Home > WORLD NEWS > Open access: All human knowledge is there—so why can’t everybody access it?

Open access: All human knowledge is there—so why can’t everybody access it?

We paid for the research with taxes, and Internet sharing is easy. What’s the hold-up?


In 1836, Anthony Panizzi, who later became principal librarian of the British Museum, gave evidence before a parliamentary select committee. At that time, he was only first assistant librarian, but even then he had an ambitious vision for what would one day became the British Library. He told the committee:

I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect.

He went some way to achieving that goal of providing general access to human knowledge. In 1856, after 20 years of labor as Keeper of Printed Books, he had helped boost the British Museum’s collection to over half a million books, making it the largest library in the world at the time. But there was a serious problem: to enjoy the benefits of those volumes, visitors needed to go to the British Museum in London.

Imagine, for a moment, if it were possible to provide access not just to those books, but to all knowledge for everyone, everywhere—the ultimate realisation of Panizzi’s dream. In fact, we don’t have to imagine: it is possible today, thanks to the combined technologies of digital texts and the Internet. The former means that we can make as many copies of a work as we want for vanishingly small cost; the latter provides a way to distribute those copies to anyone with an Internet connection. The global rise of low-cost smartphones means that “anyone with an Internet connection” will soon include even the poorest members of society in every country.

We have the technical means to share all knowledge, and yet we are nowhere near providing everyone with the ability to indulge their learned curiosity as Panizzi hoped for.

What’s stopping us? That’s the central question that the “open access” movement has been asking, and trying to answer, for the last two decades. Although tremendous progress has been made, with more knowledge freely available now than ever before, there are signs that open access is at a critical point in its development, which could determine whether it will ever succeed in realising Panizzi’s plan.

The arcana of academic publishing

The roadblock to achieving open access is not simply that every creation is automatically covered by copyright, although that fact does complicate matters. Textual works that are chiefly designed to convey knowledge are different in important ways from those mainly created for entertainment—novels, plays, poems, etc. Factual productions are generally written by academics and researchers as a way of disseminating their discoveries or ideas. They are not, primarily, written to gain money, unlike novels and other works of entertainment.

The creators of factual works are typically paid through recognition by their peers and (sometimes) the wider public, which helps to advance their careers and ultimately leads to indirect financial rewards such as more ready access to grants and a higher salary.

For years, publishers have been the intermediaries in this process. Outside of small academic presses, a fact-focused book will be handled the same as any other. But research-focused journals are a different thing entirely. Researchers not paid when their papers appear in academic journals, but they are generally expected to pay fees to handle some of the costs of publication. They also hand over their copyright to publishers, who thereafter act as if they had created it.

In addition, academics are expected to carry out other work for the publishers, as reviewers and editors, again without payment. An important facet of academic publishing is peer review. This is a vetting process applied to submitted papers that attempts to ensure that only high-quality work is published. It generally requires more than one referee. In addition, academics are often asked to work on editorial boards of academic journals, helping to set the overall objectives, and to deal with any issues that arise requiring their specialised knowledge. Again, all these activities require both time and rare skills, and academics generally receive no remuneration for supplying them.

They provide this free labour in part because doing so is an accepted part of academic culture. Researchers expect their own work to be peer-reviewed by colleagues, and therefore are generally willing to return the favour. They believe that providing all this work for free is the price they must pay in order to maintain an active research career.

Enlarge / Journal subscriptions are so expensive, even Harvard University can’t afford them.
Joseph Williams

What about us?

Some might argue that academics ultimately gain from participating in the current publishing system, whereby they provide free labour in return for eventual publication and recognition. But there is another class of people who do not benefit from the traditional approach, even though they make it possible. These are the taxpayers who fund the majority of the academic work carried out around the world. If this group wishes to read an academic paper reporting on the work they have helped to fund, they must generally pay the publisher for the privilege of doing so, and a non-trivial amount—typically tens of pounds for a limited licence to read a single article.

Not only are public funds used to pay researchers, but they also fund the purchase of subscriptions to research journals by academic libraries. That is, public monies must once more be spent so that researchers can read articles that the public originally funded through their taxes.

Moreover, academic publishing is inherently monopolistic: if you want to read a particular paper, you cannot shop around to find the cheapest publisher—there is only one. That’s a result of the widespread acceptance of one of the so-called “Ingelfinger rules,” which prohibits authors from submitting their manuscript to more than one journal.

The skewed nature of power in this industry is demonstrated by the fact that the scientific publishing divisions of leading players like Elsevier and Springer consistently achieve profit margins between 30 percent and 40 percent—levels that are rare in any other industry. The sums involved are large: annual revenues generated from English-language scientific, technical, and medical journal publishing worldwide were about $9.4bn (£6.4bn) in 2011.

These high prices exact a cost. In 2012, Harvard University sent out a memo to its teaching and research staff warning them that it could no longer afford the exorbitant prices of academic journals. It said that charges for online access to articles from two major publishers had gone up by 145 percent over the past six years, and some journals were costing as much as $40,000 (£27,000) annually. If Harvard struggles with what has come to be called the “serials crisis,” it can be imagined what the situation is like for less well-funded institutions.

Until the Internet arrived, there was no real alternative to the traditional academic publishing system, which meant that researchers felt obliged to hand over their copyright and to work for nothing. Libraries could do little about monopolistic pricing, and members of the public were denied ready access to the results of work they had funded. That made early calls for wide and cost-free access to all knowledge—for example, one from Germany in 1973—impossible to realise.

But once academics started moving online, there was suddenly a way to tackle all of these problems at once. Researchers could place their work on a public site for others to access, while retaining their copyrights. Since the work was publicly available, papers that failed to meet recognised standards could be spotted and either improved, withdrawn, or simply avoided. No barriers were placed in the way of other researchers who wanted to access those online papers, since the authors were interested in recognition, not financial recompense. If this practice spread, academic libraries would no longer need to use their limited resources on costly subscriptions, and even members of the public could download papers of interest quite freely.

In the beginning was arXiv

One of the first, and certainly one of the most successful applications of this idea, is arXiv (pronounced “archive”), which first went online in 1991. It was created by Paul Ginsparg, a professor of physics, computing, and information science at Cornell University, who was in the same undergraduate class at Harvard as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

Ginsparg wanted a quick and cheap solution to the problem of uploading high-energy physics preprints (early versions of academic papers), so he set up a server where physicists and mathematicians could upload their draft papers without needing to pay or ask permission. Twenty years after its launch, Ginsparg wrote a paper (published, naturally, on arXiv) outlining the steps that led to the birth of what was later recognised as the first open access system.

