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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Companies: elsevier, sci-hub

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Comments on “To Prevent Free, Frictionless Access To Human Knowledge, Publishers Want Librarians To Be Afraid, Very Afraid”

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48 Comments
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That One Guy (profile) says:

'Won't someone think of our obscene profits?!'

The only ‘threat’ Sci-Hub poses is to parasites who don’t like that their insanely lucrative business as gatekeepers might be facing some competition by academics who are increasingly angry that their research is being locked up and paywalled rather than disseminated and shared, that kinda being the whole point of research as knowledge not shared is little different than knowledge never discovered or learned.

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Jeroen Hellingman (profile) says:

Since copyright is a regulation to help publisher recoup their investments in producing a work, there is no need whatsoever to have a copyright at all on any work produced with public funds, as many of the scientific research articles are. The reward belongs to the public and is biggest when the article can be disseminated with as little friction as possible. There should be a ban on claiming copyright over any work that has been substantially financed by public means.

What also will be needed is an infrastructure to validate the integrity of articles, if only to counter this type of scare-mongering. This could be as easy as having a digital signature of the author and reviewers over a properly canonicalized version of the paper.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Since copyright is a regulation to help publisher recoup their investments in producing a work"

Well, the stated aim is to "promote the progress", which does not necessarily include profit although it so often does. Copyright is something that also underpins things like open source to a degree, the chosen rules are just different to the standard one otherwise forced on everyone.

"There should be a ban on claiming copyright over any work that has been substantially financed by public means."

No argument there. If anything needs to change, it’s the idea of "socialise the risk, privatise the rewards", upon which too much is based right now.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Since copyright is a regulation to help publisher recoup their investments in producing a work…"

That’s actually not the case. At best you could describe copyright as a Red Flag Act intended to bolster an ailing industry of middlemen feeling threatened by the ease of building a printing press.
The US optional extra of Article 8 -"…to further progress of science and the arts…" has never been used for its intended purpose.

Copyright has always been, is today, and will remain nothing but a modern iteration of medieval church heresy law – intended to ensure everyone needs to go to a specified gatekeeper to obtain a copy of information because it’s your head on the block if you transcribe a copy yourself.

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Spot Light says:

Re: Re: Hey, "Scary Devil Monastery": you are wackily prolix!

Copyright has always been, is today, and will remain nothing but a modern iteration of medieval church heresy law

First, WHAT? That’s just silly. If makes sense to you, then are drunk or stoned.

Looks a lot like the excess syllables style of "Bill Jackson" AND not coincidentally Timothy Geigner.

It’s utterly incredible that you ALL have medieval-ish techno-babble.

YOU ARE ASTRO-TURFING.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Hey, "Scary Devil Monastery": you are wackily prolix

"If makes sense to you, then are drunk or stoned."

Or unlike you I’ve actually read up on history. The catholic church remained in power for so long mainly because they held the view that the only people allowed to copy, read or interpret the bible were ordained priests. When someone other than a priest read the bible or copied it they usually found out that the bible didn’t exactly say what the priests kept declaring. All of heresy law is essentially identical to copyright law.

And this was what Mary Queen of Scots copied when she introduced the precursor to modern copyright as a socio-religious censorship tool which Queen Anne then refurbished to serve private interests.

"Looks a lot like the excess syllables style of "Bill Jackson" AND not coincidentally Timothy Geigner."

You just keep insisting everyone who doesn’t agree with you is Mike Masnick in disguise, asshat. Meanwhile something I’m sure both you and Geigner have in common is that you’ll both have to hit google translate up for what "Ta dig i dalen, virrpanna" means.

"YOU ARE ASTRO-TURFING."

I’m not the one who got caught using a dozen sock puppets. Every accusation a confession, eh?

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Hey, "Scary Devil Monastery": you are wackily pr

Yes, We all know religion is a scam to live free and run things. Latin needed scribes so people could read/write letters. The printing press wrecked that and new religions were created from pure bullshit as the new priests decided that to live for free was good. As for religion preserving knowledge – they perpetuated their own BS and when they ran out of paper(thin animal skin) they scraped off Archimedes et all. thus a great deal of written history was eliminated to preserve their crap. (Google palimpsest)
In a similar way the era of academic printing is threatened by the internet.
I am not making the wave, the wave is there, wide and deep and spontaneous. Soon more and more governments will decree that publicly funded data must be open sourced. Cut off the roots and the elsevier strangler tree will die.
Be better if all past publicly funded research is open sourced. If 10% is paid by the public then the whole thing is public

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Spot Light says:

Re: No, "Jeroen Hellingman", copyright is a RIGHT.

