Today we are seeing an interesting phenomenon that drives the debate regarding the democratization and access to information. We are talking about the website Sci-hub, which has opened a door to knowledge for many who could not otherwise access it.
The Sci-Hub project began operations on September 5, 2011. The site creator Alexandra Elbakyan (software developer and researcher in neurotechnology in Kazakhstan) says that one of the reasons for its creation has been the possibility of giving access to people to thousands of scientific articles (the site actually has millions) and thus achieve the dissemination of science. The advantages of this are many, since it helps thousands of people, for example, to complete their academic studies and work in the production of knowledge, especially in developing countries such as in Latin America with difficulty in accessing paid databases that contain those articles.
However, there is a problem. This website is considered “pirate” because it offers thousands of scientific articles contained in paid databases for free, generating legal transgressions, that are faced by the founder and the site. In this regard, the academic publisher Elsevier filed a complaint in New York in 2015, alleging the commission of copyright infringement by the Sci-Hub site. As a result, the original domain name of the project, sci-hub.org, was initially suspended due to a judicial request, but the project resurfaced with an “io” domain. Subsequently, both the domain “.io” and other domains of the project were suspended, but the site showed its perseverance by remaining available through new addresses.
What is the global debate regarding this phenomenon?
Today there is a growing number of quality scientific journals that offer their content in an open manner without the need for subscriptions or specific payments. However, these do not reach the reputation of the great academic journals that offer their contents through paid databases. Unless one belongs to a university or organization that subscribes and finances access to these articles, there is no way to access the science that represents such articles without paying a large amount of money. And this is so in the measure that any minimum work of academic-scientific type requires access to a couple of dozens of articles, and the portals get to charge several tens of dollars for the only access to one of these. The term in English “Paywall” has become popular and is the result of academic production within the same scientific community, production that ironically many times cannot be accessed due to the high cost of viewing the article on the subject. The problem is such that it reaches the point that doing a simple literature review on a subject can cost several hundred dollars, a price that very few can bear, in particular students, but neither independent scientists, or formed people with intellectual curiosity, hindering the decentralization of scientific and academic production, traditionally focused on certain institutions. In this way the cost-benefit ratio of paying for such items becomes extremely hard and reaches the incredible.
Is this situation ethically fair with the citizen?
One may wonder why scientists do not publish their works in open access portals. Well, the academic system itself is against it.
Nowadays, the “success” of an academic professional is measured in the number of articles of his or her authorship that reach high impact journals, which are paid access journals. The “power” of these portals lies in the high impact they have at the level of the academic community, which means that scientists are under pressure to publish in them due to their commitment to their own academic careers instead of being able to opt for publishing the articles in free access media but with less impact.
It should not be denied that such prestigious journals offer a peer review of high quality that not all free media offer or can cover, but it is also not true that this quality of review can not be opened in the same way as quality content is generated in open-source platforms that compete with paid applications, generating a democratized quality control where everyone contributes. We could consider that this path can be applied to the future of science without eliminating the prestige of a traditional means of diffusion and with the added benefit of a free access to information.
There is also another issue in this matter that refers to the previous question of whether this situation is ethically fair. It could be said that the paid portals and the high impact journals have the legal weight in their favor in front of the Sci-hub portal, but do they really have it in the end? An important fact in this sense is that a large part of the scientific articles in these paid data bases have been financed with public funds and carried out in public universities, that is, they have been financed by citizens who can no longer freely access the result of all this work. This leads to a double prejudice against the person: on the one hand, the individual has not had much decision-making power when choosing where to invest those funds that have been subtracted from him, and at the same time he is not allowed to access something that he has financed. This would mean that it is legitimate for academic content to be free for all citizens to access.
But there is also another problem, and that is that we must respect the contracts and legal rules, and to violate and justify the freely distribution of actual paid articles is not an optimal situation because it introduces an apparent justification of the transgression, a dangerous path in general in society, since diverse groups can feel justified in transgressive actions (particularly if they are violent) because they consider that they are in their right.
How do you get out of this crossroads then? I believe that the battle must be played within the law, and put on the table all possible arguments that show that the situation is in fact counterproductive or even illegitimate, and that justice is issued in this regard. At the same time that in the future we must build a free base, of prestige, and a democratized revision of science.