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…?