In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub
In Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s tale the Little Prince meets a businessman who accumulates stars with the sole purpose of being able to buy more stars. The Little Prince is perplexed. He owns only a flower, which he waters every day. Three volcanoes, which he cleans every week. “It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them,” he says, “but you are of no use to the stars that you own”.
There are many businessmen who own knowledge today. Consider Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher, whose 37% profit margin1 stands in sharp contrast to the rising fees, expanding student loan debt and poverty-level wages for adjunct faculty. Elsevier owns some of the largest databases of academic material, which are licensed at prices so scandalously high that even Harvard, the richest university of the global north, has complained that it cannot afford them any longer. Robert Darnton, the past director of Harvard Library, says “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”2 For all the work supported by public money benefiting scholarly publishers, particularly the peer review that grounds their legitimacy, journal articles are priced such that they prohibit access to science to many academics – and all non-academics – across the world, and render it a token of privilege.3
Elsevier has recently filed a copyright infringement suit in New York against Science Hub and Library Genesis claiming millions of dollars in damages.4 This has come as a big blow, not just to the administrators of the websites but also to thousands of researchers around the world for whom these sites are the only viable source of academic materials. The social media, mailing lists and IRC channels have been filled with their distress messages, desperately seeking articles and publications.
Even as the New York District Court was delivering its injunction, news came of the entire editorial board of highly-esteemed journal Lingua handing in their collective resignation, citing as their reason the refusal by Elsevier to go open access and give up on the high fees it charges to authors and their academic institutions. As we write these lines, a petition is doing the rounds demanding that Taylor & Francis doesn’t shut down Ashgate5, a formerly independent humanities publisher that it acquired earlier in 2015. It is threatened to go the way of other small publishers that are being rolled over by the growing monopoly and concentration in the publishing market. These are just some of the signs that the system is broken. It devalues us, authors, editors and readers alike. It parasites on our labor, it thwarts our service to the public, it denies us access6.
We have the means and methods to make knowledge accessible to everyone, with no economic barrier to access and at a much lower cost to society. But closed access’s monopoly over academic publishing, its spectacular profits and its central role in the allocation of academic prestige trump the public interest. Commercial publishers effectively impede open access, criminalize us, prosecute our heroes and heroines, and destroy our libraries, again and again. Before Science Hub and Library Genesis there was Library.nu or Gigapedia; before Gigapedia there was textz.com; before textz.com there was little; and before there was little there was nothing. That’s what they want: to reduce most of us back to nothing. And they have the full support of the courts and law to do exactly that.7
In Elsevier’s case against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, the judge said: “simply making copyrighted content available for free via a foreign website, disserves the public interest”8. Alexandra Elbakyan’s original plea put the stakes much higher: “If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge.”
We demonstrate daily, and on a massive scale, that the system is broken. We share our writing secretly behind the backs of our publishers, circumvent paywalls to access articles and publications, digitize and upload books to libraries. This is the other side of 37% profit margins: our knowledge commons grows in the fault lines of a broken system. We are all custodians of knowledge, custodians of the same infrastructures that we depend on for producing knowledge, custodians of our fertile but fragile commons. To be a custodian is, de facto, to download, to share, to read, to write, to review, to edit, to digitize, to archive, to maintain libraries, to make them accessible. It is to be of use to, not to make property of, our knowledge commons.
More than seven years ago Aaron Swartz, who spared no risk in standing up for what we here urge you to stand up for too, wrote: “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?”9
We find ourselves at a decisive moment. This is the time to recognize that the very existence of our massive knowledge commons is an act of collective civil disobedience. It is the time to emerge from hiding and put our names behind this act of resistance. You may feel isolated, but there are many of us. The anger, desperation and fear of losing our library infrastructures, voiced across the internet, tell us that. This is the time for us custodians, being dogs, humans or cyborgs, with our names, nicknames and pseudonyms, to raise our voices.
30 November 2015
Dušan Barok, Josephine Berry, Bodó Balázs, Sean Dockray, Kenneth Goldsmith, Anthony Iles, Lawrence Liang, Sebastian Lütgert, Pauline van Mourik Broekman, Marcell Mars, spideralex, Tomislav Medak, Dubravka Sekulić, Femke Snelting…
- Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon. “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era.” PLoS ONE 10, no. 6 (June 10, 2015): e0127502. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127502.,
“The Obscene Profits of Commercial Scholarly Publishers.” svpow.com. Accessed November 30, 2015. ↩
- Sample, Ian. “Harvard University Says It Can’t Afford Journal Publishers’ Prices.” The Guardian, April 24, 2012, sec. Science. theguardian.com. ↩
- “Academic Paywalls Mean Publish and Perish – Al Jazeera English.” Accessed November 30, 2015. aljazeera.com. ↩
- “Sci-Hub Tears Down Academia’s ‘Illegal’ Copyright Paywalls.” TorrentFreak. Accessed November 30, 2015. torrentfreak.com. ↩
- “Save Ashgate Publishing.” Change.org. Accessed November 30, 2015. change.org. ↩
- “The Cost of Knowledge.” Accessed November 30, 2015. thecostofknowledge.com. ↩
- “Court Orders Shutdown of Libgen, Bookfi and Sci-Hub.” TorrentFreak. Accessed November 30, 2015. torrentfreak.com. ↩
- “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” Internet Archive. Accessed November 30, 2015. archive.org. ↩
Guerilla Open Access Manifesto
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them?Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, theymake enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal —there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’salready being done: we can fight back.
Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.
Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.
With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?
July 2008, Eremo, Italy
Three academic publishers are asking for blocking of Sci-Hub and Libgen in India, two websites who provide free downloads of research publications and books to research scholars and students. The three—Elsevier Ltd., Wiley India Pvt. Ltd., American Chemical Society—have filed a petition in Delhi High Court, which is now scheduled to be heard next on January 6.