The appearance of Donald Knuth’s TeX typesetting system was crucial. “We switched en masse to computer typesetting our own articles,” Ginsparg wrote. “The transition for the then-younger generation was virtually instantaneous, since the new methodology was an improvement in both process and quality of final result over what had preceded it, namely bribing a secretary to cut and paste with scissors and glue.”

A far-sighted move from Knuth meant that articles formatted in TeX could be sent using standard e-mail: “To facilitate cross-platform compatibility, Knuth intentionally chose plain text as TeX’s underlying format, in addition providing a standard code for transmitting mathematical formulae in informal email communications. Back and forth e-mail exchanges would then frequently become the first draft of an article.”

The move to e-mail not only prefigured the more complete open access approach, it also solved a similar problem of access. “The exchange of completed manuscripts to personal contacts directly by e-mail became more widespread, and ultimately led to distribution via larger e-mail lists,” Ginsparg later wrote. “The latter had the potential to correct a significant problem of unequal access in the existing paper-preprint distribution system. For purely practical reasons, authors at the time used to mail photocopies of their newly minted articles to only a small number of people.” E-mailed versions could be sent to hundreds or even thousands of people simultaneously.

Here’s how Ginsparg came to set up the arXiv system:

By the spring of 1991, I had moved to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and for the first time had my own computer on my desk, a 25MHz NeXTstation with a 105MB hard drive and 16MB of RAM. I was thus fully cognizant of the available disk and CPU resources, both substantially larger than on a shared mainframe, where users were typically allocated as little as the equivalent of 0.5MB for personal use.

At the Aspen Center for Physics, in Colorado, in late June 1991, a stray comment from a physicist, concerned about e-mailed articles overrunning his disk allocation while travelling, suggested to me the creation of a centralized automated repository and alerting system, which would send full texts only on demand. That solution would also democratize the exchange of information, levelling the aforementioned research playing field, both internally within institutions and globally for all with network access.

The first version of what became arXiv was launched on 16 August 1991—as it happens, just nine days before Linus made his famous “I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones” posting. Ginsparg had numerous links with the free software world. He was familiar with the GNU manifesto from 1985, and, through his brother, an MIT undergraduate, even knew of Stallman in the 1970s. Although arXiv.org only switched to GNU/Linux in 1997, it started using Perl in 1994, and Apache as soon as it was available. Later on, other open source programs were used, including TeX, GhostScript and MySQL.

Ginsparg wrote that arXiv was originally intended to receive about 100 submissions per year, but in its first six months of existence, there were 400. In December 2014, arXiv added its one-millionth paper. During 2015, there were 105,000 new submissions, and over 139 million downloads. arXiv was successful, and took off so quickly, because it was aimed initially at a tightly knit community of high-energy physicists, even though it later expanded its scope considerably. In particular, it was able to build on that field’s strong tradition of sharing preprints, which made moving to an online server a natural move. For other academic areas, the shift to an open, digital approach to sharing knowledge has been much slower.

arXiv: Not much to look at, but it’s become a great tool.

Scholarly skywriting

One man who played a key role in evangelising a broader role for what came to be called open access is Stevan Harnad, currently professor in the Department of Psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and professor of Web science in the Department of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. Like Ginsparg, Harnad was interested in preprints. Even before arXiv was launched, Harnad had written a paper in 1990 entitled “Scholarly skywriting and the prepublication continuum of scientific inquiry.” He saw how the use by academics of the still-young Internet—the “skywriting”—would transform the role and importance of preprints, which is where, he wrote, “most of the cognitive work is done”:

The whole process of scholarly communication is currently undergoing a revolution comparable to the one occasioned by the invention of printing. On the brink of intellectual perestroika is that vast PREPUBLICATION phase of scientific inquiry in which ideas and findings are discussed informally with colleagues (currently in person, by phone, and by regular mail), presented more formally in seminars, conferences and symposia, and distributed still more widely in the form of preprints and tech reports that have undergone various degrees of peer review. It has now become possible to do all of this in a remarkable new way that is not only incomparably more thorough and systematic in its distribution, potentially global in scale, and almost instantaneous in speed, but so unprecedentedly interactive that it will substantially restructure the pursuit of knowledge.

Like Ginsparg, Harnad was impressed by the reach of electronic networks, and the way they could be used to spread knowledge widely. He pointed out that they “not only make it possible to send electronic mail from individual to individual almost instantaneously, but they allow individuals to send multiple e-mail to groups of individuals reciprocally, anywhere from a few collaborating colleagues, to all the experts in a given subspecialty, to an entire discipline—all just as quickly as individual e-mail, but with the emergent benefits of the interactive feedback. I have called this new medium ‘scholarly skywriting’.”

He explored this new kind of scholarly skywriting in a paper the next year, where he dubbed it “the fourth revolution in the means of production of knowledge”—the other three having been human language, writing, and the printing press. He also discussed a journal he founded in 1989—”Psycoloquy”—that combined traditional peer review with skywriting, and which can perhaps be considered the first open-access title, even though the label did not exist for another decade:

The refereeing of each original posting and each item of peer feedback on it is to be done very quickly, sometimes within a few hours of receipt, so as to maintain the momentum and interactiveness of this unique medium, just as if each contribution were being written in the sky, for all peers to see and append to. Skywriting promises to restore the speed of scholarly communication to a rate much closer to the speed of thought, while adding to it a global scope and an interactive dimension that are without precedent in human communication, all conducted through the discipline of the written medium, monitored by peer review, and permanently archived for future reference. Scholarly Skywriting in PSYCOLOQUY is intended especially for that prepublication “pilot” stage of scientific inquiry in which peer communication and feedback are still critically shaping the final intellectual outcome.

Despite these and other early calls, the most direct of which is Harnad’s best-known essay, entitled “The Subversive Proposal,” published in 1994, very little happened for the next few years. arXiv continued to grow, as more and more high-energy physicists routinely posted their preprints, but its lessons were taken up by other disciplines slowly, if at all.

Liberating research in the US—not an easy task.

