An anti-science lawsuit

Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of Sci-Hub. Photo:  

Three scientific publishers — Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society (ACS) — filed a suit against Alexandra Elbakyan of Kazakhstan and others in the Delhi High Court on December 21, 2020. The case will reportedly be heard this week. Most major Indian Internet service providers are named as parties in the case. The publishers want Indians blocked from accessing a site called Sci-Hub, started by Ms. Elbakyan in 2011. Who is Ms. Elbakyan, what is Sci-Hub, and why are publishers chasing her in an Indian court? To answer this, it is necessary to explain how scientific publishing works.

How scientific publishing works

Scientists are usually paid by their institutions. Their research grants come from various organisations, usually governmental ones. In India, public institutions come under various ministries and departments, and major funding agencies are the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Biotechnology, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Department of Atomic Energy, among others. On completing any research paper, scientists seek to publish it in an academic journal, such as those run by Elsevier, Wiley, and ACS. The journals seek ‘peer review’ of these papers, that is, reviews by other scientists, and take a decision on publishing. Authors are not paid. Reviewers are not paid. Journals are mostly accessed online.

Photo: Twitter/@Sci_Hub

Photo: Twitter/@Sci_Hub  


This sounds like a cost-efficient system. Yet, publishers charge libraries exorbitant amounts for journal subscriptions (up to lakhs of rupees annually per journal, often bundled forcibly). Indian institutions each spend crores on subscriptions. It is estimated that about ₹1,500 crore is paid for India as a whole annually. Without subscriptions, a single article typically costs $30-$50 (₹2,200-₹3,500) or more. Academic publishing is thus among the most profitable industries in the world: Elsevier’s parent company RELX had profits of over 30% on revenue of nearly $10 billion in 2019. This overwhelmingly comes from taxpayers across the world who have already paid to fund the same research. Adding insult to injury, most journals require authors to transfer copyright to them.

Resentment about this situation has built over decades. Alternatives have been explored, including an (equally problematic) open access, author pays model. Many top universities, and entire countries, have cancelled subscriptions to Elsevier en masse.

In 2011, Ms. Elbakyan stepped into this mess with Sci-Hub, enabling scientists to search for academic papers from any publisher and freely download them. It is an efficient and easy-to-use site and extensively archives published scientific literature. Sci-Hub violates many copyrights owned by journals. But it is also a vast repository of open access, out-of-copyright, and public domain material, which a blanket injunction would disable. For scientists stuck at home in 2020, Sci-Hub has made literature accessible without navigating institutional VPNs. For journalists and the public, given the obscene per article charges levied by journals, Sci-Hub is the easiest and often only option.

A beneficial site

Sci-Hub does not operate in India. Indian Internet service providers named as parties are providing a non-discriminatory common carrier service. The content on Sci-Hub does not harm India’s interests and is beneficial to the scientific development of the country. In 2020, leading publishers made COVID-19-related articles free to read. This has resulted in a boom in research and development of dozens of vaccine candidates in a very short time period: a testament to the value of open science. Sci-Hub’s “piracy” benefits the very people who create that content. This is the opposite of the situation in the creative arts where “pirating” music or films deprives creators of royalties; scientific authors get no royalties, and they and their funders want their work to be shared freely. But the keys to this largely taxpayer-funded work are held by private corporations overseas which have chosen to pursue a defendant from Kazakhstan in an Indian court.

Is there an alternative to Sci-Hub? Yes. Publishers should voluntarily reform their policies to obviate the need for Sci-Hub. The Indian government has been discussing a ‘one nation, one subscription’ system whereby, in exchange for a fixed and reasonable cost paid directly by the government, scientific publishers would make their entire content available to all readers in India. Some publishers (not the plaintiffs) have expressed interest. Elsevier, Wiley and ACS should drop this misguided case, and join the Indian government in working out an equitable system of access to scientific literature that serves both their commercial interests and the Indian public.

Rahul Siddharthan is with the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai

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This article has been updated to correct a grammatical error.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 8:24:12 AM |

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