(il)Legal Access

(il)Legal Access

Access to scientific papers may cost thousands of dollars due to major publishing houses setting surprisingly high prices while often paying nothing at all to the scientists they publish. For years many researchers, like computer programmer Alexandra Elbakyan, fight for open access to scientific content. Meanwhile, university libraries in low-income countries like Armenia find alternative ways to legally provide necessary materials to their students.

 

Text : Karine Ghazaryan

 

Writing a decent academic paper always requires lots of research, including reading decent papers of other scientists – tens and hundreds of papers. Still, not everyone can afford it as scientific content costs quite a lot of money. In general, academic publishing is an industry with limited audience but over $20 billion of annual global revenue. Half of the scientific journals’ market is controlled by only three companies: Elsevier, Springer and Wiley-Blackwell. The biggest one, Elsevier, has 24% market share and 36,8% profit margin, as of 2017 (for comparison, Google has just 30,18%). These numbers are unusually high compared to the average in most industries, and Elsevier, along with other major publishers, has faced criticism for unfair policy. The reason for such high margin lies in companies’ successful tactic of cutting costs: In most cases, they pay nothing to scientists for publishing their work; furthermore, they use volunteers to conduct peer reviews and confirm that the work is worth publishing. Not only they don’t pay the specialists they work with, but publishers also charge an average price of $30 for a single paper and often sell only packages rather than separate papers and journals. The prices are so high that even the richest Harvard University Library complained they cannot afford them. Spending $3,5 million on academic papers annually, Harvard called their researchers to publish works in open-access journals (although scientists have to pay for that out of their own pocket). Notably, the studies Elsevier and other companies publish are generally conducted with government funding, and the journals they sell are often bought by universities using government funding. Despite this closed cycle, in the world of science the value of research is estimated by the prestige of the journal it was published in; and you won’t be surprised by who owns most of those journals.

 

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Alexandra Elbakyan, a young Kazakhstani computer programmer and neurotechnology researcher of Armenian descent, was one of the many scientists who could not afford to buy papers to conduct her research. Frustrated with the unfair policy of publishers, she decided to fight the problem. In 2011, she created Sci-Hub, a website that makes available even the most hard-to-get and expensive papers. Sci-Hub bypasses publisher paywalls, gets the inquired material, puts it in LibGen online storage, and then provides it to the user. Next time someone searches the same paper, Sci-Hub just provides the copy from LibGen. “I think that Sci-Hub certainly influences publishers’ policy”, Alexandra Elbakyan told Regional Post. “When research articles are right there available on the Internet for free download through Sci-Hub, the paid access to them simply loses its meaning.” During the past seven years, the service collected and stored over 67 million papers, a collection large enough to provide just about any article one may need: from latest papers on quantum mechanics to the classics of semiotics.

There are other solutions that are aimed at facilitating access to those articles that already exist on the Internet. These engines make the search for particular content last as long as a click. However, Elbakyan notes, the success of Sci-Hub is due to its ability to provide access to those articles that literally cannot be found online for free. “Sci-Hub was originally created in order to provide access to ‘difficult’ and the most closed paid articles. And it opens any closed content in seconds. That is precisely why it is considered illegal; simultaneously, that is precisely why it may be able to change publishers’ policy.”

In 2015, Elsevier filed a legal complaint in the US against Sci-Hub. They won the trial, and the court blocked the original sci-hub.org domain. The engine then was forced to change domains several times being systematically banned in a number of countries. Just a year after the lawsuit, Nature, one of most cited scientific journals, included Elbakyan in the list of top-10 individuals who influenced the development of science in the world. When asked what’s the possibility for the publishers to eventually bring Sci-Hub to a close-down, Elbakyan said: “War is waged against us. And at the height of war we cannot seriously predict whether we will win or lose.”

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Armenia is listed among countries that acquire more than 50,000 Elsevier papers annually, and this is the highest rate in the South Caucasus. As everywhere else, universities are among main buyers. American University of Armenia, for example, spends around $40,000 per year on purchasing studies. The university’s AGBU Papazian Library director Satenik Avagyan told us they buy less printed books and more online databases, however, digital copies do not cost less. “Of course this is very expensive, and if the government could buy the materials and provide them to many universities at a time, the costs might be reduced. Now the government buys only those journals that are largely used, but it is important to understand that if you make an offer, if you introduce new papers to the audience, interest may arise.” Ms Avagyan adds that in academic institutions there should be more highly qualified librarians who would not simply store the books, but would be able to understand the needs of their communities and form a respective collection.

The American University is a member of Electronic Library Consortium of Armenia (eLCA) which provides access to digital academic materials. Another major HEI, Russian-Armenian University, also participated in eLCA and plans to restore its membership. Head of RAU’s library Artur Soghomonyan says this allows to have access to a large number of publications for an annual fee of around $140. “In general, we are subscribed to around 50 journals; mainly these are Russian-language periodicals, still, there are a number of Armenian publications also.” Soghomonyan says they spend around $10,000 annually on purchases. “This is a minimum budget, and we could probably spend more, but there is no significant demand. Physics students and researchers, for example, say they don’t need us to buy journals as they use subscriptions of their specialized research institutes.”

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eLCA is one of the most effective solutions academic institutions use to cope with publishers’ high prices. It is an NGO and a part of a larger network called Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) that promotes open access awareness in 47 developing countries around the globe. eLCA uses the fees paid by universities to cover the €1400 cost of participation in EIFL and give an opportunity for its members to use all the open-access materials of the network. “Developing countries, like Armenia, have a chance to negotiate better deals with publishers, and the latter usually make discounts”, says eLCA executive director Anna Chulyan. “Armenia paid $6,000 for a database called EBSCO, but now we don’t have it, as the consumption is low but the price is getting higher every year. The same happened with our Springer subscription: The government eventually called it off.” Around 10-11 Armenian universities confirm their eLCA membership annually. “Not only do we provide access to electronic databases, but we also organise educational activities to train university librarians, as good specialists are able to encourage larger usage of available academic materials”, says Anna Chulyan.

The consortium found various ways to bring materials to its members: from informing about new studies in open access to using up to 3 years-long free trials. The same goes for universities: they have to find ways and invent tricks to bring knowledge to their students without breaking the law. And individual researchers go all the way from pirating materials via Sci-Hub to establishing pirate bays of their own.