Opening up the Americas

One region where the threads of what came to be called open access flourished early and rapidly was Latin America. The Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) was established in Brazil in 1997, offering an index and free full-text access to 10 domestic titles. As an article in a publication produced to celebrate the 15th anniversary of SciELO’s inauguration explains: “The SciELO project was formulated with two concurrent objectives. The first was to move journals to online publishing on the Web. The second was to address the chronic problem of visibility that was affecting academic journals in developing countries.” It succeeded in both aims: by 2013, it had grown to a decentralised but interoperable network involving 16 countries across Latin America and beyond, and offered free access to articles in over one thousand journals. Open source lies at the heart of SciELO:

The SciELO technological platform has been developed using open source software so that all developments are immediately made available for use by the SciELO network as well by other journal collections not indexed by SciELO, such as universities that have adopted the SciELO methodology to publish their journals.

All the developments follow open source coding standards. This allows the cooperation of and contribution from the members of the network and other interested parties in the use of tools which have been produced within the context of the SciELO project and in the development of new functionalities and enhancements.

In contrast to SciELO’s pioneering work in South America, progress in the North was slow. A small but important step towards open access in the US was taken in August 1997, when PubMed was launched by the National Institute of Health (NIH) at the US National Library of Medicine. For the first time, anyone could search for free through a comprehensive bibliographic database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. Although PubMed did not provide the full text of the articles, it offered a glimpse of what might be possible. It also catalysed the next big push for true open access.

In 1998, the British publisher Vitek Tracz visited David Lipman, who ran PubMed as well as GenBank, the open database of DNA that was flowing from the Human Genome Project and elsewhere. In a 2005 interview with Richard Poynder, the leading chronicler of open access, Tracz recalled what he had said to Lipman:

“I think perhaps the time has come to create a central repository for research papers. The benefits of having everything available in one place, without any access restrictions, would be enormous. Moreover, with the Web technology available today, publishing can potentially happen independently of publishers. If authors started depositing their papers directly into a central repository, they could bypass publishers and make it freely available.”

I also said: “I think you are the only person in the world who can do it because you have the infrastructure and you have PubMed. NIH has the means, the technology, and the know-how to run a big database like that, so I believe you should do it.”

Lipman thought it was an interesting idea, but said he was involved with too many other things to contemplate doing it himself. But the discussions with Lipman did bear fruit: Tracz decided to launch “virtual journals”—that is purely online publications—in all areas of biology and medicine, and then place them in an “open repository.” These were the first open access journals to come from an established publisher, and they brought with them a critical innovation.

Although arXiv and others had shown the power of publishing scientific papers online, no-one had managed to come up with a sustainable business model that would enable them to be distributed freely while paying for everything involved in publishing them: editing and peer review, formatting, infrastructure, and so on . Tracz knew that when publishing in traditional titles, academics were already paying for certain extras like the use of colour pictures in their articles. He decided to make these payments the basis of his new stable of online titles, which he called BioMed Central.

“We said: ‘OK, we will turn the current model upside down and offer the research articles free to readers and charge for services to authors. We will take their papers, mark them up, find referees to review them, and generally act as an intermediary.’ Of course, the charges are not really to authors personally, but rather to the funders of the research or the institutions where the authors work. We soon realized that such a business model could be very effective.” He was right: this soon became the main way of financing open access titles, and remains so today. Its key advantage is that allows anyone with an Internet connection to read the papers for free.

Although Lipman was too busy to realise the idea of creating an open repository of papers, Tracz says Lipman later sent him an e-mail saying “I think you are right—we must do something. I am going to talk to Harold Varmus [then director of the NIH] about it.” As Varmus wrote in an important history of the early days of open access, there was someone else who was keen to explore new ways of publishing academic papers: a brilliant young researcher called Patrick Brown. Brown had heard about Ginsparg’s work with arXiv, and was already starting to think about applying the same approach to his own field of biomedical research. Varmus had a meeting with Brown where they discussed Ginsparg’s work and how it might be applied more widely:

When I returned to my office at the NIH, I looked at Ginsparg’s website, continued my conversation with Pat by e-mail, and started thinking about how Internet-based distribution and storage of biomedical research articles could dramatically alter the way we worked.

The more I thought about this, the more I was convinced that a radical restructuring of methods for publishing, transmitting, storing, and using biomedical research reports might be possible and beneficial. In a spirit of enthusiasm and political innocence, I wrote a lengthy manifesto, proposing the creation of an NIH-supported online system, called E-biomed.

E-biomed was conceived as a repository of scientific reports available to everyone over the Internet. Varmus emphasised this point in his E-biomed manifesto: “The single greatest attraction of E-biomed is that all of its scientific content will be available without barriers to any user with Internet access. This will maximize the dissemination and use of research results.”

Varmus sent his manifesto to many scientists and reporters, and posted a copy on the main NIH website in May 1999. Dozens of articles appeared as a result, and Varmus received hundreds of responses from researchers and others. From these, it was evident that people had not fully understood his plans, so Varmus added an explanatory addendum to his original manifesto, with some help from people such as David Lipman and Patrick Brown.

“OK, we will turn the current model upside down and offer the research articles free to readers and charge for services to authors.”

As was to be expected, resistance was particularly strong from traditional publishers, who feared the E-biomed was an attempt to turn the US government into a huge new rival. That concern was addressed with the launch in late 1999 of PubMed Central: “The new digital library would make accessible to all Internet users the peer-reviewed articles voluntarily provided, preferably within six months of publication, by any journals, new or established, that were listed in PubMed. Importantly, PubMed Central would be conveniently integrated with PubMed, an NIH service that was already respected and time-tested.”

PubMed Central was a kind of halfway house between PubMed, which only only held bibliographic information, and E-biomed, which would offer free access to the full text of articles. But even that seemed too much to ask publishers, who were reluctant to provide their articles even after a six-month delay, which was soon extended to a year. Varmus later termed this behaviour “unacceptable obstructionism,” and went on to say: “The publishers depended on the free services of publicly-funded scientists to produce their journals, but were unwilling to improve public access to the work of those scientists, even on terms—a one-year delay before submission—that would not materially affect their subscription rolls.”

