Immortan Joe and The Academic Paywall

The internet is arguably the biggest technological advancement ever. It has opened gateways and opportunities never before even imagined. From being able to easily become an expat and make money virtually anywhere in the world, to how it has been able to connect every corner of the Earth, the internet has changed the world.

Another man-made invention is constantly threatening to limit the abilities of the internet. Money- and the human thirst for it- has constantly been a thorn in the side of the internet. Net neutrality is the first thing that comes to mind. But there is another internet-hindering money scheme that has far reaching effects as well; that is the academic paywall that high quality scientific research is behind.

Enter the Conflict: The Academic Paywall

Being affiliated with a university, in many developed nations probably grants you access to a myriad of research databases for free (there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as you’ll soon read). But in underdeveloped and developing nations, and after graduation even in developed ones, getting access to the same information is a costly endeavor. That’s because the databases and journals that horde knowledge charge a pretty penny for users to access their information.

It’s crazy to think that even at this day and age of the internet that information can be held for ransom. Many respected journals charge thousands of dollars for a subscription. The costs of subscriptions have reached this new height after a climb over the past twenty years. Critics claim that this is a result of private companies buying up the journals which then allows them to charge unheard of prices for scientific research.

Actually, this effect is evidenced by Harvard, yes Harvard, when in 2012 their library announced they had to cut back subscriptions due to a cost increase of 145% over the previous six years:

This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

What Can be Done About the Academic Paywall

Luckily, something is already being done to combat the academic paywall. For starters, the existence of the Deep Web, well known for its criminal undertone, is also a place where these scientific papers can be found for free.

PLoS is a leader against the academic paywall

The unofficial open access logo first developed by PLoS

On the surface internet there are some open-access sites, such as the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and eLife. But many scientists- sometimes based on tradition (the current model of scientific publication has its roots in the 17th Century), sometimes for recognition, sometimes for monetary gain, and the list goes on- don’t see open source publishing as an option. Furthermore, because of the benefits of being published in a highly respected journal- tenures and careers are at stake- there is little motivation to do otherwise. Although, the tides are turning on this point as well.

Other sites on the surface internet fighting the academic paywall are Library Genesis and Sci Hub was started in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, who was born, raised, and graduated in Kazakhstan (“Very nice!”). While doing research at her university she soon discovered the expensive roadblock that paywalls create. Soon after, she developed to freely distribute scientific research that people like herself simply need to do their work and progress science forward.

Enter the Antagonist

Recently however, an academic paywall giant has stepped up to protect their profits- Elsevier. As you would suspect, they have their payment options down to a science (pun intended).  Bringing in a net income of $1 Billion dollars annually, they have filed a lawsuit against both of the aforementioned sites with the goal to shut them down as well as get ‘damages.’

Alexandra Elbakyan is not worried, however. She intends to fight the Immortan Joe of knowledge with the mindset of a martyr saying, “Thanks to Elsevier’s lawsuit, I got past the point of no return. At this time I either have to prove we have the full right to do this or risk being executed like other pirates.” In her defense, Elbakyan points to article 27 of the UN declaration of human rights which states,  “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

That seems pretty cut and dry to me.

Elbakyan, the Imperator Furiosa of knowledge if you will, goes on to make an important statement about the foundation that Elsevier and others have built their Ivory Tower of academic paywalls on:

If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge. We have to win over Elsevier and other publishers and show that what these commercial companies are doing is fundamentally wrong.

A Penny for Your Own Thoughts

Probably the most laughable part of all of this- if there is one- is that the authors of these articles themselves are not privy to their papers! Universities, as well as indivudal authors regularly pay to access their own findings.

Simply ridiculous when the advancement of the internet has made information sharing cheaper than ever.

Even John McAfee, the father of antivirus software, pointed out the potential gains of getting rid of the paywall in a recent article when he mentioned, “The Deep Web contains shockingly valuable information. Can you imagine how cancer research would blossom if every researcher had instant access to every research paper done by every single university and research lab in the world? These papers generally take years or decades to float up to the Surface Web where [they then] can be indexed by Google.”

Furthermore, other companies, like Netflix, take into account the ability to pirate information and use that in their determination for charges. Treating piracy as competition, not an outlaw.

If you are a scientist, love science, love knowledge, or are a human being you should stand behind Sci-Hub and Library Genesis and support access to information that belongs to the human race, not some multi-billion dollar corporation.

feature image courtesy of geralt via pixababy

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