The publishers, who have filed similar suits in other countries as well, would have us believe it is them versus the pirate sites. What they hide is that there is another community involved here, students, teachers and research scholars, whose access to these journals would virtually end if the publishers have their way in court. This would have serious and long term consequences for science and technology in India.
Who are these three publishers in Delhi High Court? Elsevier, Wiley and American Chemical Society together publish 40% of scientific publications. If we take the five top publishers, they control more than 50% of the publications in science and social sciences worldwide, one of the largest concentrations of market power in any sector. Journal publishing is a $10 billion industry, with one of the highest profit margins of any sector. The profit margin of Elsevier is 37%, twice that of Google, the latter under attack globally for its monopoly practices and super-profits.
Publishing science and social science journals is a business where the publishers do not either create the content or take care of its quality through refereeing. All of which is done free by the scientific community, who are in turn paid by the taxpayers or students’ fees. On top of that, those who produce the content, have also to pay for it through their nose if they have to read these journals.
The libraries are finding it hard to pay the exorbitant prices of these publications, and it has become the single biggest item of cost for the universities and institutes as these monopoly publishers continuously ratchet up the price of these journals.
Maybe the cost of the journals are going up due to the increasing cost of production? Not so if we look at the figures. The price of these journals has gone up more than five times—or 521%—in the last 30 years against consumer price index rise of only 118%. That means the price of these publications have become six times while the rest of the goods is only twice of what they were 30 years back. This is the super-profits or the rent we, as a research community, pay for what is essentially our produce.
Has the cost of production in publishing increased more than other sectors to justify this three times difference? On the contrary! As we know, there are no costs for the publishers for the content; that is the free labour of the research community. Has the cost of physical production gone up? Again, no. Only 10% of the sales of these publications today are in print form, the rest 90% is entirely digital. So the cost of production has decreased over time. Again, the major part of the production cost is off-loaded to the researchers. They have to submit their manuscripts electronically, strictly according to the guidelines of the publishers and in their format. The actual conversion to the final form is also not done by the publishers, who outsource them onto various companies in countries like India, who do the actual conversion to the digital, searchable form and maintain all the quality checks required.
So what do the publishers do? By virtue of their monopoly, they rake in the money, while every part of this supply chain, those who produce the content, to those who create the final digital product live a hand-to-mouth existence. They push the libraries to buy bundled subscriptions of all their products, charge money for any article that may be required by a researcher anywhere in the world, charging them from $30 to $60 per article. Sitting on the monopoly of the prime intellectual content of the world, the money just keeps on flowing.
The business model of scientific publishing was the handiwork of Robert Maxwell, a crook and one of the more unsavoury characters in the British industry. He was on the verge of being discovered for his theft of $400 million from his workers’ pension funds totalling and is believed to have died by suicide by jumping off a ship. Elsevier had bought a significant part of its current publications from Maxwell shortly before he died.
Without access to these journals, it is almost impossible to do quality research. If India aspires to be a first-rate science and technology nation, it needs access to knowledge for its students and teachers. Open Access journals that allow people to read and download content free have a different bar: we have to pay the journals to be published. Instead of access, the bar for poorer countries and universities shift to the ability of its researchers to pay for being published. And only 20% of the research content today is in such open access journals.
It is here that sites like Sci-Hub, which holds about 80 million papers, have become a boon to researchers. A Science article in 2016 analysed—with Sci-Hub’s help—that Indian scholars downloaded about 7 million papers in one year. This would have cost the students or the universities around $200-250 million in 2016, a number which has only gone up since then.
It is not just cost alone why people turn to Sci-Hub. It is also the ease of downloading any paper from any journal as a single-stop shop, the quality of its search algorithm and the speed of its downloads. This is why—as the _Science_ piece pointed out—even research scholars affiliated to universities, who have access to these journals through their universities use Sci-Hub, and why university towns in the US show a high number of downloads!
Alexandra Elbakyan, a young Kazakhstan science scholar, started Sci-Hub due to lack of access for the bulk of science scholars to good quality journal articles. Under the cases filed in the US, she can be arrested anywhere and transported to the US to face trial and a lengthy prison sentence. It is not an accident that the case filed in Delhi High Court asks for her address to be disclosed so that the full might of the US and its extra-territorial reach can be used to stop her.
For those who may remember Aaron Swartz’s case, he downloaded a number of research papers using his university facilities and wanted to make them freely available. He was arrested, and facing a lengthy prison sentence under US law, died by suicide. Aaron is remembered by the free software and free knowledge community for his contributions to free software and his demand to liberate knowledge from its prison guards: his manifesto of liberating knowledge.
Aaron, in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto published in 2008, wrote:
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitised and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.”
It might be believed that Sci-Hub has no legal case in India. This is not true. Sci-Hub does not charge any student or researcher for the downloads—it is a free service. So it is not profiting from making such papers available. Secondly, Indian copyright law has exceptions for education and research. It is for the Courts to decide whether Sc-Hub’s use by research scholars in India constitutes a valid use of the copyright exceptions, similar to what was argued and decided by the courts in the Delhi University photo-copying case. Finally, these copyright holders are sitting on content, some of which is more than 60 years old and free from copyright in India. Yet, we still have to pay money to access even this content.
The case filed by the copyright holders in Delhi High Court asking for a blanket ban of the sites is not against Sci-Hub and Libgen, it is against the research scholars in this country. Most of whose research would come to a halt if this case by the robber barons of the publishing industry succeed. It is the future of research in India that is at stake, not Alexandra Elbakyan’s or Sci-Hub’s future.