Prohibition of Open Access Scientific Journals

DR. AIJAZ HASSAN GANIE

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In the last week of December three publishing giants – Elsevier, Wiley and American Chemical Society filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court for blocking Sci-Hub and Libgen in India. The case against Sci-Hub and Libgen, two open-access publications, could mean the end of “free academic material” in India. This is not an attack oncopyright infringement lawsuit as the publishers claim, but a war against students and researchers in India, who do not have access to these expensive journals. Alexandra Elbakyan, a young scientist from Kazakhstan, creates Sci-Hub so that ordinary researchers also have access to these highly paid journals. Today, Sci-Hub is used by the scientific community around the world, including developed countries, to access these journals. On the Sci-Hub site, most of the articles that the scientific community needs for their research are available. The ease of use and download speed, compared to the clunky and slow journal site, makes it appealing even to those with college access to use Sci-Hub.

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The cost to access the online journal for just 24 hours is USD 31.50 or Rs 2327.82. On Sci-Hub it is free. But in the future it will no longer be available for free but at exorbitant price – which will not be affordable for most students. In India, researchers and students uploaded seven million papers to Sci-Hub in 2016, which reportedly cost them around $250 million. This is money that students in poor countries will not manage. It is a harsh reality of our country that if access to the Sci-Hub is stopped, most Indian research except a few wealthy institutions will stop. No individual researcher has the kind of money to shell out the $10,000 to $30,000 every year for their research. For a country aspiring to become a rising scientific powerhouse, steps like these will pose the greatest obstacle to scientific development.

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The editors of these journals would say this is an expensive business and they need money to support it. On the contrary, the $10 billion journal publishing business has been reported to be one of the most profitable businesses in the world. Elsevier, one of the parties that filed the lawsuit against Delhi, makes a profit of $1 billion on revenue of around $2.5 billion. Their profit margins are around 40%. Compare that to the 19% profit margin of Google, the world’s largest digital monopoly. Why is journal publishing one of the most profitable businesses in the world? In this profession, the state-funded do all the work and even one has to pay to access the fruits of his own labor. If the research community wants their work to be freely accessible, they must pay publishers to provide such open access. In generating the results, reviewing these articles, and putting the findings into print, these publishing houses play no major role. They play a minimal role in creating the content or even the final form. But having obtained monopoly rights over this knowledge, they become the gatekeepers who have to be paid every time we access a document.

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Twenty years ago, this model of scientific publishing was considered neither fair nor viable. This runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which declares access to knowledge as a fundamental right. In 2002, the Budapest Open Access Declaration called on the scientific community to create open access publications where knowledge would be freely available to everyone. Unfortunately, even after nearly 20 years, open access journals only cover 20% of published articles, a number that is not growing. Apart from this 20% of open access articles, most of the articles that researchers need are older publications. These publications are still locked behind expensive paywalls. Worse still, open access journals have broken down the barrier of access to the publication of articles. Some of these open access publications have the same publishers. As an author, you will have to pay a significant amount of money to publish in open access journals. This breaks down the barrier of researchers not being able to access publications to not being able to publish in these journals.

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In Budapest, the research community has increased the demand for open access publishing to reduce exorbitant fees for controlling access to knowledge. Today, with the Internet and digital reproduction, the cost per copy and its delivery is negligible. Even if publishing did not evolve towards open access, one would have expected a drop in the cost of journals. That’s how the market economy works, isn’t it? With the digital transition, more and more original publishers, scientific and academic publishers have ceded their publications to a few monopolies, creating an even greater concentration of monopoly power for publishers like Elsevier and Wiley.

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It is up to the courts to decide whether the use of Sci-Hub by researchers in India constitutes a valid use of copyright exceptions, similar to what was decided by the courts in the photocopying case of the Delhi University. The case is not against the copyright holders nor against Sci-Hub and Libgen; in reality, this case is against the researchers of this country, most of whose research would stop if this case filed by the knowledge monopolies succeeds in court. India’s research future is at stake, not Alexandra Elbakyan’s or Sci-Hub’s.

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(The author is Assistant Professor, University of Kashmir)