Just as music sites like Napster disrupted the music industry in the 2000s, piracy sites are now turning the academic publishing community on its head. The internet has spawned a generation of users who want everything at their fingertips instantly — at no charge. And that includes research papers. Just like music piracy, downloading academic papers is becoming common. What does this trend mean for journal publishers?
In today’s world of academic publishing, most articles remain behind paywalls. Academic researchers complain that to access papers vital to their research, they must pay an average of $30 per article, a prohibitively high price when they need dozens to complete their work. One alternative is to access these papers through libraries and interlibrary loans, but that is also becoming problematic as more and more academic libraries are finding their subscription costs soaring to tens of thousands of dollars, forcing them to cut back on the number of journals they can afford. In 2012, Harvard Library reported its annual subscription costs had reached $3.5 million. To fight back, the university asked faculty members to stop publishing in journals that keep their articles behind paywalls.
Published journal pirates
Another backlash has been the appearance of websites such as Sci-Hub, a pirating service that allows users to download academic papers for free. Sci-Hub was created in 2011 by a university student in Kazakhstan who, like those in many in developing nations, could not afford to access the research papers she needed for her own research. In fact, according to the Quartz article, an estimated “85.2% of all papers originally published behind paywalls are available on the website for free.”
Sci-Hub posed such a threat for commercial academic publisher Elsevier that the publisher filed — and won — a lawsuit against the piracy service. The website was forced to change its domain several times and is now operating on the dark web, a part of the internet often associated with drugs, weapons, and child porn.
And Sci-Hub is not the only piracy site where people can download research papers for free. Other websites, such as LibGen and ABCDeBook, also offer free downloads of academic research, and some researchers simply use social networking sites to ask colleagues to send them PDFs of papers they want.
So, what are academic publishers to do? With the push by academics and researchers for open access and the availability of piracy services, publishers are in a tough position. Some are turning to hybrid solutions, in which some content is freely available and some is behind paywalls. Others unlock their content after a certain amount of time. One solution getting a lot of attention is the idea of preprint servers. In this model, instead of submitting their papers for journal peer reviews, authors upload their drafts and related data sets and methodologies to preprint servers. Members of the public and research communities can then access, review, and discuss the papers in open forums. Researchers can then submit final papers for traditional journal publications while still making preprint copies are available via open access.
As both sides of the issue continue to push back against each other, it’s clear that journal publishers will need to re-evaluate their current systems. And since pushing back against piracy sites like Sci-Hub only increases their visibility and popularity, that tactic will likely not get the results publishers want. Hopefully, it will all shake out in a solution acceptable to researchers, libraries, and academic publishers because, in this new world of the internet, people may well turn to a pirated resource if that’s the only way they can afford the research they need.
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