What Do You Get When You Mix Napster, Wikileaks, Snowden And Open Access?

from the epic dept

An article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, which calls itself “the leading peer-reviewed journal for health and healthcare in the Internet age”, has the intriguing title: “Is Biblioleaks Inevitable?” Here’s what its authors mean by that:

In 2014, the vast majority of published biomedical research is still hidden behind paywalls rather than open access. For more than a decade, similar restrictions over other digitally available content have engendered illegal activity. Music file sharing became rampant in the late 1990s as communities formed around new ways to share. The frequency and scale of cyber-attacks against commercial and government interests has increased dramatically. Massive troves of classified government documents have become public through the actions of a few. Yet we have not seen significant growth in the illegal sharing of peer-reviewed academic articles. Should we truly expect that biomedical publishing is somehow at less risk than other content-generating industries? What of the larger threat — a “Biblioleaks” event — a database breach and public leak of the substantial archives of biomedical literature? As the expectation that all research should be available to everyone becomes the norm for a younger generation of researchers and the broader community, the motivations for such a leak are likely to grow. We explore the feasibility and consequences of a Biblioleaks event for researchers, journals, publishers, and the broader communities of doctors and the patients they serve.

The point about how a series of recent historical events — Napster, Wikileaks, Snowden etc. — has led to an increasing normalization of certain activities like sharing and leaking, is well made. Although it’s rather piquant to see the Biblioleaks idea being explored in an academic journal, the underlying insight — that people frustrated by the present system of academic publishing might take the law into their own hands — is hardly original. After all, it’s precisely what Aaron Swartz described in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto (pdf), which Techdirt wrote about last year. Here’s Swartz’s call to “biblioleaking”:

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

Of course, that is what he seems to have been doing when he was arrested at MIT, followed by prosecutorial bullying and threats and, eventually, a tragic suicide. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto begins as follows:

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

As we reported two years ago, Elsevier was the object of a major boycott by academics, organized by the mathematician Tim Gowers. Although that garnered a fair amount of publicity, it doesn’t seem to have caused Elsevier to change its behavior much. But Gowers is not finished with the company, either. He has just published a blog post entitled “Elsevier journals — some facts“. That’s something of an understatement: the 12,000-word blockbuster details Gowers dogged attempts to answer what ought to be a fairly straightforward question: how much are UK universities paying for access to Elsevier’s articles? The final figure, although incomplete, turns out to be quite hefty: £14.4 million ($24 million) a year, and that’s for just 19 of the top UK universities.

As interesting as the figure itself is the difficulty of obtaining it (do read Gower’s amazing post to get a feel for how epic his struggle was.) That secrecy about the high prices universities must pay for journals, coupled with the major obstacles to accessing “the world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage” that remain, are why the likelihood of some kind of Biblioleaks happening in the not-too-distant future remains high.

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Comments on “What Do You Get When You Mix Napster, Wikileaks, Snowden And Open Access?”

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jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Why have aggregate services?

Possibly because the journals have been a great way to aggregate articles on a specific subject so that someone interested in that subject could read them (also the journals present them in a standardized way that’s readable). So if I want to research brain tumors, I don’t have to visit dozens of university websites. How well can a searchable database replace a narrowly targeted journal?

Plus getting published by these journals has been a method of gaining prestige and recognition in your field. Otherwise recognition is up to the prestige of your university.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Why have aggregate services?

You’re spot on regarding the prestige factor, at least in my discipline. An article or two in a luxury journal is almost a prerequisite for getting a good job, tenure, etc. That’s the most insidious bit, as it propagates the system among assistant professors like myself who think the whole thing is broken.

Another good reason for aggregation in journals is that it allows an editorial staff to identify and retain a core set of competent reviewers within a discipline.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Why have aggregate services?

“How well can a searchable database replace a narrowly targeted journal?”

That’s the wrong question, I think. If researchers publish on their own institution’s websites, the collation and searching can be done by specialized search engines to tie together papers from all the disparate sites.