Public Library of Science

This dog-in-the-manger attitude of traditional publishers provoked Varmus to fight back. Along with Brown and another young researcher, Mike Eisen, he went on the attack: “Late in 2000, Pat, Mike, and I wrote a short declaration of purpose—we called it a pledge, publishers called it a boycott—in which we said that, one year hence, the signatories would no longer submit articles, provide reviewing or editing services, or purchase individual subscriptions to journals that had not agreed to deposit their articles with PubMed Central. We called our advocacy effort the Public Library of Science (PLoS) to denote our goal of building a science library that would be open to all.”

The response from scientists around the world was tremendous: more than 30,000 from over one hundred countries signed the pledge. The publishers’ reaction, by contrast, was extremely disappointing to those who favored open access. Apparently unimpressed with the threat of a boycott, fewer than one hundred of the roughly six thousand biomedical science journals agreed to participate, including very few of the more famous ones. The publishers gauged the mood among researchers correctly: not many of those 30,000 scientists followed through on their pledge to boycott titles, and the whole exercise turned into a rather embarrassing failure.

Surprisingly, perhaps, those behind what they called the Public Library of Science did not give up. On the contrary, they decided to address the central problem—that publishers were unwilling to support PubMed Central—by becoming a publisher themselves: “we drew up a prospectus for an open access, online publishing house that retained the name of our advocacy group, PLoS, and we persuaded the trustees of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to support the idea. Once we had developed a reasonable business plan, the foundation gave us enough money—nine million dollars—to fund a publishing project that could, in principle, make us self-supporting in five years.”

The business model it adopted was the one pioneered by Tracz with BioMed Central, which had been announced just a few days before the E-biomed manifesto appeared: academic institutions pay for their researchers’ articles to be published, which allows free access for everyone. “We viewed such costs as reasonable; they would represent about one percent of the average cost of doing the NIH-sponsored research required for one manuscript. Furthermore, we thought the publication fees should be considered a part of the cost of doing research; the work would be worth very little if it were not published,” Varmus later wrote.

Varmus recruited big names from the world of technology to join the board of the new publishing company, including arXiv’s Paul Ginsparg, Larry Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons, and Allan Golston, then the chief financial officer of the Gates Foundation. The first title, PLoS Biology, was launched in October 2003, and the second, PLoS Medicine, in 2004.

Open access is born

Around this time, the new kind of publishing finally acquired a name. At a meeting held in Budapest in December 2001, a group of key people who had been pushing for academic publications to be made freely available online came up with the follow definition of what was now formally called “open access” (OA) for the first time. The Budapest Open Access Initiative begins:

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

As for the definition:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

The ideas were consolidated and expanded upon in two further documents: the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing, released June 20, 2003, and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, which appeared on October 22, 2003. The next few years saw researchers, universities, funders, publishers, and governments exploring with varying degrees of enthusiasm this newly defined world of open access.

One of first to do so was the UK-based Wellcome Trust, the second largest charitable foundation in the world, with an endowment fund of over £18bn. It had already played a major role in the successful conclusion of the Human Genome Project, which released all its data freely. In October 2003, Wellcome issued a position statement and a research report endorsing open access. Two years later, it would require all Wellcome-funded research to be published as open access. As one of the world’s leading funders—in 2014 it gave out more than £727m in grants—this provided the new approach with a major boost.

In December 2003, the UK’s House of Commons science and technology committee launched an inquiry into scientific publishing, including the question whether the government should support open-access journals. Its answer came in July 2004, when its report recommended that government funding agencies should require open access to publicly-funded research through self-archiving in the authors’ “institutional repositories.” These are local servers run by academic institutions that provide free access to papers written by their researchers. This form of informal sharing was generally called “green” open access, a term coined by Stevan Harnad. In addition, the report recommended further study of funding publication of papers in open access journals—an approach Harnad dubbed “gold” open access.

By an interesting coincidence—or not—just before the Commons published its report, the world’s largest publisher of academic journals, Elsevier, announced that it was effectively allowing green open access: “An author may post his version of the final paper on his personal website and on his institution’s website (including its institutional repository).” Elsevier noted that “The author does not need our permission to do this,” but went on: “any other posting (e.g. to a repository elsewhere) would require our permission.”

The UK continued to take a leading role in open access. After the Wellcome Foundation and UK parliament, it was the turn of the Research Councils UK (RCUK) to take the lead. The RCUK is “the strategic partnership of the UK’s seven research councils,” and currently funds around £3bn of UK research each year. It made the announcement in June 2005 that it would be introducing a requirement for open access—a real breakthrough.

As one of the leaders of the open access movement, Peter Suber, wrote at the time: “As far as I know, the research councils are the first public funding agencies in any country to mandate OA to the results of agency-funded research. The first private funding agency to do so was the Wellcome Trust, also from the UK. By chance, the two policies will take effect on the same date, October 1, 2005. The two precedents together make the UK a leader in the worldwide campaign for open access.”

The final version of the policy, published in June 2006, was watered down from the original proposal. The RCUK’s new policy specified green open access, but it allowed the individual research councils to specify whether to “encourage” or “require” a deposit, and to say what kind of repository to use for these deposits. But the most serious change was more subtle, and involved the following provision:

Full implementation of these requirements must be undertaken such that current copyright and licensing policies, for example embargo periods or provisions limiting the use of deposited content to non-commercial purposes, are respected by authors. The research councils’ position is based on the assumption that publishers will maintain the spirit of their current policies.

The “embargo period” refers to the option of keeping a paper published in a traditional journal from being freely available to the general public in a repository until a certain time after it first appears—much like Varmus’ allowance of a year after publication before papers appear in PubMed Central. Publishers used this concession to limit the green open access requirements both in the UK and elsewhere as they were brought in around the world. What’s unfortunate is that it was completely unnecessary, according to Suber:

Researchers sign funding contracts with the research councils long before they sign copyright transfer agreements with publishers. Funders have a right to dictate terms, such as mandated open access, precisely because they are upstream from publishers. If one condition of the funding contract is that the grantee will deposit the peer-reviewed version of any resulting publication in an open-access repository [immediately], then publishers have no right to intervene.

In other words, RCUK could simply have said that it was a condition of receiving its funds that any publicly-funded research had to be placed in a repository immediately upon publication. If a journal refused to allow this, any researchers funded by RCUK would not be able to publish in that journal. But the organization failed to seize that opportunity to set the terms for green open access in the UK, which limited its adoption.

