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Science Magazine Just Tried to Defend Its Paywall and Totally Missed the Point

Sci-Hub: 1, Science mag: 0.

2 MAY 2016

In case you've missed it, over the past year there's been a quiet war brewing over how we access knowledge. In the one corner there are illegal sites such as Sci-Hub, which has made nearly every journal article ever published available free online. On the other side there are the traditional journal publishers, who would like us all to pay for knowledge, thank you very much.

Now, the editor-in-chief over at Science magazine has swung back at Sci-Hub in an editorial explaining why everyone who has the means to pay for traditional journal access should be doing it. And, as you might expect, the initial response has been an overwhelming nope.


To be fair, from the outside, the debate over scientific publishing might sound a lot like the argument surrounding the illegal download of TV shows, movies, and music - surely it's not right for us to be ripping off the industry like that?

But here's the kicker - scientists don't actually make any money for publishing their research. While journals can charge anything upwards of US$10,000 per year for a single subscription, researchers have little choice but to submit their work to them if they want to continue to get hired.

For the most part, scientists get paid by grant money, which, you guessed it, is usually funded by our tax-payer dollars. So the real argument is this: if we're already paying scientists to do work for the public good, why can't we have access to the results of that work for free?

It's that kind of thinking that's made Sci-Hub so popular. The new Science editorial is published alongside a well-researched feature by journalist John Bohannon in the same issue, titled "Who's downloading pirated papers? EVERYONE".

That pretty much sums up the conclusion of the article: there are millions of people in rich and poor countries - particularly those in proximity to large research institutions such as Ohio State University and Michigan State University - using Sci-Hub each month.

The accompanying editorial, penned by Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt, attempts to defend the company's paywall and explain why we should stop using Sci-Hub. But the problem is, she kind of totally misses the point.


You can read the full editorial here, but the Cliff's Notes of McNutt's argument is this:

  • Online publishing is just as expensive as print - journals need to make money to hire illustrators, communicators, editor, and tech staff.
  • Journals uphold the quality of published research and make it more convenient for readers, so we need to keep them around.
  • Scientists can't download stats from Sci-Hub, so they can't tell how many people have read and accessed their research, which could affect grant applications.

Those all sound pretty legitimate, until you dig a little deeper.

For example, while it's hard to say for sure that online isn't just as expensive as print, it doesn't make much sense. As Justin Peters reports for Slate in a beautifully written take-down of the Science editorial:

"As someone who has spent almost 15 years working in both print and digital journalism in many different capacities, I do not understand how this could be true, unless these journals are being cheated by unscrupulous contractors or are just spending their money unwisely."

It also doesn't hold up when you take a glance at the numbers. In 2015, academic publishing giant Elsevier - which is currently suing Sci-Hub - reportedly earned US$1.58 billion in profit, and around US$9.36 billion in total revenue, which is a pretty healthy profit margin of around 16 percent. 

In fact, the publisher reported in 2012 that while it sales had grown by 2 percent throughout the previous year, operating profit had increased 4 percent thanks to "increased efficiency" at the company. In other words, their publishing process was getting less expensive - pretty much the opposite of what McNutt was claiming.

But enough about money - the quality issue is a more reasonable point, right? Well, not really. There are plenty of open-access publishers that use a different business model, such as PLOS ONE, and still put out arguably some of the best quality research in academia

(And do we really need to mention the fact that there are still a whole lot of hugely embarrassing cock-ups that make it through the peer review process in paywall journals?)

Then there are pre-press sites such as ArXiv and bioRxiv that are encouraging researchers to publish their results as soon as they're ready, so that their peers can review and comment on them and get them to the public earlier.

Likewise, saying that traditional publishing houses offer 'convenience' is a bit of a stretch. Bohannon's feature for Science showed that many people who've already paid for journal subscriptions prefer to use Sci-Hub anyway. 

Finally, download data. Yes, scientists should have access to how many people are reading their papers. But if Sci-Hub creator and neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, who's currently at risk of being arrested due to the Elsevier lawsuit, willingly made six months of download data available to Science for their feature, so surely we could come up with a system to allow scientists to access this data.

But the biggest problem with Science's defence of their business model is that it's totally oblivious to how unhappy people already are with the state of scientific publishing.

McNutt concludes her editorial by asking: "For those who have such avenues but choose to pirate a paper instead, ask yourself whether it is worth risking the viability of a system that supports the quality and integrity of science?"

In response to that, one quote from Bohannon's report stands out in particular:

"I don’t endorse illegal tactics," Peter Suber, director of the Office for Scholarly Communications at Harvard University told Bohannon about Sci-Hub. "[However] a lawsuit isn’t going to stop it, nor is there any obvious technical means. Everyone should be thinking about the fact that this is here to stay."

And that's where McNutt seems to have gotten it so wrong - asking people to ignore sites like Sci-Hub because "it's the right thing to do" just doesn't hold up. Instead, maybe it's time we all work together to come up with an academic publishing model that suits consumers while also maintaining scientific integrity.  

We're all for quality in publishing, but as Petes writes over on Slate: "Frankly, if this editorial is the best case that Science can make against Sci-Hub, then academic publishing is in more trouble than I thought." 

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