The battle for free knowledge

In his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto published in 2008, political organiser and internet activist Aaron Swartz wrote that the world’s entire scientific heritage is increasingly being digitised and locked up by a handful of private corporations.

As a developer Swartz had been involved in the development of the web feed format RSS, the organisation Creative Commons and the social news site Reddit.

“The Open Access Movement 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,” wrote Swartz.

Swartz advocated for securing copies of all academic articles and publishing them online for open access.

In late 2010 and early 2011 Swartz rigged a laptop up to academic journal article retailer JSTOR, via the MIT network and set it to continue downloading.

On the night of January 6, 2011, he was arrested.

By July he had been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

By September the next year, Swartz was facing an additional nine charges, increasing his potential sentence to 50 years in jail. By January 2013 Swartz was dead. He had committed suicide.

Four years later access to academic journal articles is still an issue and the latest attempt to address it is a new app called Unpaywall, which scours the web looking for free versions of scientific papers.

Unpaywall is a plug-in for your browser that works with Firefox and Chrome. When you find a reference to, or part of, an academic journal article, the plug-in will send a notification to tell you if a free version is available elsewhere on the internet – allowing you to save on paying for access to journal articles.

Often academics and researchers will submit their journal articles to a preprint repository, or host it on their own university’s website, to make sure their peers have access. 

Unpaywall finds all these hostings for you. It is the brainchild of Impactstory, a non-profit interested in the space where open access and science meet.

Unpaywall collects and collates databases of open access journals and articles using a technology called oaDOI.

Another, less legal, solution to the problem of open access is Sci-Hub, which has millions of users spread out all over the globe.\

Sci-Hub, which has been described as “The Pirate Bay for research”, hosts more than 50m academic papers, with between 4m and 6m downloaded every month.

Alexandra Elbakyan, a then 22-year old graduate student from Kazakhstan, founded it in 2011. Because of Sci-Hub students can get just about any paper they want at no cost, which has significantly disrupted the publishing industry.

Elbakyan has reportedly said that many academics have donated their articles voluntarily, but confirmed that Sci-Hub also uses user IDs and passwords of people or institutions with legitimate access to journal content to download content.

In 2015 Elsevier, a major publisher in the information and analytics industry, filed a lawsuit against Sci-Hub, with reports since emerging that Sci-Hub was providing access to half a million Elsevier papers every week.

In October 2015, a New York judge ruled that Sci-Hub infringes on Elsevier’s legal rights as the copyright holder of its journal content, and ordered that the website be taken down.

However, the servers that power the site are located in Russia, making them difficult to target within the US legal system, and the site just popped up with a different domain.

Several copycat sites are said to exist, so that the academic journal articles can never be placed behind a paywall again.

In the meantime Elbakyan, who is now a neuroscientist, remains in hiding. She is facing charges of illegal hacking under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The consensus seems to be that a lawsuit isn’t going to stop Sci-Hub, it’s more than likely here to stay. 

Some in the publishing industry have even suggested that the sector needs to be introspective and acknowledge that it has failed to provide fair access to researchers.

What is clear is how much power the publishing industry that services the academic world appears to have.

Two activists who have challenged that power have met with the full force of the law. One forced into suicide and the other into hiding, fearing being kidnapped for extradition.

In a time of #FeesMustFall perhaps we as South Africans should be paying more attention to this global battle.

Advice from educator Paulo Freire comes to mind: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”

This article originally appeared in the 13 July edition of Collective InsightBuy and download the magazine here.

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