Piracy on Another Front?

As most of my readers know, I’m not exactly fond of electronic piracy of my books, or of anyone’s books, and I’m certainly not the only author or editor who feels that way. While much of the publicly expressed concern over piracy has focused on fiction and music, there’s an even more problematical aspect of piracy – that of scientific journals and papers.

The battle over electronic piracy of scientific papers and journal articles has become a huge issue since the founding of Sci-Hub by Alexandra Elbakyan in 2011. According to Science magazine, in the six months from October 2015 through the end of March 2016, 28 million documents were downloaded from Sci-Hub, with the greatest number of downloads going to China (4.4 million), India (2.6 million), and India (3.4 million).

The problem is simple. Legal access to the majority of scientific journals and papers costs money, and especially for scholars in the developing worlds, or scholars at educational institutions without the funds to obtain wide access, the cost of keeping up with developments in their fields becomes prohibitively expensive and enormously time consuming. Obtaining just the permissions for the papers a U.S. university linguistics researcher needed took over a year. An Indian scholar discovered that to legally obtain copies of papers to stay current in his field every year would cost five times his annual living expenses.

At present, as calculated by Science, Sci-Hub’s downloads represent only about five percent of the total number of science documents downloaded in the world every year… but those numbers are growing, fueled by the increasing need of scientists and other professions to follow current scientific developments and by the fact that a huge number of those professionals who need access for their professions have either limited legal access, no legal access except by paying out of their own pockets, or the time required to use other legal ways of obtaining access.

No matter what anyone says, useful information doesn’t come cheaply. I’m not a scientist, but as a science fiction writer I need to stay current. I did a quick checklist of the science periodicals that I take and read – and my annual “information” costs come close to $2,000, and I’m talking only about periodicals and science books that represent a small fraction of the documentation a full-time scientist or researcher needs to know.

That’s one side of the problem. The other side is one that very few consumers/users of fiction, music, or scientific documents seem able to grasp – the cost of assembling, editing, copywriting, and overall production of these documents is far, far, greater than the final cost of physical production. Another difficulty is that recent studies have shown that too many science papers haven’t been properly peer-reviewed and vetted and their results can’t be replicated. That also takes not only money, but a structure that’s not supported by piracy or by an information disseminator such as Sci-Hub.

Add to that the fact that most researchers and scientists aren’t paid much, if anything, for having their work published, and those who profit most from scientific publishing are companies like Elsevier, not either the researchers or the users/readers of those documents

According to Marcia McNutt, the editor-in-chief of Science, “Today, digital publishing is just as expensive as print for a state-of-the-art Web design that incorporates multimedia, is responsive to desktops, tablets, and smartphones, and maintains access to back content.”

All of which means we have a problem that’s going to get worse. If piracy of scientific documents follows the path of fiction, what happens to all the checks on falsified or sloppy research…or who is rightfully credited with what…or who gets paid for coming up with an innovation. These areas are already problems, and I don’t see the world of increasing intellectual piracy solving them.

Now…the world isn’t going to stop if fiction writers don’t get paid and all “creative” writing becomes essentially a hobby because not enough readers want to pay the real cost of production, or if classical music dwindles to nothing, or if art reproductions return all artists to a semi-starving situation. But the piracy and distribution of scientific documents is, to me, a different situation.

It could be that I’m totally wrong… but… if I’m not…?

9 thoughts on “Piracy on Another Front?”

  1. David Dyer says:

    Piracy is a bad thing, full stop.

    I was going to write things, but then I realized. There are much smarter people saying these things better.

    Harvard Magazine has a good article, in particular the section of journal publishing.
    http://harvardmagazine.com/2015/01/the-wild-west-of-academic-publishing

    Nature has a good article sort of semi-defending the status quo.
    http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

    Here’s one more arguing against the Nature pov.
    http://access.okfn.org/2014/04/24/the-cost-of-academic-publishing/

  2. Shannon says:

    In your opinion, who should bear the costs of verifying and distributing scientific knowledge? As you mentioned, those who benefit most from the information cannot afford to support the system. For fiction, the consumer should pay for the product he receives. I personally don’t mind paying the cost, but then I also don’t mind taxes because I understand their purpose and use. Your books have helped with that. News would be another type of information prone to piracy, I would think. Are people entitled to access to news? Does it benefit society enough that society should subsidize people’s access?

    1. Unfortunately, it’s not just a question of who should bear the costs, but who can. Theoretically, the academic and science communities are the ones with the expertise to verify the accuracy of scientific and technical documents, but it’s clear that placing the majority of the cost burden on them won’t work. As pointed out in the articles cited by David Dyer, the cost of subscribing to these books and journals is often incredibly high, as is the cost to those writing them. To me part of this problem lies in the fact that too many academic institutions are interested less in scholarship and knowledge and more in athletics and the number of bodies in seats.

      I have to say that Elsevier’s reported profit margin of 35% seems a bit high to me, especially when the profit margins of most commercial fiction publishers are far, far lower. As for news, we do subsidize in part the dissemination of the news through the federal regulatory structure that regulates access to the “airways,” because otherwise, there would be chaos and warfare over access to various frequencies.

