[Ip-health] The scientists encouraging online piracy with a secret codeword
elizabeth.rajasingh at keionline.org
Wed Oct 21 12:51:45 PDT 2015
The scientists encouraging online piracy with a secret codeword
21 October 2015
Reporting by Mukul Devichand and Estelle Doyle
Blog by Mike Wendling
What if you're a scientist looking for the latest published research on a
particular subject, but you can't afford to pay for it?
In many countries, it's against the law to download copyrighted material
without paying for it - whether it's a music track, a movie, or an academic
paper. Published research is protected by the same laws, and access is
generally restricted to scientists - or institutions - who subscribe to
But some scientists argue that their need to access the latest knowledge
justifies flouting the law, and they're using a Twitter hashtag to help
pirate scientific papers.
Andrea Kuszewski, a cognitive scientist and science writer, invented the
tag, which uses a code phrase: "I can haz PDF" - a play on words combining
a popular geeky phrase used widely online in a meme involving cat pictures,
and a common online file format.
"Basically you tweet out a link to the paper that you need, with the
hashtag and then your email address," she told BBC Trending radio. "And
someone will respond to your email and send it to you." Who might that
"someone" be? Kuszewski says scientists who have access to journals,
through subscriptions or the institutions they work at, look out for the
tag so they can help out colleagues in need.
Once contact is made, all subsequent conversation is kept off of social
media - instead, scientists correspond via email. The original tweet is
deleted, so there's no public record of the paper changing hands. Kuszewski
and others say the method is necessary to get up-to-date research in the
hands of academics from developing countries, and her and other scientists
say they consider the pirating "civil disobedience" against a system that
includes for-profit publishing companies.
But of course publishers are opposed to free swapping of the papers they
publish, and they are usually backed up by the law. Pirating journal
articles violates most publishers' terms of service, and is illegal in many
jurisdictions. They also argue that it is morally wrong - because by
managing the publication and dissemination of scientific research, they are
performing a vital function that needs to be paid for.
These arguments don't deter Kuszewski, who thinks her hashtag will lead to
a change in the way papers are published and accessed. "If we keep finding
workarounds to get research to people for free and enough people are doing
it, and it causes enough of a ruckus, eventually something will happen to
change it," she says.
The pirating of academic papers goes beyond the hashtag, however, and sites
have been set up where papers can be downloaded for free, often illegally.
Elsevier, the Dutch company which publishes The Lancet and many other
medical and scientific journals, is suing one such pirate site, Sci-Hub,
under US law.
Sci-Hub was founded by a Kazakh humanities researcher, Alexandra Elbakya,
and has tens of thousands of daily users, many from places like Russia and
India. She says she's not concerned about the US case, and denied that
swapping academic papers is tantamount to stealing.
"I don't think it can be equated very easily to theft. Theft is when you
take something and the owner loses possession. But in copyright
infringement, you don't take anything from other people," Elbakya says.
"Many university researchers need access to these papers because
subscriptions are very expensive."
Elsevier wouldn't comment on the case, but did give a statement to BBC
Trending saying that they recognise that access and publishing options are
key for researchers. The company says it provides open access journals,
rental options, individual article purchases and other means of
disseminating research papers.
And just as business models for music have changed in a world of illegal
downloading - with streaming sites lowering the cost of legal access - now
several publishers are shifting to more open models of accessing research,
although Kuszewski believes the changes aren't happening fast enough.
"Science moves slow enough as it is," she argues, "so anything that we can
do to make it happen faster is a good thing."
Perls Research and Policy Fellow, Knowledge Ecology International
1621 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20009
*elizabeth.rajasingh at keionline.org <elizabeth.rajasingh at keionline.org>* |
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