How researchers get heard
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Bring Down Your Paywall

What would change if all research papers were open access?

If we think about this just in terms of access (and not, say, ability to organize and peer-review outside journal structures, which might provide small but non-trivial benefits):

  • People in resource-constrained institutions and situations would now have access to all papers.
  • Also: people who aren’t academics.
  • And: academics whose academic libraries don’t subscribe to every journal (which is the vast majority of academic libraries).
  • And too: academics whose academic libraries do provide universal access, but whose log-in systems are so cumbersome as to make them pine for a faster solution.

That’s pretty much everyone. And, of course, pretty much everyone already has access to almost all the research they need — through Sci-Hub.

Sci-Hub is an international piracy operation that, through phishing and hacking, makes free for anyone with an Internet connection at least 70 percent of all copyrighted research papers published today. Alexandra Elbakyan, who runs Sci-Hub, is now being investigated by the US Department of Justice on suspicion that Sci-Hub is a front for “Russian intelligence to steal US military secrets from defense contractors,” according to a report last month in the Washington Post. This investigation adds to the now longstanding legal actions against Elbakyan and Sci-Hub by the academic publishers Elsevier and the American Chemical Society. (Elbakyan has consistently denied she works with the Russian government, denials met with great skepticism by the kinds of intelligence analysts papers like the Post like to quote.)

So Sci-Hub is illegal and possibly espionage, and there are convincing arguments that giving it your university access credentials exposes higher ed institutions to all sorts of information that should be secure.

It also already has brought about the world of universal open access so many of us sought. It is the most expedient and possibly only way for anyone who isn’t affiliated with a wealthy higher ed institution to read all the scholarly papers they need without going into penury or registering for a university course they probably can’t afford and don’t need to take. I use it and you use it, unless you’re that kind of person who never drives a single mile per hour more than the speed limit and/or really believes big academic publishers deserve billions in annual profit for printing and conducting peer review while getting librarians and university IT professionals to play border patrol for them — devising byzantine authentication systems to protect their intellectual property.

So, given that we already have open access, what’s changed?

To pose the question is not to make an argument against open access. But the competitive advantage of your research-driven organization does not come from your papers. It comes from turning that research — and your expertise — into usable insights, solutions and frameworks for the world.

Sci-Hub, or some successor, will eventually kill subscription scholarly publishing. In a weird but fundamental way, though, open access is a distraction from research’s larger problem of relevance. We should have access to all research as a matter of principle. But we need access to your applied expertise.

If you’re not liberating that, you’re acting like a paywalled journal. Bring down the walls to your own authority first.