Since copyright is a regulation to help publisher recoup their investments in producing a work,

It may do that (especially if you narrow it to almost "for hire" as here), but the key point of copyRIGHT is protecting the INDIVIDUAL’S WORK which is more precious to some than mere money.

And it’s not a mere "regulation": it’s in body of Constitution specifying that one duty of gov’t to protect for individuals an already existing RIGHT to control copies of their creations. PERIOD.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

To accuse Sci-Hub of "threatening" the scholarly communications ecosystem by providing universal access is absurd.

It is more than absurd, as it is the academic publishers that most threaten scholarly communication by making it too expensive. Besides which an attack on Sci-Hub is an attack on the scholarly community, who are it prime supporter and users.

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Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Microkerning

As you know, kerning is the process whereby letters are aligned on the page to increase readibility. Google for more. There is the related process that is often used to create unique document signatures on diplomatic and other sensitive documents. This I have called ‘microkerning – the addition of added small fractional spaces scattered through the document so that each document is identifiably different. ‘By this means every document downloaded from any repository (by the owners of the repository) can be identified as to source. That means if I use my subsription to get a paper and give it to Sci-Hub, it can be analyzed and tracked back to me and my institution – who is then punished in some way. I suspect the academic publishers are doing this. This can be eliminated by Sci-Hub running their donated papers through a ‘dekerning; engine. This be something as simple as replacing the font with a standard width font and using a word processor to impose standard spacing rules. This can be automated for a lower burden on Sci-Hub. A similar process to strip off steganographic cues from pictures can also be used. The tradeoff in clarity is negligible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Microkerning

Sci-Hub could download the paper several times from different accounts and check whether they’re identical (e.g. by hashing). Of course, publishers could do tricky things like change the file every day and see which accounts accessed a file on a specific day. If they try hard enough, they might eventually track a lot of these papers back to… the papers’ authors.

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Bobvious says:

The old "investigating my enemy" schtick

So Evil Seer is using their patented Scholarly Tracking Analysis Spying Initiative (STASI) to boost their claims of impropriety through the use of "the (insert three-letter-acronym here) Department is currently investigating the (enemy of complainant) because of (complaint), lodged by (complainant)" because "if you throw enough mud". How very Saruman of them.

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wshuff (profile) says:

“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.”

Oh, you mean like that time Elsevier published fake journals?

https://www.the-scientist.com/the-nutshell/elsevier-published-6-fake-journals-44160

DNY (profile) says:

Threats to ecosystems

Of course Sci-Hub and the like are threats to the scholarly communications ecosystem — that ecosystem currently includes a robust species of parasite, known by the common name "commercial academic publishers", which could go extinct. The parasites evolved from a species known by the same common name which before the advent of LaTeX and the internet had a symbiotic relation with academicians, organizing peer review, beautifully typesetting accepted works and distributing it to other academicians. As the latter two functions in the symbiosis became useless to the hosts with the new environmental conditions, the symbiotes became parasitic, with an increasingly voracious appetite for monopoly rents.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Copyright, and it's many extensions, as bought and paid for

By the Disney Corporation. It was originally intended to protect against unauthorised copies to allow the author and his heirs to live on it for the term. Now it has been extended to 75+++ years.
The forced abrogation of all rights in an academic work to the journal publisher who then proceed to extract fees from the poor of the world and hold back science in many places as a consequence should be blocked and all publicly paid works should be open sourced when written.
With modren hard drives there are copies of almost all papers now freely circulated to the poor countries. Elseviers of the world try to litigate in most of these countries, so it carries on as a latter day ‘sneaker net’.
Let them die, let the flies have their way – their day is done.

Brandon (profile) says:

SciHub IS a problem

I have no love for the conventional publishing economy controlled by massive publishers, but SciHub isn’t the right answer. SciHub routes around those behemoths but doesn’t fix the fundamental problem.

Preprints are only valuable, really, after the final article has passed peer review and been edited, because then the content that debuted in the preprint can be weighed using the published end-result. While publishers don’t pay for peer review, and often don’t pay for some of their editing, they do help organize everything and provide that network (to an extent). How this control is used to leverage massive profits is a big problem, but without that peer review and editing there’s simply too much academic literature to process. This constant glut of literature is part of the Publish or Perish paradigm which needs to be eliminated at our universities.