At this time, there were important open access initiatives starting in mainland Europe, too. For example, in early 2006, the European Commission released a report calling for papers produced from publicly funded research to be placed in open repositories—although, once again, a publisher-specified embargo period was allowed. Not much came of this policy, but another European open access initiative, this time from CERN, the centre for nuclear research in Geneva, and the birthplace of the World Wide Web, would be more fruitful.


In March 2007, CERN proposed converting the main journals publishing the vast majority of high-energy physics papers to open access. This would be achieved through an international consortium of funding organizations known as the “Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics” (SCOAP); SCOAP would simply pay publishers directly. The costs of SCOAP were to be recovered by savings from cancelling subscriptions to those titles.

Everyone benefited: readers around the world had free access to papers, authors enjoyed wider dissemination of their results, publishers had a sustainable and predictable business model, libraries saved money, and funders increased the visibility of the work they sponsored. As CERN said in its proposal: “SCOAP will be an important milestone in the history of scientific publishing. It could be rapidly generalized to other disciplines and, in particular, to related fields such as nuclear physics or astroparticle physics.”

SCOAP was indeed a milestone, although it took much longer than expected to come to fruition; it was only launched in October 2012, and was finally put into operation in 2014. It has also proved hard to adapt its approach in other fields. The world of high-energy physics had been using arXiv as a form of open access for two decades before SCOAP was set up, and was therefore familiar with the ideas behind it. Other academic areas were less comfortable with open access, which made reproducing the success of SCOAP much harder. Still, efforts to convert journals from subscription to open access by redirecting existing payments have continued, for example with the Open Access 2020 Initiative.

SCOAP was motivated partly by a desire to save money, and there was already some evidence in place that the economics of open access were favorable. In 2006, one of the first studies on the potential economic impact of open access was published by John Houghton and Peter Sheehan. By building a fairly detailed economic model, they calculated that a transition to open access would add around £1bn a year to the UK economy and £10bn a year to the US economy. Although only an estimate, these first figures showed the scale of the financial benefits that could accrue from adopting open access on a large scale.


In December of the same year, PLoS launched a new kind of open access journal, which it called PLoS ONE. In a review of the first 20 years of open access, David J. Solomon explained what made PLoS ONE so radical:

PLoS One was very broad in scope, covering all of biomedicine and related areas and following a peer‐reviewed process with the narrow goal of ensuring that the research meet basic scientific and ethical quality standards without regard for the “importance” of the research presented in a manuscript. Manuscripts were to be reviewed and published quickly and PLoS provided a range of innovative tools allowing readers to comment directly in published articles and gain easy access to a variety of external measures of the impact of the papers published. The idea was to let the readers decide which articles in PloS One were worth reading rather than having a set of reviewers make the decision for them. PloS One eventually caught on in a big way, publishing over a 2,000 articles a month by mid‐2012.

PLoS ONE was important for a number of reasons. First, it showed that open access could also innovate, and was not simply a cheaper version of traditional publishing. Secondly, it made publishing easier for researchers, giving them a quick thumbs up or down on their research, rather than a drawn out period of dealing with reviewer-suggested revisions and additional experiments. Finally, and arguably more importantly, it was incredibly popular (possibly as a result of factor two). Its publishing model showed that it was possible to make money while publishing open access. In fact, PLoS ONE proved so successful that it has been able to finance the entire PLoS project, including other journals.

Awareness of that success, however, brought with it a new scourge: what came to be termed “predatory” open access publishers. Wikipedia defines the term as “an exploitative open-access publishing business model that involves charging publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals.” The methods and results vary, from small publishers that do a poor job to out-and-out tricksters that are trying to use the open access brand to extract money from guileless academics. The problem started to be noticed a little after PLoS ONE was launched. Richard Poynder was one of the first to spot the danger. The behaviour was given a name by Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian and a researcher at the University of Colorado in Denver, who still runs Beall’s List of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers.”

Beyond this parasitic behaviour, another sure sign of open access’s success was that it made traditional publishers very nervous. In January 2007, Nature reported that a group of major scientific publishers had hired a communications consultancy, Dezenhall Resources, to help deal with open access. On its website today, Dezenhall Resources says of its work: “We are typically brought in during times of intense scrutiny, risk or competition. We are known for dealing with acute controversies, mounting effective marketplace defences, and turning back chronic, agenda-driven attacks that threaten reputations, brands, and freedom to operate.”

The Nature article quoted a description of the company’s founder and CEO, Eric Dezenhall, as a “pit bull of public relations.” Certainly, his suggestion that the publishers focus on “simple messages,” such as “public access equals government censorship,” was aggressive, if not exactly plausible. According to Nature:

Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000–500,000.

PubMed Central was becoming a worry to publishers. There were rumors that, instead of simply requesting that publishers deposit copies of articles reporting on work funded by taxpayers, the NIH would start requiring it. This came to pass in 2008. Just prior to that, in June 2007, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the largest endowed medical research foundations in the world, announced an open-access requirement for the research it funded. The following year, Harvard University became the first major US university to make all its research available as open access as a matter of course.

As open access started to gain a foothold in the US, several attempts to rein it in through legislation were made at the behest of lobbyists, culminating in the 2011 Research Works Act (RWA), the stated aim of which was “to ensure the continued publication and integrity of peer-reviewed research works by the private sector.” However, the way the proposal was drafted essentially gave academic publishers a veto over whether publicly funded research would be made available through PubMed Central.

Fortunately, the RWA had little support—in an editorial, Nature called it “a ridiculous distraction“—and was never enacted, though it did provoke a massive reaction from outraged academics. In January 2012, Peter Suber pledged not to work with any publisher that accepted the Association of American Publishers’ position supporting RWA.

The idea was picked up and adapted a few days later by the British mathematician and winner of the Fields Medal (generally regarded as the Nobel Prize of mathematics) Tim Gowers. He wrote on his blog: “I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly. I am by no means the first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it becomes, and that is my main reason for writing this post.” He went on:

It occurs to me that it might help if there were a website somewhere, where mathematicians who have decided not to contribute in any way to Elsevier journals could sign their names electronically. I think that some people would be encouraged to take a stand if they could see that many others were already doing so, and that it would be a good way of making that stand public.

That call was heard by Tyler Neylon, who set up just such a site, “The Cost of Knowledge: Researchers taking a stand against Elsevier“. It outlined the main objections that Gowers had raised in his blog post, and invited academics to refrain from working with Elsevier. Eventually, over 16,000 people went on to add their names to the site. However, as with the earlier PLoS boycott, the practical results were minimal: Elsevier weathered the boycott, such as it was, and there was no massive change in how academic work was shared, as Gowers and his supporters had hoped.