The bigger issue is the one of prestige, or, more accurately, tradition.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Why have aggregate services?

The big problem is at the administration level, where the worth of an academic is measured by the number of articles published in prestige journals. It is used as a substitute to reading journals, and comment of other academics in the same field about a work. The count the published paper way is easy to do, the latter takes real work, so guess which one the administrators are going to use to rate academic performance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Think about all the educated people in the workforce, if all this learning material was available for download in an comprehensive format.

Imagine if prospective learners could then go to a local facility and take a state test, earning them a degree or certification in a respective field if they passed the test.

Politicians and corporate management complain about an uneducated workforce. Yet they allow barriers in the form of expensive for-profit colleges and academic research pay-walls to remain in place.

As long as this trend continues, I don’t see a highly educated workforce every becoming a reality. If an educated workforce isn’t a reality, then a high-tech economy is nothing put a pipe-dream.

There are major financial barriers holding back the majority of the people from receiving a higher education. That’s unacceptable in the internet era. Where information can be distributed across the globe, easily and at low cost.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

you make good points, but draw the wrong conclusions.

You assume that a highly educated workforce is wanted, but in reality it is not. The whole system is set up to prevent people from getting a real education. The system is set up to generate lots of dumb uneducated servants with basic training to perform limited tasks, so they are economically viable but pose no threat to the people in power.

an educated population is the last thing the people in power want.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

While that maybe what the system is set up to do the fact is that many people in power are hardly literate (that would imply merit on their part). They didn’t get to their position of power and wealth as a a result of any merit on their part but they did so as a result of backdoor dealings and corruption.

Adam Dunn says:

Re: Re:

Bingo. This is exactly the point. It’s about transforming public education. Not necessarily to earn degrees, but just to improve what the public believes.

The average information diet is made up of misleading marketing and uninformed opinions. Imagine if we could shift the first thing anyone reads about climate change or vaccination to the peer-reviewed research rather than the nonsense currently available for free.

Anonymous Coward says:

sharing *does* happen

As a professor at a state university, I can tell you that sharing does occur. If we can’t get a paper — because our state can’t afford the $$$ asked by Elsevier — we simply contact a colleague at a more wealthy university, who sends it our way. It’s like an inefficient Pirate Bay, where instead of using torrents we use emails. (Many faculty also post their papers on their website, ResearchGate, etc. as well). Over the last decade, I’ve never ended up paying more than our library is already forking over to get a particular article.

That said, it certainly disrupts our research to have to do so. If I’m tearing through a set of papers and end up coming across one that’s stuck behind a paywall, I have to ask if it’s worth it to use one of my collegial favors to get that particular paper, then wait two days, at which point I may discover that they paper doesn’t have precisely what I was looking for.

Adam Dunn says:

It's not just the publishers who are at fault...

As academics within a university, we do indeed have the luxury of access to the vast majority of research we need to do our jobs. For people outside of university, a paywall is either a choice between paying $30+ for five pages of text, or to ignore it and move on to a potentially less reputable source of information.

For every 10 articles that are published, only around 2 or 3 of those can be found for free online when searching through all those different repositories (journal websites when the article is gold open access, researchgate, the university repository, the authors’ websites, etc.).

The dirty truth however, is that fully 8 of every 10 articles are published under a license that makes it legal for authors to upload a pre-print or post-print version of the article on their own websites for free. So you can see that the problem is not just evil publishers (and they are evil), but that professors in universities all over the world are failing to provide free access to their work when they are legally allowed to do so. Failing miserably.

And this is also the reason why the vast majority (>80%) of published research could be made available to the public for free without even needing to resort to civil disobedience.

Imagine if university librarians could seed the torrents for all of the articles written by the authors in their universities, both past and present. Pretty cool job for a librarian. And it would be perfectly legal. In some countries, provision of pre-prints for government funded research is already mandatory.

All of this is written explicitly in the article. It’s very easy to find. The Swartz Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto is the very first reference in the article.

Disclaimer: I wrote the article.

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