To Prevent Free, Frictionless Access To Human Knowledge, Publishers Want Librarians To Be Afraid, Very Afraid
from the because-security dept
After many years of fierce resistance to open access, academic publishers have largely embraced — and extended — the idea, ensuring that their 35-40% profit margins live on. In the light of this subversion of the original hopes for open access, people have come up with other ways to provide free and frictionless access to knowledge — most of which is paid for by taxpayers around the world. One is preprints, which are increasingly used by researchers to disseminate their results widely, without needing to worry about payment or gatekeepers. The other is through sites that have taken it upon themselves to offer immediate access to large numbers of academic papers — so-called “shadow libraries”. The most famous of these sites is Sci-Hub, created by Alexandra Elbakyan. At the time of writing, Sci-Hub claims to hold
79 85 million papers.
Even academics with access to publications through their institutional subscriptions often prefer to use Sci-Hub, because it is so much simpler and quicker. In this respect, Sci-Hub stands as a constant reproach to academic publishers, emphasizing that their products aren’t very good in terms of serving libraries, which are paying expensive subscriptions for access. Not surprisingly, then, Sci-Hub has become Enemy No. 1 for academic publishers in general, and the leading company Elsevier in particular. The German site Netzpolitik has spotted the latest approach being taken by publishers to tackle this inconvenient and hugely successful rival, and other shadow libraries. At its heart lies the Scholarly Networks Security Initiative (SNSI), which was founded by Elsevier and other large publishers earlier this year. Netzpolitik explains that the idea is to track and analyze every access to libraries, because “security”:
Elsevier is campaigning for libraries to be upgraded with security technology. In a SNSI webinar entitled “Cybersecurity Landscape — Protecting the Scholarly Infrastructure”, hosted by two high-ranking Elsevier managers, one speaker recommended that publishers develop their own proxy or a proxy plug-in for libraries to access more (usage) data (“develop or subsidize a low cost proxy or a plug-in to existing proxies”).
With the help of an “analysis engine”, not only could the location of access be better narrowed down, but biometric data (e.g. typing speed) or conspicuous usage patterns (e.g. a pharmacy student suddenly interested in astrophysics) could also be recorded. Any doubts that this software could also be used — if not primarily — against shadow libraries were dispelled by the next speaker. An ex-FBI analyst and IT security consultant spoke about the security risks associated with the use of Sci-Hub.
Since academic publishers can’t compete against Sci-Hub on ease of use or convenience, they are trying the old “security risk” angle — also used by traditional software companies against open source in the early days. Yes, they say, Sci-Hub/open source may seem free and better, but think of the terrible security risks? An FAQ on the main SNSI site provides an “explanation” of why Sci-Hub is supposedly a security risk:
Sci-Hub may fall into the category of state-sponsored actors. It hosts stolen research papers which have been harvested from publisher platforms often using stolen user credentials. According to the Washington Post, the US Justice Department is currently investigating the founder of Sci-Hub, Alexandra Elbakayan, for links between her and Russian Intelligence. If there is substance to this investigation, then using Sci-Hub to access research papers could have much wider ramifications than just getting access to content that sits behind a paywall.
As Techdirt pointed out when that Washington Post article came out, there is no evidence of any connections between Elbakyan and Russian Intelligence. Indeed, it’s hard not to see the investigation as simply the result of whining academic publishers making the same baseless accusation, and demanding that something be “done“. An article in Research Information provides more details about what those “wider ramifications than just getting access to content that sits behind a paywall” might be:
In the specific case of Sci-Hub, academic content (journal articles and books) is illegally harvested using a variety of methods, such as abusing legitimate log in credentials to access the secure computer networks of major universities and by hijacking “proxy” credentials of legitimate users that facilitate off campus remote access to university computer systems and databases. These actions result in a front door being opened up into universities’ networks through which Sci-Hub, and potentially others, can gain access to other valuable institutional databases such as personnel and medical records, patent information, and grant details.
But that’s not how things work in this context. The credentials of legitimate users that Sci-Hub draws on — often gladly “lent” by academics who believe papers should be made widely available — are purely to access articles held on the system. They do not provide access to “other valuable institutional databases” — and certainly not sensitive information such as “personnel and medical records” — unless they are designed by complete idiots. That is pure scaremongering, while this further claim is just ridiculous:
Such activities threaten the scholarly communications ecosystem and the integrity of the academic record. Sci-Hub has no incentive to ensure the accuracy of the research articles being accessed, no incentive to ensure research meets ethical standards, and no incentive to retract or correct if issues arise.
Sci-Hub simply provides free, frictionless access for everyone to existing articles from academic publishers. The articles are still as accurate and ethical as they were when they first appeared. To accuse Sci-Hub of “threatening” the scholarly communications ecosystem by providing universal access is absurd. It’s also revealing of the traditional publishers’ attitude to the uncontrolled dissemination of publicly-funded human knowledge, which is what they really fear and are attacking with the new SNSI campaign.