Culture

by Glyn Moody


Filed Under:
biblioleaks, books, leaks, research, sharing



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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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Apr 2014 @ 9:08am

    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.

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