Open access and piracy threaten science

A recent announcement by the European Commission calls for all research to be freely available online by 2020, a system called ‘open access’. Where there are no widespread library paper archives, this action threatens to undermine science research.

Another recent development is the revelations about the work of a young graduate student in Kazakhstan who has essentially accomplished ‘open access’ by pirating huge collections of science papers and even books and placing them online free.

Alexandra Elbakyan, apparently a brilliant computer programmer, has allegedly developed programmes that steal academic papers from university websites, journal publishers and subscription service aggregators.

This online piracy extends to scholarly books, as detailed in the Chronicle of Higher Education in April. University presses affected and the number of titles pirated include: Cornell University Press (500 titles pirated), Johns Hopkins University Press (800), Harvard University Press (2,000) and Oxford University Press (over 17,000 titles stolen). The books are made free through the website Library Genesis while the scientific articles that number in the millions are on Sci-Hub.

Sadly, online surveys of scientists, including authors of these pirated articles, indicate widespread approval of this piracy. Analysis of where the most people are downloading these stolen articles indicate highest usage in the Middle East, India, China, Russia, the United States, Brazil and Europe.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Both sites were ordered shut down last year as a result of a lawsuit filed by a commercial journal publisher, Elsevier.” In response, Sci-Hub and Library Genesis merely switched to slightly different web addresses.

Threats to science?

It is easy to be sympathetic to Elbakyan and her amazing success. A rationale posted on both sites argues that "the information in the articles and books should be free from commercial restraints”, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This is the same argument that a legitimate group called SPARC – Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition – has been making for decades, although they have worked for open access through legal channels.

In addition, US agencies have already required that federally funded research be made available free upon publication.

However, there are two major problems with open access that threaten the very core of the science enterprise: the dismantling of professional societies and the loss of a permanent science record.

The first threat is best described in a commentary sent to the New York Times by Gordon Nelson, president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, on 28 February 2013: “A significant fraction of the scientific literature is published by non-profit societies. Publications often represent an important core activity of those societies. Their pricing is a fraction of that of for-profit publishers. To mount a journal is not free. It requires hardware, software, management of the peer review process, editorial work (editors are often paid), maintenance of the database over decades, and printing the product...

"If the new policy [open access] is implemented without consideration of the scientific societies, there could be serious damage to both science and science education.”

No permanent archive

The second threat is the lack of a permanent archive when there is no paper copy in libraries. Despite the zeal of digital enthusiasts entrenched in academia, the life of online materials is very short. Just as we have made the change from VHS to DVDs and are moving to cloud-based services, most hardware and software becomes obsolete in less than a decade.

Google executive Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the protocols that make the Internet work, warns of a digital “dark age” due to “bit rot” or the continuous loss of our ability to read materials barely a decade old.

We are continually “migrating” our media files to new formats in time periods of less than 10 years. He describes the need to “take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the operating system together, with a description of the machine it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time”.

Techies are like teenagers who think their technology is immortal. But grown-ups can stop to ask, where are our files we made on MS-DOS? The cost of continually “migrating up” a science journal to new hardware and software formats rapidly exceeds the cost of having a paper copy in a library. A paper book or journal on acid-free paper lasts for up to 500 years and you then copy it again on new acid-free paper.

Cerf reportedly told the Guardian newspaper: “If there are photos you really care about, print them off.” The same should be said of science research.

John ‘Richard’ Schrock is the director of biology education at Emporia State University, US, where he trains future biology teachers.