(Roughly) Daily

“Beware of him who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master”*…

NOAA/Plotting the position of the survey ship PATHFINDER, Alaska

Stewart Brand once suggested that “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away.” Indeed, it seems to be growing…

Aaron Swartz was 26 years old when he took his own life. He did so under the shadow of legal prosecution, pursued by government lawyers intent on maximal punishment. If found guilty, he potentially faced up to 50 years in prison and a $1 million dollar fine. Swartz’s crime was not only legal, but political. He had accessed a private computer network and gained possession of highly valuable information with the goal of sharing it. His actions threatened some of the most powerful, connected, and politically protected groups in the country. Their friends in the government were intent on sending a message.

It’s the kind of story you would expect about some far-off political dissident. But Swartz took his life in Brooklyn on a winter day in 2013 and his prosecutor was the U.S. federal government. When Swartz died, he was under indictment for 13 felony charges related to his use of an MIT computer to download too many scientific articles from the academic database JSTOR, ostensibly for the purpose of making them freely available to the public. Ultimately, Swartz potentially faced more jail time for downloading academic papers than he would have if he had helped Al Qaeda build a nuclear weapon. Even the Criminal Code of the USSR stipulated that those who stored and distributed anti-Soviet literature only faced five to seven years in prison. While prosecutors later pointed toward a potential deal for less time, Aaron would still have been labeled a felon for his actions—and to boot, JSTOR itself had reached a civil settlement and didn’t even pursue its own lawsuit.

But Aaron’s cause lived on. This September marks the ten-year anniversary of Sci-Hub, the online “shadow library” that provides access to millions of research papers otherwise hidden behind prohibitive paywalls. Founded by the Kazakhstani computer scientist Alexandra Elbakyan—popularly known as science’s “pirate queen”—Sci-Hub has grown to become a repository of over 85 million academic papers.

The site is popular globally, used by millions of people—many of whom would otherwise not be able to finish their degrees, advise their patients, or use text mining algorithms to make new scientific discoveries. Sci-Hub has become the unacknowledged foundation that helps the whole enterprise of academia to function. 

Even when they do not need to use Sci-Hub, the superior user experience it offers means that many people prefer to use the illegal site rather than access papers through their own institutional libraries. It is difficult to say how many ideas, grants, publications, and companies have been made possible by Sci-Hub, but it seems undeniable that Elbakyan’s ten-year-old website has become a crucial component of contemporary scholarship.  

The success of Sci-Hub has made it a target for injunctions and investigations. Academic publishers have sued Sci-Hub repeatedly, opponents have accused the site’s creators of collaborating with Russian intelligence, and private sector critics have dubbed it a threat to “national security.” Elbakyan recently tweeted out a notification she received that the FBI had requested her personal data from Apple. 

Whatever happens to Sci-Hub or Elbakyan, the fact that such a site exists is something of a tragedy. Sci-Hub currently fills a niche that should never have existed. Like the black-market medicine purchased by people who cannot afford prescription drugs, its very being indicts the official system that created the conditions of its emergence… 

The cost of individually purchasing all the articles required to complete a typical literature review could easily amount to thousands of dollars. Beyond paying for the articles themselves, academics often have to pay steep fees to publish their research. Meanwhile, most peer reviewers and editors charged with assessing, correcting, and formatting papers do not receive compensation for their work. 

It’s particularly ironic that this situation exists alongside a purported digital “infodemic” of misinformation. The costs of this plague are massive, from opposition to the pandemic response to the conspiracy theories that drove a loving father to fire his gun inside a pizza parlor and a man to kill a mafia boss accused of having ties to the deep state. But few public figures, if any, draw the direct connection between the expensive barricades around scientific research and the conspicuous epistemic collapse of significant portions of the American political discourse…

Whether intended or not, the impossibly high paywalls of academic publishers only serve to keep scientific information out of the population’s hands. What makes this even more discordant is that the people being prevented from accessing the information are often also the taxpayers who helped fund the research in the first place. 

By framing the debate about Sci-Hub as one concerning property rights, both advocates of Elbakyan’s site and its detractors fall afoul of what John Gall called the “operational fallacy.” In his book The Systems Bible, Gall defined the operational fallacy as a situation where “the system itself does not do what it says it is doing.” In other words, what a system calls itself is not always a reliable indicator of its true function. In this case, the name of the “academic publishing industry” implies that it is supposed to be involved in the dissemination of scholarship. But the effective function of the academic publishing industry as it actually exists is to prevent the dissemination of scholarly work. 

Given the example of Sci-Hub, the easy logistics of internet publication, and the funding structure of academic research, it seems clear that in the absence of the academic publishing industry, scholarship would be more widely available, not less. If the academic publishing industry did not exist, scientists could still do their research—in fact, it would be easier to do so as more people would have access to scholarly literature. The peer-review process could still function normally—though there are good reasons to change that as well. And the resulting papers could simply be posted in a place where anyone could read them. 

When we explore the actual function of the academic publishing industry—restricting access to scholarly research—we see that these publishers have little in common with the companies that have opposed other file-sharing sites. When several record companies sued Napster in 2001, they could make the legitimate case that the economic well-being of the musicians, producers, and all the people who were needed to distribute recorded music was at stake. No such parallel exists in the case of Sci-Hub. Scientists are not paid by the publishers. Peer reviewers are not paid by the publishers. Distribution itself, as proven by Sci-Hub and its more law-abiding brother arXiv, is cheap enough to be provided to the public for free. It’s not surprising, then, that polls reveal that scientists overwhelmingly support Sci-Hub…  

Eminently worth reading in full– the civic tragedy of academic publishing: “A World Without Sci-Hub,” from Jason Rhys Perry (@JRhysParry) in @palladiummag.

Sid Meier


As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1970 that the Public Broadcasting Service– PBS– premiered, when it took over (most of) the functions of its predecessor, National Educational Television.

Unlike the five major commercial broadcast television networks in the United States (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and The CW) PBS is technically not a network, but rather a program distributor that provides television content and related services to its member stations. Each station sets its own schedule and programs local content (e.g., local/state news, interviews, cultural, and public affairs programs) that supplements content provided by PBS and other public television distributors.


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