Elsevier and Wiley’s War on Science and Research

THREE journal publishers have filed a case in Delhi High Court for blocking Sci-Hub and Libgen in India. These two websites provide free downloads of research publications and books to research scholars and students. This is not an attack on pirate sites, as the publishers claim but a war against students and researchers in India, who do not have access to these high-priced journals. The case has been filed in Delhi by knowledge monopolies who have locked the results of science—both natural and social sciences—behind their paywalls, and now insist that everyone pay through their nose for access.

It is this exorbitant price demanded by publishers for access to knowledge that led Alexandra Elbakyan, a young Kazakhstan scientist, to create Sci-Hub. Today the scientific community world over, including the US, uses Sci-Hub to access journal articles. Sci-Hub has most of the papers that the scientific community requires including open access papers on her site. Sci-Hub provides a one-stop-shop for accessing knowledge. The ease of its use and download speed, compared to the clumsy and slow site of the journals, makes it attractive for even those who have university access to use Sci-Hub (Science: Who’s downloading pirated papers? EVERYONE, April 28, 2016)). As this article said, everyone—from poor to rich countries—uses Sci-Hub.

In India, researchers and students downloaded seven million papers from Sci-Hub in 2016, which would have cost them around 250 million dollars. This is the money which they simply do not have. Simply put, if Sci-Hub access is stopped in India, most of the Indian research, except in few rich institutions, will come to a halt. No researcher has the kind of money individually to shell out the $10,000-30,000 every year for his or her research. For a country aspiring to be a rising science power, this would spell finish to those dreams.

The journal publishers would argue that theirs is a costly business and they need the money to sustain it. On the contrary, the 10-billion dollar journal publishing is one of the most profitable businesses in the world. Elsevier, one of the parties that have filed the Delhi suit, has profits of a billion dollars from a revenue of about two-and-half billion dollars. Their profit margins are in the range of 40 per cent. Compare this to the 19 per cent profit margin of Google, the world’s biggest digital monopoly.

Why is journal publishing one of the most profitable businesses in the world? Simply put, it is a business where the publicly funded, does all the work and even pays to access the fruits of their own work. If the research community want their work to be freely accessed, they have to pay the publishers for providing such open access.

Let us see how scientific publishing works. The scientific community slaves away in the library, laboratories, field research, studying for example bat viruses in remote locations, lipid residue in Harappan cooking pots, all of which is then distilled into research outputs. Research is a costly business, requires expensive equipment, highly trained personnel and other facilities. Most of the funding for research is from public money, therefore from the people.

The journal publishers, under their monopoly, receive the papers for publications. The process of review—by the editors and reviewers—are again done gratis by the community. They believe that it is to advance knowledge. After review, the papers are finally submitted by the authors for publication in formats that keep conversion costs low for digital publications. The conversion to final digital form, making it searchable and indexable, is outsourced to low-cost countries like India. The publishers play very little role in either the production of knowledge or the final digital product they sell. Today, the publishers receive more than 90 per cent of their revenue from digital sales, and not the sale of physical journals. They play a minimal role in either creating the content or even the final form. But having secured monopoly rights over such knowledge, they become the gatekeepers who have to be paid each time we access a paper.

Almost twenty years back, researchers recognised that this model of science publishing was neither fair nor viable. It goes against the grain of Universal Declaration of Human Rights which declares access to knowledge as a fundamental right. In 2002, the Budapest open access declaration asked the scientific community create open access publications where knowledge can be accessed freely by anyone. Unfortunately, even after nearly 20 years, open access journals cover only 20 per cent of the papers published, a number which is not growing. Apart from this 20 per cent of open access articles, the bulk of the papers that researchers need are older publications. These publications are still locked away behind expensive paywalls. Even worse, the open-access journals, have flipped the barrier from access to publication of papers. Some of these open-access publications have the same publishers. As an author, you will have to pay a significant amount to publish in the open-access journals. This reverses the barrier of researchers not being able to access publications to not being able to publish in these journals.

In Budapest, the research community raised the demand for open access publishing to reduce the exorbitant gate-keeping fees on knowledge. Today, with the internet and digital reproduction, the cost per copy and its delivery is negligible. Even if publishing did not move towards open access, we would have expected lower costs of journals. This is how market economics operates, right? No, this is not how monopoly capitalism operates. With the digital transition, more and more of the original publishers, science and academic publishers handed over their publications to a few monopolies, creating an even bigger concentration of monopoly power for publishers like Elsevier and Wiley. The result is that the cost of journals in the last 30 years has risen by six times while the price index had only doubled (Vox: The war to free science, Brian Resnick and Julia Belluz, Jul 10, 2019). This is the super-profits of the monopoly journal publishing industry.

In the history of journal publishing, it was not always like this. This transformation was led by Robert Maxwell, a crook and a British businessman, who created a publishing empire in the ’60s. He realised early the potential of profits from scientific publishing, which was still in its early days. He died in mysterious circumstances, possibly suicide, after the discovery of stealing $400 million from his workers’ provident fund. His daughter, Ghislaine Maxwell, is currently in the news as an accomplice of Jeffrey Epstein in serial sex abuse cases of minors.

For those who may remember Aaron Swartz’s case, he downloaded a number of research papers using his university facilities and wanted to make them freely available. He was arrested, and facing a lengthy prison sentence under US law, committed suicide. The free software and free knowledge community remember Aaron for his contributions to free software and his demand to liberate knowledge from its prison guards.

Aaron, in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto published in 2008, wrote:

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.

It is for the courts to decide whether Sci-Hub’s use by research scholars in India constitutes a valid use of the copyright exceptions, similar to what was decided by the courts in the Delhi University photo-copying case. The Delhi High Court needs to recognise that the copyright holders case filed is not against Sci-Hub and Libgen. It is against the research scholars in this country, most of whose research would come to a halt if this case filed by the knowledge monopolies succeeds in the court. The future of research in India is at stake, not Alexandra Elbakyan’s or Sci-Hub’s future.