The Fix Isn't In

Sci-Hub and the high cost of scholarly books are part of the same problem: how do we decide who pays for the cost of sharing knowledge?

March 3, 2016

By now, you’ve probably heard of Sci-Hub, a collection of millions of articles being gathered through borrowed or stolen library logins, then loaded onto servers abroad for anyone to download. The woman who started it has been called a modern-day Robin Hood. Also, a criminal. There has also been heated debate about why librarians aren’t doing more to back publishers in this fight. After all, these thieves are taking advantage of licensed scholarship that costs libraries billions of dollars annually! Surely we want to stop this rampant theft!

To which I’m tempted to respond “when did we sign on to become your guards, and when do we get a check for this labor?” Because it is labor – lots of labor – to maintain link resolvers, keep license agreements in order, and deal with constant changes in subscription contents. We have to work a lot harder to be publishers’ border guards than people realize.

While this runs completely counter to our values, we really have no choice but to provide this free labor. Libraries run the risk of having their institutional access cut off if a publisher finds their institutional IP address is involved in a massive download. More troubling is the fact that stolen or leaked credentials can seriously compromise both network and individual security.    

In other words, whatever you think of Sci-Hub, it’s not the fix for the mess we’re in.

So why are scholars using Sci-Hub? I can think of a couple of reasons: they may have no other access to these articles, not being affiliated with a well-funded first world library (the Robin Hood version) or because getting access is a hassle and hey, I need those articles! Give me those articles right now! For many folks, Sci-Hub is simply a more convenient library that doesn’t make you mess around with logins and interlibrary loans. Hey, we’re busy. Paywalls are a pain.    

Librarians are in a nasty spot. Sometimes I wonder if we can even call ourselves librarians anymore. We feel we are virtually required to provide access to whatever researchers in our local community ask for while restricting access from anyone outside that narrowly-defined community of users. Instead of curators, we’re personal shoppers who moonlight as border guards. This isn’t working out well for anyone. Unaffiliated researchers have to find illegal work-arounds, and faculty who actually have access through libraries are turning to the black market for articles because it seems more efficient than contacting their personal shopper, particularly when the library itself doesn’t figure in their work flow. In the meantime, all that money we spend on big bundles of articles (or on purchasing access to articles one at a time when we can’t afford the bundle anymore) is just a really high annual rent. We can’t preserve what we don’t own, and we don’t curate because our function is to get what is asked for.

This is how to dig a grave for libraries as a common good.

I’ve been thinking about this while also mulling over Scott McClemee’s take on the Ithaka study of how much it costs for a university press to publish a book. TL;DR – it costs a lot, not including the work of doing the research and writing it up. Though there’s no profit margin like that of the big commercial journal publishers to factor in, those costs are built into the price of books because . . . well, publishers are supposed to make money, not lose it. So prices are high because each book is handcrafted artisanal scholarship. A few hundred copies of the average scholarly book enters the marketplace of ideas, where they might connect with an audience – or not. Libraries aren’t a major market anymore because we’re spending all of our money on articles. Yet for some reason we still insist on book-shaped badges for tenure and measure the worth of scholars in many fields by their publisher’s brand.

This is how to dig a grave for knowledge as a common good. Spend a lot of money writing and publishing books that few people will have a chance to read.

It seems to me both issues raise some big questions we have to answer:

  • What are we trying to do with our research?
  • Who benefits?
  • Who pays?
  • How can all the parties involved get on the same page so that we can fix this mess?

If you want to read more about Sci-Hub, see also

John Dupuis’s thoughts and a roundup of commentary on Sci-Hub

The Library Loon’s thoughts about what might happen next

Kevin Smith’s Radical Thoughts about Sci-Hub



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