Ars asked Alicia Wise, the director of access and policy for Elsevier, how the company felt about these kind of actions. “Boycotts reflect the strong views of small parts of the research community,” she said, “and that’s ok, as researchers by nature challenge the status quo and some are very engaged and active on particular topics. But boycotts are certainly not the only, and certainly not the best I would argue, way to influence us. We actively listen and engage with the research community in a very broad array of ways—from editorial board meetings, to surveys and opinion polls, to participation in research conferences, via social media, and more besides.”

So-called “hybrid” journals are much more popular in the UK than elsewhere.
Monitoring the Transition to Open Access

Gold open access

Despite the failure of the Elsevier boycott, progress continued to be made in expanding the use of open access. Once again, the UK took a leading role. In October 2011, the UK government set up the “working group on expanding access to published research findings”, known as the “Finch Group” after its chair, Dame Janet Finch. It was tasked with “proposing a programme of action and make recommendations to government, research funders, publishers, and other interested parties on how access to research findings and outcomes can be broadened for key audiences such as researchers, policy makers and the general public.”

The Finch report was published in June 2012, and was widely regarded as the most important government review in favour of open access so far: “Our view is that the UK should embrace the transition to open access, and accelerate the process in a measured way which promotes innovation but also what is most valuable in the research communications ecosystem.”

It was stated quite explicitly that the route to achieving this was via gold rather than green open access: “a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs [article processing charges], as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded.” “Hybrid” in this context refers to journals that carry both open-access and traditional-access articles: an extra fee—the APC—has to be paid in order to make an article in it freely available to all.

Hybrid journals were not new, and in theory offered a smooth way to move from subscription journals to ones based on open access principles. The idea was that as more authors chose to pay the extra fee to make their articles freely available, the subscription rate would decrease, until finally all the articles would be open access, and the entire journal would be free.

In the wake of the Finch report, which was accepted almost in its entirety by the British government, hybrid journals flourished in the UK. A study published in 2015 looked at what had been achieved so far in implementing the 2012 report. Its key finding was as follows:

Open-access publishing options are now widely available: two-thirds of the world’s journals offer an OA option of some kind; and more than three quarters of the journals in which UK authors publish do so. By far the largest group of journals have adopted the hybrid model: just under half of all journals across the world operate in this way, and nearly two thirds of those in which UK authors publish their work.

Enlarge / PeerJ is trying a new way to fund its publications.

Hybrid problems

But this shift towards hybrid open access brought with it an unexpected problem. In March 2014, the Wellcome Trust published a report looking at the cost of open access publishing. One worrying trend it noted was “the high cost of hybrid open access publishing, which we have found to be nearly twice that of born-digital fully open access journals.” Moving to open access publishing of academic work was meant to lower costs overall, but the rise of the hybrid approach was negating that key benefit. Elsevier’s Alicia Wise told Ars that “there is a connection between quality and price,” implying that the more expensive hybrid titles were simply better. A major contributor may have also been that many hybrid journals maintained print editions, which raise costs considerably.

But Richard Poynder has a different view on what had happened: “a dominant group of publishers was invited to sit on the Finch Committee. This enabled them to shape the RCUK policy and so effectively appropriate gold open access for their own ends.”

Things weren’t much better in 2015, when an analysis by the Wellcome Trust found that the average charge per article for open access publication in a hybrid title was still 64 percent higher than for titles that were purely open access. There was increasing concern that publishers were “double-dipping”—charging high fees for open access in their titles without reducing the overall subscription costs. This was something that the the business, innovation and skills committee had warned about in September 2013. As the Wellcome Trust noted in its report, because of these problem, two research councils—one in Germany, and one in Norway—had decided not to allow their grants to be used to publish work in hybrid open-access titles.

The same month that the Finch report appeared, a new open-access journal called PeerJ was launched. One of its founders had been publisher of PLoS ONE, while a financial backer is Tim O’Reilly, well-known in the computer industry for his book publishing company of the same name.

PeerJ adopted a radically different pricing system. Instead of requiring a payment from a researcher’s institution for each paper, it offers academics a low-cost lifetime subscription, originally just $99 (£68), and currently $199 (£136). The basic deal is pay once, publish one article per year for as long as you like, but with the small wrinkle that the first 12 authors of a paper have to also be subscribers. This introduces a clever viral element to its business model, since someone already publishing in PeerJ could be expected to encourage those they worked with to do the same.

During this period, the US had taken an important step towards increasing access to the results of publicly funded research, wherever it was carried out. In February 2013, a directive on open access was issued by the White House: “The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) hereby directs each federal agency with over $100 million in annual conduct of research and development expenditures to develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the federal government.” As with PubMed Central, this policy allowed a 12-month embargo following publication. At the same time, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) was introduced, which would cut the embargo time to six months, but it has still not been passed.

In November 2014, NASA announced that it would meet this new requirement for US Federal agencies by depositing academic papers resulting from its $3bn (£2bn) annual budget in the NIH’s PubMed central system.

Enlarge / The Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to go for green open access.

Green open access

In the UK, the next major announcement of its open access policy came from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which hands out around £1.7bn of public money for research each year. The move was greeted positively, perhaps because HEFCE based its new open-access policy on depositing papers in repositories—that is, green open access—which avoided the problem of inflated prices that came with the gold access route.

But HEFCE’s ]policy was also subject to an embargo period before papers could be freely shared from a repository. If institutions wanted to make papers produced by their researchers available sooner, journals were allowed to make them pay for gold access.

As Danny Kingsley wrote in a blog post at the beginning of 2016: “what this HEFCE policy change means is that publishers have effectively shifted the HEFCE policy away from a green open-access policy to a gold one for a significant proportion of UK research. This is a deliberate tactic, along with the unsubstantiated campaign that green open access poses a major threat to scholarly publishing and therefore embargoes should be even longer.”

Publishers are adopting another method that lets keep their high profit margins even as they expand open access. It involves what has become known as “big deals.” Previously, academic publishers pushed libraries to sign up to “bundles” of subscriptions, which tended to include unwanted journals alongside the ones researchers were keen on reading. Now publishers are cleverly combining the two by presenting these new-style “big deals” as a way of moving towards open access.

