Disclaimer: The Cannon does not endorse the usage of illegal academic websites or databases.
SciHub, Library Genesis, and Internet Archive are all websites that host academic content for free. Their existence is the very definition of open access, which dictates that scientific work should be published on the internet for everyone to use.
It should be noted that these sites are potentially illegal in different places. They are often targeted by publishing companies or copyright holders, and need to exist on countless mirror sites to stay afloat. Despite this, they are used by hundreds of people around the world, especially in developing countries.
But why would an illegal resource be depended on so heavily? The answer lies in our current model for research, which is broken and outdated. The structure for today’s academia disadvantages students, researchers and the general public because it denies them access to knowledge. This is seen by the creation of paywalls or privatized information. Open access, which comes in the form of websites like SciHub, is the best possible solution to this problem.
Why is our current research model outdated?
We are currently experiencing a massive influx of students. In 1995, 283 million people were in post secondary education. This number has dramatically increased since then; in 2015, 725 million people were in post-secondary education. This growth has been magnified in developing countries, with India’s student population having doubled, Poland’s more than doubled, Brazil’s tripled, and South Africa’s quadrupled.
At the same time, government funding of academic materials has been rapidly decreasing. This leaves increased amounts of students without access to free resources. Furthermore, with the rising costs of textbooks, journal subscriptions and monographs, students have no affordable way to obtain academic material.
Researchers, along with students, are also disadvantaged in this situation. Even though research is funded by the public, researchers are not compensated for the work they do. To make matters worse, once the researcher’s work is published, neither the researcher nor the public have access to it. These barriers to academia, as well as the unaffordability of it, have led to the increased use of “non-traditional resources” (i.e. Library Genesis, SciHub, etc).
Why is open access the solution?
Open access is a vital way for developing countries to access research. As discussed earlier, websites like SciHub are open access resources. The top five countries in user downloads from these sites are Russia, Indonesia, United States, India, and Iran; many of which are developing countries.
As a case study, India can provide general commentary on the academic scene in developing countries. Even with negotiated pricing, only a handful of Indian universities can afford subscriptions to major academic databases. The largest academic library in India – the IISc (Indian Institute of Science) – is only subscribed to 1381 print articles.
On the contrary, Columbia University is subscribed to 133,831 journals and book series. The University of Delaware, a smaller and less-publicly funded university, is subscribed to 29,246 journals and book series. This illustrates a stark difference in academic access between India’s largest academic institution and your average western university. It points to an asymmetry in publishing: poorer countries are excluded from participation in the global circuits of knowledge.
Research done within India is also not circulated within the country, or outside of it. Indian academics have no affordable access to outside research. Moreover, they have no way to publish their own research either. Professor Subbiah Arunachalam, an advocate for open access, summarizes the situation in the following words:
The issue is quite simple: research performed in India, and funded by Indian taxpayers, is reported in a few thousand journals, both Indian and foreign. Since some of these journals are very expensive, many Indian libraries – including sometimes the author’s own institutional library – are not able to subscribe to them. As [a] consequence, other Indian scientists working in the same, or related, areas are unable to read these papers. This is a problem common to all developing countries.
In summary, the problem lies in the lack of exposure given to foreign researchers, and the unaffordability of subscribing to academic journals. According to Professor Arunachalam, this can be solved if papers were published in open access journals.
Along with preventing the globalization of knowledge, open access also prevents the privatization of knowledge. After 1980, changes were made in America’s patentability: private funds could now flow into academia, and professors could patent their research. This action brought millions of dollars in profits to top research universities. However, the public, who still indirectly funded research as taxpayers, was unable to access it. In addition, the patents themselves were in an embryonic state of development – 75 percent of the patents were “no more than a proof of concept,” with 29 percent having no lab scale prototypes, and 48 percent having no prototypes at all. As a result, the public’s investments were privatized, and the patents created had questionable commercial potential.
Open access can prevent these effects by placing research under various proposed licenses. One such license is the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC), where people can use intellectual property for any purpose – for free, for profit, or even for commercial purposes. By placing research under a CC license, the public is able to access knowledge that patenting would have prevented. Additionally, research can no longer be created for the sole purpose of privatizing knowledge, safeguarding intellectual concepts, or generating profits for universities, which significantly increases its quality.
Publishing companies like the Public Library of Science (PLOS) carry out this exact initiative. The journal applies the Creative Commons Attribution license to their content, eradicating any barriers to that specific content. They show an important change in the academic scene: what was once governed by corporations is now becoming accessible to all.
PLOS also outlines a change in our mindset. Instead of being accustomed to privatized knowledge, we are beginning to question why it was withheld in the first place. We are beginning to make our own countermeasures to knowledge barriers, whether in the form of publishing firms or questionable sites. We are recognizing that knowledge is a right, and as open access dictates, it should belong to everyone.
- J. Karaganis, Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education. Cambridge, Massachusetts : MIT Press Ltd, 2018.