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.

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Thoughts on “Some academics remain skeptical of” | University Affairs

Some academics remain skeptical of by Shawna Wagman(University Affairs)
They warn scholars to €œthink twice€ before sharing their work on the popular social network.

This morning I ran across a tweet from colleague Andrew Eckford:

His response was probably innocuous enough, but I thought the article should be put to task a bit more.

“35 million academics, independent scholars and graduate students as users, who collectively have uploaded some eight million texts”

35 million users is an okay number, but their engagement must be spectacularly bad if only 8 million texts are available. How many researchers do you know who’ve published only a quarter of an article anywhere, much less gotten tenure?

“the platform essentially bans access for academics who, for whatever reason, don’t have an account. It also shuts out non-academics.”

They must have changed this, as pretty much anyone with an email address (including non-academics) can create a free account and use the system. I’m fairly certain that the platform was always open to the public from the start, but the article doesn’t seem to question the statement at all. If we want to argue about shutting out non-academics or even academics in poorer countries, let’s instead take a look at “big publishing” and their $30+/paper paywalls and publishing models, shall we?

“I don’t trust”

Given his following discussion, I can only imagine what he thinks of big publishers in academia and that debate.

“McGill’s Dr. Sterne calls it “the gamification of research,”

Most research is too expensive to really gamify in such a simple manner. Many researchers are publishing to either get or keep their jobs and don’t have much time, information, or knowledge to try to game their reach in these ways. And if anything, the institutionalization of “publish or perish” has already accomplished far more “gamification”, is just helping to increase the reach of the publication. Given that research shows that most published research isn’t even read, much less cited, how bad can really be? [Cross reference: Reframing What Academic Freedom Means in the Digital Age]

If we look at Twitter and the blogging world as an analogy with and researchers, Twitter had a huge ramp up starting in 2008 and helped bloggers obtain eyeballs/readers, but where is it now? Twitter, even with a reasonable business plan is stagnant with growing grumblings that it may be failing. I suspect that without significant changes that (which is a much smaller niche audience than Twitter) will also eventually fall by the wayside.

The article rails against not knowing what the business model is or what’s happening with the data. I suspect that the platform itself doesn’t have a very solid business plan and they don’t know what to do with the data themselves except tout the numbers. I’d suspect they’re trying to build “critical mass” so that they can cash out by selling to one of the big publishers like Elsevier, who might actually be able to use such data. But this presupposes that they’re generating enough data; my guess is that they’re not. And on that subject, from a journalistic viewpoint, where’s the comparison to the rest of the competition including or, which in fact was purchased by Elsevier? As it stands, this simply looks like a “hit piece” on, and sadly not a very well researched or reasoned one.

In sum, the article sounds to me like a bunch of Luddites running around yelling “fire”, particularly when I’d imagine that most referred to in the piece feed into the more corporate side of publishing in major journals rather than publishing it themselves on their own websites. I’d further suspect they’re probably not even practicing academic samizdat. It feels to me like the author and some of those quoted aren’t actively participating in the social media space to be able to comment on it intelligently. If the paper wants to pick at the academy in this manner, why don’t they write an exposé on the fact that most academics still have websites that look like they’re from 1995 (if, in fact, they have anything beyond their University’s mandated business card placeholder) when there are a wealth of free and simple tools they could use? Let’s at least build a cart before we start whipping the horse.

For academics who really want to spend some time and thought on a potential solution to all of this, I’ll suggest that they start out by owning their own domain and own their own data and work. The #IndieWeb movement certainly has an interesting philosophy that’s a great start in fixing the problem; it can be found at

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3 Rules of Academic Blogging

3 Rules of Academic Blogging(The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Not only is the form alive and well, but one of its most vibrant subsections is in academe.

1. Pick the right platform.
2. Write whatever you want.
3. Write for the sake of writing.

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The Mathematics Literature Project

The Mathematics Literature Project(

“The Mathematics Literature Project intends to survey the state of the freely accessible mathematics literature. In particular, it will index freely accessible URLs for mathematics articles. These are legitimately hosted copies of the article (i.e. at publishers, the arXiv, institutional repositories, or authors’ homepages), which are freely available in any browser, anywhere in the world.”

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