Why Carl Malamud's Latest Brilliant Project, To Mine The World's Research Papers, Is Based In India

from the sci-hub-to-the-rescue-again dept

Carl Malamud is one of Techdirt's heroes. We've been writing about his campaign to liberate US government documents and information for over ten years now. The journal Nature has a report on a new project of his, which is in quite a different field: academic knowledge. The idea will be familiar to readers of this site: to carry out text and data mining (TDM) on millions of academic articles, in order to discover new knowledge. It's a proven technique with huge potential to produce important discoveries. That raises the obvious question: if large-scale TDM of academic papers is so powerful, why hasn't it been done before? The answer, as is so often the case, is that copyright gets in the way. Academic publishers use it to control and impede how researchers can help humanity:

[Malamud's] unprecedented project is generating much excitement because it could, for the first time, open up vast swathes of the paywalled literature for easy computerized analysis. Dozens of research groups already mine papers to build databases of genes and chemicals, map associations between proteins and diseases, and generate useful scientific hypotheses. But publishers control -- and often limit -- the speed and scope of such projects, which typically confine themselves to abstracts, not full text.

Malamud's project gets around the limitations imposed by copyright and publishers thanks to two unique features. First, Malamud "had come into possession (he won't say how) of eight hard drives containing millions of journal articles from Sci-Hub". Drawing on Sci-Hub's huge holdings means his project doesn't need to go begging to publishers in order to obtain full texts to be mined. Secondly, Malamud is basing his project in India:

Over the past year, Malamud has -- without asking publishers -- teamed up with Indian researchers to build a gigantic store of text and images extracted from 73 million journal articles dating from 1847 up to the present day. The cache, which is still being created, will be kept on a 576-terabyte storage facility at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

India was chosen because of an important court battle that concluded two years ago. As Techdirt reported then, it is legal in India to make photocopies of copyright material in an educational context. Malamud's contention is that this allows him to mine academic material in India without the permission of publishers. But he also believes that his TDM project would be legal in the US:

The data mining, he says, is non-consumptive: a technical term meaning that researchers don't read or display large portions of the works they are analysing. "You cannot punch in a DOI [article identifier] and pull out the article," he says. Malamud argues that it is legally permissible to do such mining on copyrighted content in countries such as the United States. In 2015, for instance, a US court cleared Google Books of copyright infringement charges after it did something similar to the JNU depot: scanning thousands of copyrighted books without buying the rights to do so, and displaying snippets from these books as part of its search service, but not allowing them to be downloaded or read in their entirety by a human.

The fact that TDM is "non-consumptive" means that the unhelpful attitude of academic publishers is even more unjustified than usual. They lose nothing from the analytical process, which is merely extracting knowledge. But from a sense of entitlement publishers still demand to be paid for unrestricted computer access to texts that have already been licensed by academic institutions anyway. That selfish and obstructive attitude to TDM may be about to backfire spectacularly. The Nature article notes:

No one will be allowed to read or download work from the repository, because that would breach publishers' copyright. Instead, Malamud envisages, researchers could crawl over its text and data with computer software, scanning through the world's scientific literature to pull out insights without actually reading the text.

The thing is, if anyone were by any chance interested in reading the full text, there's an obvious place to turn to. After all, the mining is carried out using papers held by Sci-Hub, so…

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

Filed Under: academic papers, carl malamud, copyright, india, journals, research, science, tdm, text and data mining
Companies: sci-hub

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Jul 2019 @ 9:14am


    So basically instead of copyright promoting the progress of science and useful arts it's piracy that's doing so.

    Sure, if you accept "piracy" to mean "things copyright holders object to". But if you believe copyright is holding us back, it's unfair to call Malamud a pirate.

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