Sci-Hub, the controversial website for pirating academic articles, might be the push that forces the academic publishing industry to address the needs of members of society to have fair access to academic literature.
The academic publishing industry is an extremely lucrative industry that operates using a bizarre model. The actual product delivered by this industry, i e the academic articles, are written and peer-reviewed for free by academics.
Once an article is written, reviewed, and accepted for publication, the author would normally be expected to transfer all his or her rights to the publisher so that the article could be widely distributed through the academic journals owned by the publisher.
To have access to these journals, universities have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the publisher in annual subscription fees. If a member of the public not affiliated with a university wants to access any of these articles, that individual must pay about US$30 to view each article. Academics publish in these articles because this is a requirement for their promotion, and universities must pay to access these articles because they need them for teaching and research.
The contribution of the publishers to this system is nominal, especially when one realises that they get the content for free. According to the Financial Times, one academic publisher, Elsevier, achieved revenues of £2bn in 2014 with an operating profits margin of 34 per cent.
As a result of the extremely lucrative nature of this business model, there has been no incentive for academic publishers to take advantage of the Internet to help disseminate knowledge in a more effective way. Very few people outside rich academic institutions have access to academic articles, even though the Internet should make access to such text-based content extremely cheap and affordable.
Sci-Hub was created by a researcher in Kazakhstan who desperately needed to have access to academic articles for her research. The website grew to become the most popular tool on the Internet to have unauthorised access to academic articles. The website allows a user to look up articles in numerous academic databases and extract them without any payment.
Once an article is extracted, a copy of it is then deposited to an unauthorised academic database. Sci-Hub has now stored about 50mn pirated academic articles. One academic publisher has taken legal action against Sci-Hub and forced it to switch to another domain name, but as the founder of the website is based in Kazakhstan and not the US, it is unlikely for the US legal system to be able to hold the researcher accountable or shutdown the website completely.
There are many who celebrate Sci-Hub as the saviour of academic literature, but it is not a sustainable solution and it is clearly in violation of the law. For academic literature to be truly open, it must be legally available the public, not only to read for free, but also to quote, translate, and build upon without any legal restrictions.
The popularity of Sci-Hub shows the publishing industry has failed in satisfying the needs of scholars all over the world and that the open access movement has not succeeded in creating the transformation that members of the public demand.