It’s Time to Destroy Elsevier (Just For Starters)

Just this past May, Elsevier — the most notorious of the price-gouging proprietary academic publishing crime families — acquired the open-access academic repository SSRN. That’s right — a publisher that charges $30 to access 30-year-old papers is closing off free legal alternatives while simultaneously whining about sharing sites like Sci-Hub. Meanwhile, a Science magazine survey found 88% of respondents consider it morally acceptable to access “pirated” articles for free on sharing websites, and 25% actually do so weekly (“In survey, most give thumbs-up to pirated papers,” Science, May 6). Now more than ever there’s a crying need for someone to do to academic publishing what the file-sharing movement did to the music industry.

At a time of unprecedented price-gouging by proprietary academic publishers ($25-30 for a single article is the norm), the primary concern of major voices in the industry is not the price of access, but — get this — free downloading. Elsevier’s director of universal access, Alicia Wise, tweeted on March 14 that “I’m all for universal access, but not theft!” But what her company does is the very definition of theft.

Fortunately Sci-Hub has gone a long way towards addressing academic publishing’s need for The Pirate Bay treatment, at least in the sciences. Elsevier has sought legal remedies — including domain name seizure — to shut it down. But because Sci-Hub is based on Russian servers, it’s beyond the reach of the U.S. legal system, and can quickly pop back up under another domain name.

But we still need, as Jimmy Tidey argues, to expand the Knowledge Commons model more widely to encompass all of academic publishing, and promote use of the commons-based services at the expense of proprietary interests (“Designing a fair and sustainable system of academic publishing,” P2P Blog, July 28).

In the course of his argument Tidey effectively demolishes most of the objections to Sci-Hub that Science editor Marcia McNutt lays out in a concern-trolling editorial (“My love-hate of Sci-Hub,” Science, April 29). McNutt complains that illegal downloads from Sci-Hub rob traditional publishers of accurate readership and citation statistics, as well as depriving them of the revenues needed to fund their legitimate operating costs.

But as Tidey points out, a unified open publishing framework, governed by Elinor Ostrom’s principles of commons governance, would provide a transparent database for the kinds of readership and citation analytics that are currently conducted only piecemeal by the journal-based system, or gamed for purposes of self-promotion within academic departments.

And the access fees charged by operations like Elsevier’s are many, many times the amount necessary to pay legitimate costs like the salaries of their staff or web-hosting costs. Indeed, the proprietary online publishing industry’s profit margin is around 40% — and bear in mind that’s probably on top of the kinds of enormously inflated overhead costs, irrational capital outlays and management self-dealing that prevail in organizations with guaranteed rates of monopoly profit.

Thanks to the ability of self-organized networks to run circles around dinosaur institutions like capitalist corporations and the state that serves them, we are well on the way to realizing the goal stated by Aaron Swartz in the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. For years, guerrilla academics have — as Swartz suggested — shared their privileged access to journal repositories by downloading articles for their colleagues on the outside. And through efforts like Sci-Hub, they are answering Swartz’s call 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.”

Like all forms of authority, “intellectual property” is a form of irrationality. Free people, creating and sharing free knowledge, treat “intellectual property” as damage and route around it.

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