Sci-Hub has been getting a lot of attention recently – for those of you not up to date there are some really good pieces written here:
What should we think about Sci-Hub?
Next moves in the Sci-Hub game
The last article raised some interesting points that prompted a reply from the Sci-Hub founder, who I think mistook critical thinking for criticism. If you would indulge me I’d like to spend 5 minutes thinking about the impact of Sci-Hub and what the longer term implications for scholarly communications are. I’m not particularly saying anything new, just crystallising a few thoughts that have been floating around.
What is the short term impact of Sci-Hub?
The impact is massive for anyone stuck outside of a subscription paywall. Immediate free access to articles that you would have had to pay ~$30 each. For these people it is a game changer. I don’t need to eulogise how important this is for enabling access.
For publishers, at a first glance it looks terrible. Their pirated content is being distributed for free. Shock! Horror! Quick unleash the legal dogs of war!
But take a closer look and the disruption enabled by Sci-Hub is not quite like the disruption that has occurred in other digital media (think Napster etc). This is because the customers who pay for content are mainly institutions and not individual customers, and they have very different behaviours. I would estimate that the long term financial impact of pirated material for academic journal publishers would be negligible at best, and at worst just a small dent in their 30%-40% profit margins.
Longer term effects.
If you step away from the warm rosy glow of immediate access, you’ll find that the change in scholarly communication is not as drastic as you first thought. On the whole, institutions will not drop all of their journal subscriptions because a website is offering free downloads of articles. Organisations, who in this case have the purse strings, do not think and behave like individuals.
Any reputable institution would not be able to tell their researchers that they have cancelled subs to the journals they read and that they have to find and use pirated content instead. Like them or not, we can trust publishers to make their content available 24/7 (well, most of the time) because we have service level agreements and other legally binding contracts. What is the longevity of Sci-Hub? I don’t know, but the Sci-Hub founder freely admits that the site runs on donations and it costs several thousand dollars per month to keep running. Unlike other scholarly communication nodes – for example arXiv* – there is no funding mechanism that organisations can use to pay Sci-Hub to keep running because it’s activities are illegal and that status is not going to change any time soon. As such, institutions cannot rely on Sci-Hub to provide access to it’s services 24/7 and will always stick with the publishers.
Sci-hub is a sticking plaster
It is worth repeating that the bottom line is that organisations will most definitely not stop paying subscriptions to journal publishers because of Sci-Hub. More knowledgeable people than me have pointed out that Sci-Hub is a symptom of the problem, or that it is palliative care which alleviates the immediate problem. Unfortunately, I don’t think Sci-Hub will be the main catalyst for wider change in scholarly communication that people want, or need, it to be. Subscriptions will still be paid, researchers will still publish in those pay-walled journals, we will still have restrictive licences, text-mining will still be difficult. Plus ça change. The problem is that authors and readers need better than this.
[*Other scholarly communication nodes have sustainable business models – for example arXiv raises ~$350,000 per year through membership fees generated by approximately 186 institutions.]