Academic publishing is broken

Academic publishing is broken

Created in 2011, Sci-Hub is the largest free repository of scholarly articles in the world. Or rather, it is the largest shadow library of pirated articles that exists. And its creator, Kazakh researcher Alexandra Elbakyan deserves a Nobel Prize for her work as a modern Robin Hood.

We all know the basis by which academics work: publish or perish. And it is increasingly difficult for researchers to have access to the texts they need to do their work – even their own. A couple of years ago, while I was still climbing the ladder of academia and needed to publish as much as possible, one of my articles ended up in a well-ranked journal that did not even give the authors access to the articles they wrote. Nor did I get access through my university, which did not subscribe to such a journal.

It was quite an odd situation. I wrote the article, but I simply could not access it nor anyone from my university that might be interested in a similar topic. I spoke to a few colleagues who also could not access it, but rather had to pay large sums of money to read it and cite it - which is the academic's main goal. So, I managed to publish, but I would ultimately perish because no one in my area seemed to be able to read it.

Large repositories are extremely expensive and more and more universities handpick which ones they will subscribe to, creating countless difficulties for many researchers to have access to much-needed articles and journals.

Not to mention the many steps to access any material, even from repositories made available by the university – VPN’s that often don’t work, workarounds that make little sense, slow and laggy systems, etc. In short, sometimes you just want to read one article from one particular journal and you spend more time figuring out how to do it than actually reading it, making notes and citing it – or having to pay a full price for the entire journal or even an absolutely shameful amount for the simple article.

Sci-Hub, then, comes as a vital source of knowledge for researchers who would otherwise struggle to have access to much needed scientific literature.

But it gets worse. It is not uncommon for researchers not to have access to their own published texts – as I mentioned earlier - and even to be threatened by big publishing companies if they decide to make the content they have produced - for free - available.

Actually, not even for free, as in most cases universities have paid for the content, governments have paid through grants and ultimately the public paid a lot of money, yet they cannot have access to it, because journals will not pay a cent to anyone and will also profit from everyone else’s work.

I am not saying that academic publishing houses are worthless. But the current model is broken and we do need to think of (more) sustainable models for academic publishing that do not involve paying hundreds of dollars for a 20-page article or getting threats for allowing a colleague to read a paper you wrote, but the journal decided it should go behind a paywall.

Universities often do not have the bandwidth to publish journals and books – dealing with all the bureaucracy, the staff needed, the contacts with peer reviewers, the editing process, etc – so academic publishing houses are important, they fill a gap and do provide a vital service to academia. The problem here is how - and how much – they charge for it.

Academic publishing houses do not have to vanish because Sci-Hub’s enough. It is not. Sci-Hub doesn’t edit, doesn’t do peer review, and so on - and these are essential processes. But it does allow us to have access to overly expensive content that we have produced, and we have the right to access. Not a few academics have signed petitions and vowed to never publish, edit or peer-review for publishing houses like Elsevier or Springer which, they believe, exploit the volunteer work of academics for profit. They are demanding a reform of how journals are published.

Some of the issues that are frequently pointed out are the high prices charged, the bundle or combination of journals that are forced upon universities, the refusal to allow authors to decide to keep their articles open or to share them, and ultimately the fact that knowledge cannot be held hostage by one or several publishing houses.

Sci-Hub, then, comes as a way – sometimes the only way – for academics to effectively do their research, particularly those from developing countries or a low-income background.

Academic publishing houses do supply value in the process, but not enough to keep the current model afloat. Academics should be able to share and access their own works freely without asking for permission. Elsevier or Springer shouldn’t do their work for free, but rather work together with the academic world and become part of it in a mutually supportive and collaborative way.

I firmly believe that we need to shift the focus of giant for-profit publishing houses to one of non-profit entities aligned with universities and professional societies, or at least a model in which universities and libraries can pay reasonable prices for the work that such publishing houses actually do - work which is often based on a lot of volunteer work from academics on the editing and peer-reviewing side.

The biggest barrier to change is the fact that often the highest-ranking journals are owned by such publishing houses and that academics, despite their best efforts, need to publish on such journals; making boycotts hard to follow through, particularly for those starting out.

The logic of academic publications is not the same of other books. Calling the sharing of academic publications "piracy" makes no sense. We need changes, and fast, as the current model becomes more and more unsustainable and unaffordable, with the potential to seriously harm scientific research. Academic publishing houses must work together with universities and researchers to find ways to reduce costs and share profits so that we can foster open knowledge without relying on unsustainable practices. Otherwise, it is little wonder that Sci-Hub is still many academics' default.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian journalist published by Al Jazeera, DW, MIT Tech Review and Tor, among other news outlets. He also has a PhD in Human Rights.