The Sci-Hubbub

I make science puns, but only periodically.
In some jobs, success is dependent on money, winning or power. In academia, success depends on publications. Academics worship publications. Citations are the ultimate "like" button. And not just any type of publication, but peer-reviewed publications. Which is why academics, journals and universities are very keen to see how the unfolding Sci-Hub story plays out.

Sci-Hub is a free, online repository of 48 million academic papers. It was launched by Kazakhstani graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan.  Unlike most graduate students, Elbakyan is not pondering Foucauldian discourse and beer prices, but hiding out in Russia.  According to a recent New York Times article,  Elbakyan's struggles to access research papers inspired her to set up the site so that other students and researchers would have the same access to knowledge as researchers at well-funded universities. The repository is generated by downloading papers from publisher's paywalled websites using anonymous 'donated' subscription credentials.

The Peer Review Publication Process
Kriegeskorte N. (2012) "Open evaluation"
Frontiers in computational neuroscience.
The academic publishing industry has annual revenues around USD$25 Billion.  In 2006, 50% of academic publishing was by five for-profit companies (this is an increase from 30% in 1996). Elsevier, one of the big five, is pursuing legal action against Sci-Hub for illegally distributing their copyrighted works (Elbakyan's response here, case covered here by Kat Emma.) Elsevier is owned by a larger corporation, the RELX Group, whose academic publishing arm generated £2B in 2014 in revenues. Large rights holder suing renegade sharing site? How very 1999.

The gold standard of academic publishing is peer-reviewed publications in which papers are reviewed by other experts. The scale of these operations is impressive:
In the primary research market during 2014, over 1.1m research  papers were submitted to Elsevier. Over 16,000 editors managed the peer review and selection of these papers, resulting in the publication of more than 360,000 articles in over 2,000 journals. (RELX 2014 Annual Report p. 14)
In many cases, all copyright is assigned to the publisher. Like academic patenting, private ownership of copyrights on publicly-funded research is contentious. This publishing system also channels public funds into private hands (nothing new, see virtually every other industry.) Sci-hub rejects private ownership and paywalls as impediments to the flow of knowledge and instead infringes. Alternatives to Sci-Hub tend to operate within the confines of copyright.

Value Chain in Academic Publishing
Blue is Academia, Red is Publishers
A look at the unusual value chain of academic journal publishing highlights why Elbakyan feels justified. A value chain describes the process by which value is added to a good or service, each link in the chain adds more value. The academic publishing value chain starts with academics in universities writing papers that they submit to academic journals.  These journals, often privately owned, then send the papers to be reviewed by academics. The process is slow and most submissions are rejected. Successful papers are published and bought by university libraries. Each step adds value to the paper as the content evolves from research into published journals.  The twist is that universities are both supplier and consumer. Universities both fund the academics to write, and pay publishers for access to the finished product. The journal publishers are intermediaries.

Combine this odd value chain with the importance of publications, the expectation that academic research and knowledge be made freely available, and the low marginal cost of digital media (the cost of making copies of digital media is nearly zero), and criticism abounds.

There are at least two ways of viewing this supplier-consumer-intermediary structure:
  1. Academia is a resource-rich developing country: Academia is akin to countries who export raw materials (research) and then pay to import them in their processed form (papers.)  Publishers, who are developed countries and have processing capacity, exploit their position to capture the value created by academics.
  2. Academia is an outsourcer: Academia outsources research quality control, the marketing and distribution of papers and HR services (i.e. peer review as performance reviews) to publishers. By outsourcing these processes, universities benefit from the efficiencies of big publishers who have economies of scale.
The Sci-Hub saga reflects a repeated conflict we've seen in copyright debates: large media companies versus the consumer. Akin to record labels and spotty teenagers, academic publishers may face a revolt from their consumers, but with the twist that their consumer, whose job it is to question, is also their supplier.  Pity the poor souls who will be on the other side of this academic passion (not an oxymoron.)  Yet this could be the start of a long-term change in the business model and market structure of academic publishing. Will Sci-Hub be the Napster of academia?
The Sci-Hubbub The Sci-Hubbub Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Saturday, March 19, 2016 Rating: 5


  1. Academic peer review...


    Not on a meritocracy basis.

    How 1984.

  2. Quoted from another recent thread: "As Blogmeister Emeritus Jeremy warned in his parting comments, the traditional media needs to be watched when it comes to their positions on intellectual property."

    As can be noted on several threads, the next question is "who is watching those watching the traditional media?"

    Do we (the royal we) want to not watch a rather non-objective academia be the un-watched watchers?

    And to add to this multi-thread overlap, here especially do we want Big Corp controlling the media and in essence having yet someone else who does not deserve trust watching another untrusted group to be a type of overseer watchers watching the first level watchers, when neither the Big Corp nor the academics are particularly fond of patents (for very different reasons).