The Netherlands has been at the forefront here, signing a deal with the publisher Springer in January 2015, with Elsevier in December 2015, and with Wiley in March 2016. Publishers were probably even more keen to sign these deals in the wake of a law passed by the Netherlands in July 2015, one that gave researchers the right to make publicly funded work available as open access “after a reasonable period of time.” The UK has an agreement with Springer, and currently discussing a “big deal” with Elsevier.

Although the agreements with publishers are presented as great for the institutions and their researchers, and a boost for the transition to open access, they don’t mark a significant change for the publishing business. All the tensions between traditional publishers and open access remain in place.

Enlarge / Elsevier recently acquired the Social Science Research Network.

The empire strikes back

Meanwhile, publishers are moving into where open access began: preprints. Recently Elsevier announced that it was acquiring the Social Science Research Network, which is the leading social science and humanities repository, and probably the most important preprint collection after arXiv. A few days later, Elsevier unveiled a pilot project with the University of Florida. As the press release explained: “For Elsevier, this pilot provides an opportunity to get a better understanding of information and content presentation requirements of institutional repositories.”

Taken together, these two moves signal a clear intent by Elsevier to bring institutional repositories—and thus green open access—firmly into its empire. And it’s not alone. As Kevin Smith, dean of libraries at the University of Kansas wrote on the IO: In The Open blog: “The same five or six major publishers who dominate the market for scholarly journals are engaged in a race to capture the terms of and platforms for scholarly sharing.”

For the publishers, these moves may make business sense. They already have the infrastructure available to distribute documents, so repositories don’t add significantly to their overhead. And it allows them to retain their ability to mine the information and metrics associated with scholarly publishing—information that can potentially be sold as a product. But for some open access advocates, it may seem that the publishers are encroaching on their turf.

Richard Poynder, perhaps the most seasoned observer of the open access world, sees the continued expansion of publishers as discouraging. He offered a highly pessimistic view of the state of open access today in a recent interview. He concluded:

In the end, the key question is whether the research community has the commitment, the stamina, the organisational chops, and/or the resources to reclaim scholarly communication. While I would love to end on a positive note, I am personally doubtful that it has. The fact is that, OA advocates aside, there does not appear to be much appetite in the research community for giving up publishing in prestigious journals, and abandoning the notorious Impact Factor [IF— supposedly a measure of how “influential” a journal is]. More importantly, university managers and funders do not want to see anything that radical occur. We live in an age of bureaucratic scrutiny, and scrutineers crave simple and standard ways of practising their dark arts. That is exactly what the IF and legacy journals provide. If I am right, OA will surely remain a half-revolution, for now at least.

Another who believes that the open access movement may be failing is its pioneering evangelist, Stevan Harnad. In March 2016 he tweeted: “I fought the fight and lost and now I’ve left the #OA arena.”

Perhaps that defeatism is premature: the Council of the European Union has just issued a call for full open access to scientific research by 2020. In its statement it “welcomes open access to scientific publications as the option by default for publishing the results of publicly funded [EU] research,” but also says this move should “be based on common principles such as transparency, research integrity, sustainability, fair pricing and economic viability.” Although potentially a big win for open access in the EU, the risk is this might simply lead to more use of the costly hybrid open access, as has happened in the UK.

In any case, a “victory” of traditional publishers over classical open access might turn out to be a temporary one. If the revolution fails, or remains a half-revolution as Poynder fears, those who are frustrated that so much of the world’s learning is still locked up will turn increasingly to more extreme approaches.

For example, at the end of 2015, a group of academics were so disillusioned with traditional publishing that they resigned en masse from a leading title to set up their own open access rival. The entire editorial staff of the prestigious academic title Lingua were deeply concerned about the high cost of subscribing to the journal, and the refusal of the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, to convert the title completely to open access.

Diamond open access

Tim Gowers, who led the unsuccessful boycott of Elsevier in 2012, decided three years later to follow the example of the frustrated scientists behind PLoS, and take matters into his own hands by creating a radically new kind of journal. Since both gold and green open access were proving to be a disappointment, he adopted what has come to be called “diamond” open access. As Gowers explained in a post about the launch of his new title, at its heart lies one of the oldest, and still most successful open access projects—arXiv:

While in most respects it will be just like any other journal, it will be unusual in one important way: it will be purely an arXiv overlay journal. That is, rather than publishing, or even electronically hosting, papers, it will consist of a list of links to arXiv preprints. Other than that, the journal will be entirely conventional: authors will submit links to arXiv preprints, and then the editors of the journal will find referees, using their quick opinions and more detailed reports in the usual way in order to decide which papers will be accepted.

The virtual nature of this journal means that not only will people be able to read it for free, but it will also be free for researchers to publish in it—the article-processing charges are zero. Gowers believes that the running costs of his diamond open access title will be so small that a grant made by Cambridge University will cover them for some time. Since publishers play no role in the diamond open access approach, there’s no way they can push for ways to profit from it, as they have done with the gold and green versions. The same is true of bioRxiv, a new preprint server for biology that presumably hopes to recreate the success of arXiv.

Björn Brembs, a German professor of neurobiology, and a fervent proponent of free access to academic knowledge, has another simple if rather dramatic solution for dealing with the high costs of academic publishing and the dominant role of academic publishers. He expressed it in the form of a question “Why haven’t we already canceled all subscriptions?“:

The question in the title is serious: of the ~US$10bn we collectively pay publishers annually world-wide to hide publicly funded research behind paywalls, we already know that only between 200-800m goes towards actual costs. The rest goes towards profits (~3-4bn) and paywalls/other inefficiencies (~5bn). What do we get for overpaying such services by about 98 percent? We get a literature that essentially lacks every basic functionality we’ve come to expect from any digital object.

Enlarge / Aaron Swartz at the Creative Commons Salon, San Francisco, in 2006.

From Aaron Swartz…

Others are so frustrated with how academic publishing is preventing widespread access to knowledge that are prepared to ignore the copyright that stops articles being shared freely, despite the legal risks they run.

Paul Ginsparg noticed this was already happening back in May 2005: “a form of open access also appears to be happening by a backdoor route regardless: an article in last week’s [British Medical Journal] reports that over a third of the high-impact journal articles in a sample of biologic-medical journals published in 2003 could be found at nonjournal websites. Given the likelihood that this percentage will only increase over time and given the aforementioned ease of locating these materials, this phenomenon is something with which journals will have to come to grips, and without alienating their contributing authors.”

