from the now,-what-do-we-call-that-again? dept
Last month, Techdirt wrote about the growing interest in Sci-Hub, which provides free access to research papers -- more than 47,000,000 of them at the time of writing. As Mike noted then, Elsevier's attempt to make the site go away by suing it has inevitably produced a classic Streisand Effect, whereby many more people know about it as a direct result. That was first pointed out by Mike Taylor in a short post, where he listed a few titles that had written about Sci-Hub. This week, David Rosenthal has produced a kind of update, listing many more posts on the subject that have appeared in the last month alone.
Rosenthal's list includes an article entitled "Should All Research Papers Be Free?" that was published in Sunday's edition of The New York Times. It's probably the most significant contribution to spreading the word about Sci-Hub more widely, but it doesn't really add much to the debate. By contrast, another post mentioned by Rosenthal, found on the Inside Higher Ed's site, and written by the college librarian Barbara Fister, may lack the impact of The New York Times news analysis, but does make some genuinely novel observations about what is going on here.
Fister notes that alongside people who don't have access to the articles they need because they are not affiliated with a well-funded Western library with the right subscriptions, many researchers turn to Sci-Hub because accessing articles has become a complicated and inconvenient process. As she says:
For many folks, Sci-Hub is simply a more convenient library that doesn’t make you mess around with logins and interlibrary loans. Hey, we’re busy. Paywalls are a pain.
Techdirt has written before about this aspect before, and the growing evidence that piracy greatly diminishes once good, easy-to-use legal services become available. However, as Fister rightly says, the current situation is awkward for the people who are supposed to be overseeing those unsatisfactory legal services:
Librarians are in a nasty spot. Sometimes I wonder if we can even call ourselves librarians anymore. We feel we are virtually required to provide access to whatever researchers in our local community ask for while restricting access from anyone outside that narrowly-defined community of users. Instead of curators, we're personal shoppers who moonlight as border guards. This isn’t working out well for anyone. Unaffiliated researchers have to find illegal work-arounds, and faculty who actually have access through libraries are turning to the black market for articles because it seems more efficient than contacting their personal shopper, particularly when the library itself doesn't figure in their work flow. In the meantime, all that money we spend on big bundles of articles (or on purchasing access to articles one at a time when we can't afford the bundle anymore) is just a really high annual rent. We can't preserve what we don't own, and we don't curate because our function is to get what is asked for.
Not only is lack of open access soul-destroying for librarians longing to take a more active and creative role in the provision of information to the academics they support, it comes with a hidden financial cost that has been overlooked:
It is labor -- lots of labor -- to maintain link resolvers, keep [academic journal] license agreements in order, and deal with constant changes in subscription contents. We [librarians] have to work a lot harder to be publishers' border guards than people realize.
That's a hugely important point that I have not seen made elsewhere. Alongside all the other tasks that traditional publishers push onto the academic community -- notably, writing articles and refereeing them for free -- there is another major burden, imposed specifically on librarians, who are forced to spend much of their time acting as the publishers' hated "border guards." That's a tragic waste of their highly-specialized skills, and not what they were employed to do.
This extra cost is yet another reason to move rapidly to open access publishing for all academic work, which would not only legalize Sci-Hub, but make it superfluous.Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+