Several students and researchers may have noted that social media was recently abuzz with the news that SciHub and LibGen were being taken to court for copyright infringement, by Elsevier Ltd. (UK), Wiley India, Wiley Periodicals (USA), and American Chemical Society (USA). The giant publishers seem to be asking the court to grant a dynamic injunction against these ‘rogue websites’, so as to block them en masse. The case is up for hearing before the Delhi High Court tomorrow (24th Dec) morning. As Arul’s pointed out in his op-ed here, this has garnered quite a bit of panic amongst the many who often have no choice but to rely on SciHub and LibGen for their research purposes, with many wondering if they should intervene in the suit. We’ll be bringing you a more in-depth post on this case soon, and in the meanwhile, readers interested may want to brush up on the DU Photocopy case once again, or read Divij’s 2017 post on Sci-Hub and disruption of the academic publishing industry I’m sure other writers will also highlight the huge revenues of these global publishers even as they shift to a more online than print business model (especially versus the complete non-profit, no charge, no ads Sci-Hub and Libgen websites – which should raise strong fair use arguments), the awkward timing of this suit when world over people – especially scientists – are asking for more access to scientific material in the light of Covid, the greater need for digital libraries in the ‘work/study from home’ months going on, etc, etc.
all Sci-Hub addresses are under threat of being blocked in India after Elsevier, Wiley and American Chemical Society lawsuit. The hearing in High Court of Delhi is scheduled on 24 December. https://t.co/UFo8P63usc pic.twitter.com/kfPDMGtxUc
— Sci Hub (@Sci_Hub) December 21, 2020
For the purposes of this post (or perhaps more accurately, rant), I want to simply point out that this case, regardless of which way it goes, does serve the purpose of highlighting the question – why do so many in India (and the world) need to rely on Sci-Hub and LibGen for access to works in the first place? Of course, the simple answer is – it is so ridiculously expensive, what other choice is there, if one wants to study or research!? We could of course limit our education, and I’m sure countries that appreciate cheap labour won’t have a problem with this. (Yes – education correlates to development, this isn’t rhetorical). In fact, as per this study that came out 2 months ago – richer countries tend to be more intense users of ‘shadow libraries’ like SciHub and LibGen. The study also interestingly points out that lower income countries do not even get the same benefit from access to these shadow libraries as richer countries, because of other infrastructural constraints. So – to start with – regardless of whether this is legal or illegal – even the phenomenal access that these shadow libraries provide – still aren’t enough to ensure that our researchers are able to get maximum benefit from these scholarly works. One can imagine how much worse off our researchers would be if they did not even get this access to scholarly works! On the other side of all this, is the well known ‘hilarity’ in the question of how much most academic authors make off of their books. Academics need to publish for tenure, to receive grants, to receive recognition for their works. But, this often has little correlation to whether they make money from their works – though publishing houses certainly do. Indeed – most serious academics would much rather prefer their works be read widely and engaged with, not hidden behind a paywall. This isn’t to say journals have no value-addition. They most certainly do. But it is certainly hard to believe that they provide more value than the actual author themselves!
Structurally, why and how are we (especially in these ‘poorer’ countries) allowing this to happen? Perhaps, as Akshat wrote in the context of music recently, it is time to ask for an amendment disallowing corporate assignment of copyright over scholarly works – so that authors have more bargaining power when getting into these publishing contracts. Perhaps it is time for the government / large universities to invest in non-profit publishing houses that will focus on more accessibly priced / open access works. Perhaps it is time to mandate that all journals deposit copies of their articles into national library repositories for wider access, the way it is done with books in several countries already. (If this is mandated – would publishers be willing to accept similarly strict penalties for not complying?) Perhaps its time for peer-reviewers who do so much free labour for publishing houses, to start having a larger say in how accessible a work should be to the larger society! Many scholars have put forth various solutions already and surely there are plenty more out there that can be thought up of.
Health and education are two major pillars of any nation’s socio-economic development. Our patent policy has put in several safeguards for public health. Perhaps it is time for us to take our copyright safeguards for education more seriously as well. Regardless of how and when this case gets decided, it is clearly important that our academics, policy makers and civil society start to focus on this question of how we are allowing this spectre of copyright – that was supposed to help advance society – to play any role, much less such a defining role, in denying so much to the population who are trying to learn and educate themselves.