SciHub would have little to no value without those reviewed and edited final works. The question then becomes how do we make scientific research accessible equitably and still provide a healthy and robust peer review process and the necessary editing and publishing required to reach readers? What we have now is clearly a big problem, but SciHub isn’t the solution. What we need is something else.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: SciHub IS a problem

Do you realize that the peer review is done by the same academics that publish in journals?

In a world with the Internet, why has academia not moved to a system where librarians and administrators manage the peer review process, and mark papers in their systems when it is accepted by the reviewers, and if it is retracted, along with a distributed search engine for finding papers? They have the systems, and expertise to do the cataloguing in their own libraries.

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Spot Light says:

Re: Re: SciHub IS a problem -- says the ZOMBIE!

Then "Bill Jackson" out with several today, though skipped 2017, two in 2018, and one long gap:

106 (10), 30 mo gap; 26 Jul 2010 https://www.techdirt.com/user/aurizon

Bill is a foreigner, states: "Here in Canada", but keen on US of A problems — and on helping out Techdirt on a slow day.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: SciHub IS a problem

"he question then becomes how do we make scientific research accessible equitably and still provide a healthy and robust peer review process and the necessary editing and publishing required to reach readers?"

That’s not a serious question, I hope?

Elsevier – major gatekeepers in general – are a very new phenomenon in that regard.

It’s actually part of the academic credit ladder that you are, as the holder of a prestigious academic title, expected to peer review a number of publications. And you do this, of course, because you know damn well both that being bottlenecked yourself by no one reviewing your publication is the end of your career and it is decidedly in your own best interests to peer review anything written by other skilled people in the field you yourself hope to excel in.

So yea, Elsevier does indeed field the largely irrelevant argument that they "help" with peer reviews. And that is as flat out as deceptive as some random bum doing a rain dance around a car wash claiming participation money from the guy actually cleaning your car.

DNY (profile) says:

Re: SciHub IS a problem

Two examples from mathematics show there is no need for commercial publishers collecting monopoly rents to organize peer review: Theory and Applications of Categories is the preeminent journal in category theory. It is free to publish in, free to download content from, and peer-reviewed by the same sort of volunteer editors and labor used by commercial publishers. Also operating on the same model is Algebraic and Geometric Topology, the original editorial board of which had been the editorial board of one of the preeminent topology journals, Topology until they resigned en masse over the predatory practices of it new owners, Elsevier.

Every academic discipline and subdiscipline could have journals of this sort simply by the university employing a notable figure in the field agreeing to provide server space.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Sci-Hub is the solution -especially as it

forces a review of the process. I can see the reviewers being paid the Elsevier ‘tax’, we now pay a lot more to support their bloated edifice.. It is true, review is needed viz;- the huge rise of fake/trash papers.
I often suspect Elsevier feeds the trash maw to cite it in their defence.

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Spot Light says:

Re: Sci-Hub is the solution -especially as it

bloated edifice..

Nobody normal uses words this way. It’s Geigner as usual.

It is true, review is needed viz;- the huge rise of fake/trash papers.

"Fake" says the astro-turfing ZOMBIE.

I often suspect Elsevier feeds the trash maw to cite it in their defence.

"trash maw" — again, word combination that may be UNIQUE in all the world! Google for it, see how often it’s used. No one but Timothy Geigner writes with this excess. And there’s yet more unique in every "Bill Jackson" comment.

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Of course, slow and on an unpaid basis.

There needs to be an improved review pathway – possibly the librarians as well as the same reviewers on a paid basis. The huge body of past work needs to be open sourced so it can be freely accessed without undue cost. It is now in libraries of past printed journals that are indexed – but it is cumbersome. It needs to be open and online. I am open to how far back the old papers need to be scanned and onlined, but the old broken era ofthe elseviers of the world needs to draw to a close.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Bad assumption

The assumption that being smart and/or educated makes it more likely for a system to be designed securely is probably a fallacy…

unless they are designed by complete idiots

Well, I certainly don’t hold a high opinion on the current state of higher education in the USA, but I’m not sure I’m ready to call them complete idiots…

Anyways, one does not need to be a complete idiot to design something horribly and manage to unnecessarily expose private info that isn’t even used!

