Disrupting Scholarly Publishing

In a recent article for the Australian journal The Conversation, Dana Ruggiero explains why the “Black Market In Academic Papers Is Spooking Publishers.”

The title is actually somewhat misleading because scholarly papers are being shared without cost in ways that circumvent the corporations that have come to dominate the “market” in academic publishing.

Ruggiero reports that because “many academics have to seek other means for finding articles rather than pay the minimum US$30 that most publishers charge to access an article, . . . a black market of scholarly papers exists that those in the know can access as easily as using a hashtag on Twitter: #ICanHazPDF”: “This system relies on academics helping each other. I post a request for a paper and in ten minutes a response with an attachment may come back to me. The original tweet is then deleted.”

After describing “the European Federation of Psychology Students’ Associations,” Ruggiero focuses in greater detail on “Sci-Hub, a website developed in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, [which] is a repository for over 48,000 papers which continues to grow every day.” Although “Elbakyan has been called a modern-day Robin Hood by some, . . . Elsevier is currently suing Sci-Hub and Elbakyan in New York for copyright infringement.” But “after Elsevier won a temporary injunction against the site in January, it reopened with a new domain name.”

Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, has offered this pithy explanation of why sites such as SciHub are unethical as well as illegal: “’It’s as if somehow stealing content is justifiable if it’s seen as expensive . . . It’s not as if you’d walk into a grocery store and feel vindicated about stealing an organic chocolate bar as long as you left the Kit Kat bar on the shelf.’”

After reviewing “the normal scenario of scholarly publishing,” Ruffiero sums up the dilemma faced by academic researchers: “Not many academics can afford to publish open access with top-tier journals, but for their careers, they can’t afford not to publish in what are known as ‘high-impact’ journals.” She then sums up the dubious ethics in the current state of academic publishing, making a point that is every bit as incisive as the analogy offered by Alicia Wise: “The difference between academic publishing and other types of creative work is in who owns the rights and who gets paid. Simply put, the author does not get money once the article is published in the journal, the academic editors and peer reviewers are not paid for reviewing these articles. The publisher gives nothing and gets everything.”


Ruggerio’s complete article is available at: https://theconversation.com/the-black-market-in-academic-papers-and-why-its-spooking-publishers-57296


5 thoughts on “Disrupting Scholarly Publishing

  1. The publisher provides its reputation–developed over decades–in providing a reliable editing process, i.e., in providing articles of a certain level of quality, relevant to a particular branch of knowledge. That is hardly nothing: It is the absolutely critical factor in an age of overwhelming electronic data, where no one can sup from the fire-hose, so we must rely on reliable filters.

    How much is that service worth? Who should pay for it? I don’t have answers to those. But those are the relevant questions, not “why should the publisher get paid for doing nothing.”

    • The publisher or the peer reviewers? How much does the publisher have to do with screening papers? It should also be noted that the current copyright laws have been written to favor publishers.

      • Edward: A quick reply to your final point, which I think is slightly off-kilter. I was interested to read Susan Eilenberg’s excellent book Strange Power of Speech (Oxford UP 1992) a number of years ago, in which she surveys the early history of copyright in Britain, and points out that the notion was, from the start, intended to favor publishers — that’s why it was called “copy” right: the right to make copies of a written work, i.e. to publish it. Even in the U.S., copyright law has always placed rather severe limits on authors’ rights — for example through the very brief period of time that authors had exclusive copyright — and if anything, and thanks to Sonny Bono and Mickey Mouse, those laws now favor authors more than they ever have. The very fact that publishers must now have authors sign over copyright to the publisher is a departure from the original purpose of protecting a publisher rather than an author, and is certainly a principle that favors authors. As for the rest, you are, of course, correct, and the irony is that, at a time when we are increasing and strengthening intellectual property rights for authors and artists, academic publishers still delude us into imaging that they are essential.

      • David, I take your point. My concern is that the U.S. is becoming a rentier state; fees that are not connected to productive activity, such as the excessive costs publishers demand for access to articles, interfere with useful activity. I think this is a consequence of the U.S. becoming more like an oligarchy and less like a democracy. In the case of copyright law, this could mean either authors or publishers acquire excessive copyright protections against the public interest. In my previous comment I probably should have written “owners” instead of “publishers”. In the academic context, authors may value accessibility to published articles but in general authors may not feel this way.

        Congress has been extending the duration of copyright protection so that it now lasts for 95 years, a change that favors owners and hurts the public. A lengthy discussion of this subject with Lawrence Lessig is available here


        if you are interested.

        Returning to matter of the cost of journal access, for-profit publishers exist to make money. They will charge as much as possible for their product. This is not a process which decides what is fair.

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