The battle for free knowl­edge

The is­sue re­gard­ing free ac­cess to aca­demic jour­nals and con­tent is grow­ing in­creas­ingly con­tentious, with founders of sites that en­able this fac­ing the might of the law. But should knowl­edge be ex­clu­sive?

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hiis n 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 SciHub 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. ” Po­lit­i­cal or­gan­iser and internet ac­tivist

Aaron Swartz

Alexan­dra El­bakyan Cre­ator of Sci-Hub

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