Bill Jackson (profile) says:

Academe was so decoupled - all they did

was request papers, and they had no idea of the corrupt system behind the scenes. It was only the revolt of many Universities at the naked cash grab by the elseviers, who own these walled gardens, who make margins of ~~40% After paying taxes and HUGE executive salaries that prompted this revolution among the poor when they demaned further increases in journal fees.
Like a parasite without regards to the host, it has reached the point of the death of the host. Look at all the colleges in India, Bangladesh etc., who would be beggared – were it not for Sci-Hub…

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Spot Light says:

Techdirt is ASTRO-TURFING to look as though has activity.

No one has ANY other explanation.

Given that inescapable conclusion, the anonymous ones and repeated names are more than suspect too.

The style of these jumps out when suspect: unique unnecessary combinations of words, a pseudo-medieval techno-babble, way too many syllables that lose the point. Just as Timothy Geigner can’t help doing.

Ya really ought to purge old accounts, Maz, at least those inactive for over six years! Even if genuine, make ya look like what ya are: PHONY.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Techdirt is ASTRO-TURFING to look as though has activity.

"The style of these jumps out when suspect: unique unnecessary combinations of words, a pseudo-medieval techno-babble, way too many syllables that lose the point. Just as Timothy Geigner can’t help doing."

I think you’ll find that anyone with an actual education tends to use proper words and nuance. We can’t all be uneducated trailer trash, Baghdad Bob.

But hey, I guess that’s the usual complaint from your type when it comes to academics? We all use "dem big book-learnt words"?

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Spot Light says:

Phew. Tired after pointing up the astro-turfing. Now to topic.

Elsevier has every right to control copies and get paid for the librarying.

Techdirt is claiming a public good, but who would pay for the librarying if not in the current system? Want that explicitly on the public taxes too? So that it can become another fat gov’t bureaucracy? Or should it be left to private sector?

Sci-Hub already has tens of millions in judgments against it, because its "business model" is to simply steal the valuable products without paying a cent for the actual work of librarying.

By the way, WHO pays for Sci-Hub to operate? Bandwidth isn’t quite free. SO WHO PAYS THAT? It’s a key point, and Techdirt never bothers to mention.

If the owner can ever be found in US jurisdiction, she’ll be hounded for the money, and should be, for rest of her life.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Phew. Tired after pointing up the astro-turfing. Now to topi

"Want that explicitly on the public taxes too?"

Why not? Half the stuff there was already paid for by the public, and the benefit of a public library system has already been recognised for many decades for non-scientific literature. The public benefit of this kind of funding is immeasurable, and trivial compared to your country’s expensive obsession with murdering people.

"By the way, WHO pays for Sci-Hub to operate?"

A cursory Google search would tell you it’s mainly user donations. Many useful services are funded this way.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Phew. Tired after pointing up the astro-turfing. Now to topi

"Elsevier has every right to control copies and get paid for the librarying. "

So, in your logic if someone comes to your house, takes what you paid for and own, then put it in a stand, sorted, it’s now theirs?

"…who would pay for the librarying if not in the current system?"

The same ones who did for the hundreds of years when a greedy intermediate gatekeeper like Elsevier didn’t exist? Like asking why anyone would learn to spell if computers didn’t exist. You’re a fucking embarrassment, Baghdad Bob.

"Sci-Hub already has tens of millions in judgments against it, because its "business model" is to simply steal the valuable products without paying a cent for the actual work of librarying."

Except those products were paid for by public money and so belongs to the public…to which sci-hub then makes it available. By your logic if you walk into a public library and write a new index, you own the books?

"By the way, WHO pays for Sci-Hub to operate? Bandwidth isn’t quite free. SO WHO PAYS THAT? It’s a key point, and Techdirt never bothers to mention."

Sci-hub is an openly audited non-profit operation which lives on publicly accountable donations. That answer was all of one google query away but I guess we can always trust you to concoct a malicious conspiracy before even looking.

"If the owner can ever be found in US jurisdiction, she’ll be hounded for the money, and should be, for rest of her life."

Ah, the typical malicious bullshit we’re so used to from you. No, that owner is giving back to the public what the public paid for and Elsevier stole. But hey, I don’t think anyone is surprised by now to realize that you’re motivated entirely by the idea of someone, anyone, being hurt without reason.

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