One figure who famously explored this less orthodox route was Aaron Swartz. After he was caught downloading 450,000 academic papers from the JSTOR site in less than 12 hours—and five million of them altogether—he was charged with a range of offences that carried sentences of up to 35 years in prison. In January 2013, two years after his arrest and still facing trial, he hanged himself.

Five years earlier, he had published what he called his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” He stated the central problem succinctly: “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.”

While he recognised the importance of the open access movement, he viewed it as only a partial solution. Open access, he wrote, “has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.” In 2014, around a quarter of the estimated 100 million English-language scholarly documents on the Web were freely available. Swartz offered his own solution as to how to give the whole world access to knowledge:

Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed, morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

And that is precisely what people have begun to do in an increasingly organised fashion. One approach is the use of the #icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter. People post requests for papers that are behind paywalls to Twitter, using the #icanhazpdf hashtag to alert others to their requests. Those who have access to the publications download them and send them to the person who put out the #icanhazpdf call.

Reddit has r/scholar “for requesting and sharing specific articles available in various databases.” There have also been attempts to create online libraries that offer free and therefore unauthorised access to large collections of academic papers: some of the more famous ones include library.nu and LibGen. But one site above all has caught the attention of both the academic world, and increasingly those outside it: Sci-Hub.

Enlarge / Sci-Hub has over 47,000,000 papers, and counting…

…to Sci-Hub

Ars Technica wrote about Sci-Hub and its creator, Alexandra Elbakyan, back in April. At the time of writing, it provides unrestricted access to 47,000,000 academic papers, and claims to have hundreds of thousands of downloads every day. Although it was set up in September 2011, Sci-Hub has only become well known this year.

Since February there have been a spate of popular articles about Sci-Hub in titles including high-profile publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. This, in turn, has generated an unprecedented discussion in further articles and blog posts, from those who strongly support Elbakyan, to those who are firmly against her activities. Even Carlos Moedas, the EU commissioner for research, science and innovation, referred to Sci-Hub when he said in a recent speech that “Elbakyan’s case raises many questions.”

One of the most interesting articles on this topic appeared in Science magazine at the end of April 2016. It was not about the rights or wrongs of Sci-Hub, but about the site’s statistics. As the article’s author, John Bohannon, explained: “After establishing contact through an encrypted chat system, [Elbakyan] worked with me over the course of several weeks to create a data set for public release: every download event over the six-month period starting September 1 2015.” The results of analysing the 28 million download requests during that period are illuminating:

The Sci-Hub data provide the first detailed view of what is becoming the world’s de facto open-access research library. Among the revelations that may surprise both fans and foes alike: Sci-Hub users are not limited to the developing world. Some critics of Sci-Hub have complained that many users can access the same papers through their libraries but turn to Sci-Hub instead—for convenience rather than necessity. The data provide some support for that claim. The United States is the fifth largest downloader after Russia, and a quarter of the Sci-Hub requests for papers came from the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the wealthiest nations with, supposedly, the best journal access. In fact, some of the most intense use of Sci-Hub appears to be happening on the campuses of US and European universities.

In other words, the huge popularity of Sci-Hub is not, as many like to claim, purely because people want free access—although many downloads are indeed made by researchers in developing countries who are unable to afford journal subscriptions. The fact that there are Sci-Hub users located in the wealthiest countries, and in some of the best-funded academic institutions—institutions with official subscriptions to most key journals—suggests that the current publishing system is simply not providing access to the people who need it.

What most people want, naturally enough, is something that is as easy to use as Google: you enter your search term, and a second later you have what you are looking for. As far as academic knowledge is concerned, that is precisely what Sci-Hub offers with its 50-odd million papers.

Enlarge / Sci-Hub users are found everywhere, including in wealthier countries.

Off the record, some publishers conceded this point to Bohannon, who told Ars: “Many in the publishing industry see the fight as futile. ‘The numbers are just staggering,’ one senior executive at a major publisher told me upon learning the Sci-Hub statistics. ‘It suggests an almost complete failure to provide a path of access for these researchers.’ He works for a company that publishes some of the most heavily downloaded content on Sci-Hub and requested anonymity so he could speak candidly.”

However, Alicia Wise disagrees: “The fact [Sci-Hub] is being used at all suggests that some researchers find it useful, but it’s not at all clear why. Perhaps they don’t know how to authenticate to their university systems on their mobile devices? Perhaps they don’t know about affordable and legal alternatives.”

Last year, Elsevier sought and obtained a court injunction against Sci-Hub, which was then located at sci-hub.org. Elbakyan simply moved it to sci-hub.io, and ignored the injunction. Since then, she’s shifted to other domains as Elsevier’s lawyers try to shut down successive domain names.

Does Elsevier hope to extirpate Sci-Hub completely?

“We are focused on the fact that its actions are illegal (a view supported already by courts in the United States and elsewhere), and that its actions expose university systems to cyber-attacks and information about students/staff to fraud and misuse,” Wise said. As for whether Elsevier thinks Elbakyan ought to go to prison for creating Sci-Hub, she said: “This is up to the courts who have found her guilty and for governments to decide, not us.”

The example of The Pirate Bay shows that the current game of domain whack-a-mole is not one that the lawyers are likely to win.

Science magazine’s analysis of Sci-Hub downloads reveals that the busiest city location is Tehran. It wrote: “Much of that is from Iranians using programs to automatically download huge swathes of Sci-Hub’s papers to make a local mirror of the site. Rahimi, an engineering student in Tehran, confirms this. ‘There are several Persian sites similar to Sci-Hub’.”

Those mirroring Sci-Hub clearly intend to share the contents widely. It would be surprising if others around the world, especially in emerging economies, are not also busily downloading all 45 million papers to do the same.

There’s another factor that renders anyone’s attempt to turn back the clock quite futile. It’s the same thing that kick-started the whole open-access revolution in the first place: the advance of digital technology.

As the price of storage continues to fall, and capacities increase, in the not-too-distant future it will be possible for most people to have a local copy of every academic paper ever written if they wish to. The question is: will publishers help to realise this digital version of Anthony Panizzi’s magnificent, egalitarian vision of 1836, or will they end up on the wrong side of history by resisting it?

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