    Is it any wonder at all that in the battle of perceptions (and the control of the narratives), that strong patent rights are literally being squeezed by those who are just anti-personal property (the Left, as largely - but admittedly not universally - infused into academia) and those who are against other people's personal property that threaten their business model (the Right, as in Big Corp, whom will play the patent game at the same time seeking to make such a game a fiasco of cost and uncertainty)....?

  3. Part 1 (size limited)

    Regarding "Combine this odd value chain with the importance of publications, the expectation that academic research and knowledge be made freely available, and the low marginal cost of digital media (the cost of making copies of digital media is nearly zero), and criticism abounds." as well as "The Sci-Hub saga reflects a repeated conflict we've seen in copyright debates: large media companies versus the consumer... Yet this could be the start of a long-term change in the business model and market structure..."

    From a U.S. perspective (realizing that our First Amendment and its collision with the patent/copyright clause may not translate into other sovereigns), there is a subtlety to be gleaned from patent and copyright law comparisons.

    To wit, patent infringement (here, talking solely of direct infringement) is a intention-LESS act. There is no mens rea component. Thus, infringement is views as merely "doing the act."

    Not so with copyright.

    Here in the U.S. we have embedded in copyright certain carve-outs (generically referenced as Fair Uses).

    The immediate impact of this difference is that mere access (and even copy and/or distribution or other rights within the sphere of Copyright) is NOT deemed an infringement. I do "get" this is often viewed as a defense, but the important point to remember is that such activity is not to be constrained by the Rights holder because they have NO right to perform such a constraint.

    Currently, the legal situation on this is less than clear, and seems to allow types of activities that result in this UNfair lock out of things that are not within the rights of the Copyright holder. There are mechanical, electronic, and economic "locks" that prevent access to material in the first place. While such locks do indeed protect real and applicable rights to Copyright holders, they do in fact do MORE than just that, as removing ALL access also denies even the opportunity of access to perform those things that are NOT protected under Copyright.

    The "question" can be phrased as to why we allow certain traditional business models to go unchallenged when in the "new world" of digital goods, those models require an over-protection of the material at hand and an abject denial of access to people and thus remove Fair Use right from the start.

  4. Part 2 (of 2):

    I am well aware that part of this so-called dilemma (and it is only a dilemma when viewed from a "business model preservation" viewpoint) has to do with the nature of digital goods**. Growing up in an era when a tape recorder was used to gather a collection of favorite songs off of the radio, with its inherent loss of sound quality, the market for such raw material of blank recordable tapes began the steps to both the augmentation and end of the "traditional" music industry model. (One can note the iconic "best mix" tape in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy).

    The understated "low cost" of reproduction is really a de minimus NO cost with digital goods, accompanied by a total quality capture - truly, one cannot tell the difference between the master and the copy, and the ability to make unlimited copies is a reality.

    This modern day ability simply wrecks the traditional business model and removes the Model's lever and "worth," while the actual desired value from the end market is still realized. What we see are not "fights to protect 'value'" but rather, we see fights from the middleman to preserve his TAKE from the chain of commerce, with arguably "Trump-ed up [inside political pun, sorry] "value" that is either NOT wanted, nor really permissible to stop the flow of material and constrain uses of the material without coming to unlock that material.

    Unlike patent law, the ability to engage and use the subject of the right is open to the public and any Rights holder has far more limited control and far more work in enforcing their actual rights. The fact of the matter that digital reproduction makes a mess of the traditional manners of enforcing those rights does NOT change the rights of EITHER the Rights holder OR the rights of the public.

    **The nature of digital goods is also now evolving into other digital reproductions - as witness past threads - and comments - concerning the emerging 3-D digital printers and the possibility of home printing causing a 9.0 Richter Scale earthquake for patent protection (especially in the U.S. where In re Nuitjen is controlling law and "digital files" are entirely unprotected in the patent sense).

    One thing is for certain: when you threaten the basis of income of large economic giants, they do not sit still for very long. We are on the path for some very fundamental "traditional" business model threats. The answer to the underlying question of how the law responds will be dictated by who controls the law (and to tie into my other posts of today, who controls the law is often determined by who controls the narrative - which places the ability to break control from established powers with their own subjective desires of what the narrative is to be to be a crucial controlling point of tomorrow's business model).

  5. do you think that the system would work better if universities regain and exercise ownership of rights over articles written by their teachers?

  6. As a dedicated IP blog it might have been worthwhile referring to copyright law; i.e. that SciHub is making available copyrighted works without the required permissions from right holders. I am equally not convinced that such copyright infringements should be advertised on IPKat as a new “business” model; because they are not.

    I found a more thorough explanation of why litigation is necessary, and why Sci Hub isn’t, here.

  7. Florian - apologies if it was not clear, but it was not my intention to imply SciHub was legal nor the new business model. Instead, I wanted to analyse the value chain to compare and contrast with similar narratives which have played out in other media.

    Given that SciHub does not work within the confines of copyright law, it is highly doubtful it will emerge as a new business model. It is more likely that SciHub is at the start (not cause) of a long-term change in the value-chain and business models of the academic publishing industry.


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