them any ideas, but lately it seems like Elsevier buying the Enquirer and charging $30 per article might not be a bad business decision. Maybe they just don’t want to play second-banana to TMZ?

Interestingly there’s a survey at the end of the article which indicates some additional sources of academic copyright infringement. I do have to wonder how the data for the survey will be used? There’s always the possibility that logged in users will be indicating they’re circumventing copyright and opening themselves up to litigation.

I also found the concept of using the massive data store as a means of applied corpus linguistics for science an entertaining proposition. This type of research could mean great things for science communication in general. I have heard of people attempting to do such meta-analysis to guide the purchase of potential intellectual property for patent trolling as well.

Finally, for those who haven’t done it (ever or recently), I’ll recommend that it’s certainly well worth their time and energy to attend one or more of the many 30-60 minute sessions most academic libraries offer at the beginning of their academic terms to train library users on research tools and methods. You’ll save yourself a huge amount of time.

Syndicated copies to:

Author: Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Academic Publishing and “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone” from Science | AAAS”

  1. #Comment #Fail What about major publishers spending huge amounts on modern web interfaces? @sciencemagazine @Marcia4Science It would appear that you’re falling down on the job and allowing trolls like CPO_C_Ryback (and even CPO_C_Rybacks_Mother) to destroy your own value on your own website (particularly It’s appalling and atrocious that you’re apparently “moderating” comments, yet the potential thoughtful discourse is being shouted down.


  2. What about major publishers spending huge amounts on modern web interfaces? @sciencemagazine @Marcia4Science #Comment #Fail It would appear that you’re falling down on the job and allowing trolls like CPO_C_Ryback (and even CPO_C_Rybacks_Mother) to destroy your own value on your own website (particularly It’s appalling and atrocious that you’re apparently “moderating” comments, yet the potential thoughtful discourse is being shouted down.


  3. #IndieWeb Raison d’etre #55: Freedom of the press trumps atrocious comment moderation

    2 min read

    Last week I wrote up “Some Thoughts on Academic Publishing” after reading “Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone” from Science | AAAS which made some heavy rounds in social media, particularly in academic spheres. Originally I began typing my thoughts/comments into the Disqus box on their website. After getting to the third graph, I began thinking, I should be writing this on my own website as a standalone comment/piece of content and just POSSE it over to their Disqus box.Despite the fact that the editors/moderators of one of the most venerable science journals of our day will allow internet trolls like CPO_C_Ryback and CPO_C_Rybacks_Mother to go thirty rounds on nearly every comment on their featured piece for the week, my slightly more tempered comment is still sitting in their moderation queue untouched. Fortunately I had the foresight to have self-published it before hand, or the not-insignificant time I spent thinking and writing about the topic at hand would have been gone the moment I pressed send. It’s one thing to get lost in the shuffle of hundreds of comments amidst trolls, it’s another thing altogether to be moderated out of existence. The IndieWeb movement has prevented me from feeling like I did two decades ago after writing a term paper for hours only to lose it after discovering that I hadn’t hit control-s to save what I’d written. The additional benefit was that I was able to post those same thoughts on multiple other networks effortlessly while still being able to own what I’d originally written.The greatest irony of the whole affair is that in conjunction with the particular article I was commenting on, Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief Science Journals, published a companion piece about the high costs and attention to detail and quality that journals try to maintain in their digital presence. Apparently this massive expense and terrific effort doesn’t go as far as preventing internet trolls like those mentioned from running roughshod over their own site (which is “moderated” by the way) while keeping out commentary that may add to the discussion and community that they’re apparently not attempting to foster.#sciencecommunication #publishing #indieweb #academicsamizdat 


  4. Pingback: Chris Aldrich

Please leave your comments, thoughts, or a simple reply.