  3. Dave says:

    As far as subsidizing publishing goes, a lot of this research is publicly funded in the first place via government agencies. That’s what the OSTP’s recent memo about open access (https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/02/22/expanding-public-access-results-federally-funded-research) was all about. The public is paying to do the research and paying to publish the article (authors will write Article Publishing Charges into their grants). The public is, to some extent, subsidizing public universities which spend huge amounts of money to buy access to the articles. In spite of all that, the articles are paywalled and inaccessible. There’s a lot of discussion in the library and publishing world at the moment about how to comply with the memo.

    Piracy is never acceptable, but it’s hard to have much sympathy for academic publishers. They use a ton of volunteer labor in the editing and peer review process, they make authors pay to publish, and at the end of the process they require the author to surrender their copyright. Faculty are resentful when they’re told they can’t use their own articles in a course because the publisher won’t allow it. Toss in the annual price increases and they’re an easy target.

    (In my library, we refer to Elsevier as Our Dutch Overlords. We don’t have the option of not dealing with them, and they’re easily the most aggressive on bundling, licensing, and pricing.)

  4. Daze says:

    Your book Gravity Dreams has been quoted by me to others as an example of where we could head if the US turns its back on science (even more than it already has).

    But there is another side: all of those uni profs need to publish new stuff every year, whether or not they have anything new to say, so a huge proportion of what is published is shiny dross that only moves the world of their subject forward a tiny increment (if at all) – because if they made a big step they’d be eating their future papers. So part of the problem is that scientists need to pay for and winnow through huge tracts of dross to find the few advances they actually need to know about. (Unless you work in article physics, where you can get your writing credits with 5,000 co-authors on one paper)

    When Peter Higgs was getting interviewed a lot about the belated discovery of ‘his’ boson, one of the things he stressed was that no truly innovative scientific thinker, who therefore probably needed to think and research and experiment for a long time before getting to a breakthrough, would be employed by any university of today.

    There is possibly apocryphal story about a scientist being asked about what their most recent paper meant, and replying something like; “it wasn’t meant for you to understand, just the other three people in the world who work on this.”

    In my ideal world, there would be far fewer scientific papers published in far fewer journals, and what was in them would be replicable, thorough, and meaningfully move the subject forward. But then the Unis would have to find some other way of rating themselves than measuring the pile of papers.

    1. Daze says:

      That would be particle physics – though I guess this is a discussion about article physics, as well!

  5. Thomas says:

    To me, it seems that part of the issue lies with prioritisation. As you mention, it is costly to peer-review and publish articles, and thus journals must recoup such costs via subscription fees and advertising. Our institution has an open access policy, as is common for many British universities. However, a dearth of information relating to previous studies, particularity those without positive results, remains locked away within PhD theses and lab books.
    Such information is often crucial to informing future methods and design, but due to it’s low ‘impact value’ it is seldom accessible. This bias towards positive results, while not necessarily a bad thing in itself, does mean that the replication of defunct techniques is a common problem. Perhaps ways of reducing the dissemination cost of past studies would benefit the total amount of information available to researchers, but I share your concerns in relation to the affect it may have on quality control. The real question is, which benefits scientific advancement more; access to as much information as possible, or access to selected high quality information?

  6. Andreas says:

    Piracy is not only wrong, but it leads to the expectation of getting everything for free. In my field one has two choices when it comes to buying academic books, one could go for the books that are offered at a very low price and often pirated which are not peer reviewed or decently researched (because the authors know they will lose quite a bit of sales to piracy, so they can’t spend too much on either research or peer reviews, unless they are willing to sell at a loss.) go for the books that are difficult to obtain and expensive (as only a small number is printed and are usually only available from a small publisher). I generally spend quite a bit more than 10% of my annual income to remain current, and that’s just enough to keep up with the bare basics of well written and researched work, but when I look at my colleagues who don’t, I see how often they get into trouble quoting pirated or cheap research that is at best questionable and hoe it has lead some of them into the difficulty of justifying the morality of stealing research while praising a moral life, I realize it’s worth the price. I just hope more people start realizing that.

  7. Authors can make money if they monitise their web sites. However that is becoming harder with ad blockers being used. I used to make some $3,500 a month from Google adverts on my site but over the years that has dwindled to some $600 a month even though my traffic is still showing some growth each year.

    I believe there is great scope for direct advertising on web sites that tell a story allowing the company to really talk to prospective customers. To my knowledge this hasn’t yet been tried.

    For example if you want to attract tourists to come to your state or country then it would be good to trial a 52 week program of articles all about your area. This way you can really cover all aspects of having a holiday. One week you might talk all about Golf, another week talk about food, another week talk about history, etc. You include pictures and videos. Also provide links to resources within your article.

    Then use a high profile banner advert to these articles and then anyone interested would want to visit weekly to get the next article.

    I also think some of the large corporate companies have missed an opportunity to gather a collection of web sites that have good visitor traffic. Say you gathered 100 web sites each with 1 million unique visitors per year. That gets you in front of 100 million people. They work with the web sites to provide them with special facilities such as a dedicated search engine or some other useful facility to help build your traffic. Then you can get your company mentioned throughout the site as an “Official Sponsor”.

    So I do believe there is great scope for creative advertising but to my mind marketing people just don’t have what it takes to do this and thus settle for the usual banner adverts that most people ignore.

    Where are the PR people that used to write articles to go into newspapers?

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