Piracy.jpgA rather alarmist report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Online Piracy of Academic Materials Extends to Scholarly Books,” paints the threat to current academic publishing in very graphic terms. And it appears concerned that the facilitators of such piracy are attracting sympathy from academics and librarians, “especially when the sites portray themselves as vigilantes.”

The article quotes Peter Berkery, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, as saying: “We don’t want people to think we’re taking a position against open access. We’re taking a position against theft, and hacking, and phishing.” And it continues, “several press leaders said they wanted to be sure any stance they take against piracy isn’t perceived as an attack on the open-access movement, which is gaining popularity among some academics and librarians.”

Let me be clear: nor am I taking up a position pro theft, and hacking, and phishing. But certain academic publishers might want to take a good look at their pricing models, and their profit margins, before trying to occupy the moral high ground – especially when much of the original research they base their profits on is publicly funded. If you loot the public purse, lock up all trade, and charge ruinous tolls, you can’t be surprised if others turn to piracy. And I don’t mean all academic publishers by this at all. The article does highlight the university presses who feel themselves especially victimized by such piracy, and who are almost always publicly funded “mission-driven publishers.”

However, the article specifically singles out as its pirate chief “a site called Library Genesis, which also offers more than a million popular books from commercial publishers. The site appears to be a sister site to Sci-Hub, an unauthorized collection of scholarly-journal articles created by Alexandra Elbakyan, a graduate student in Kazakhstan. While the workings of the two sites aren’t exactly clear, several press directors said they believed Sci-Hub is the tool that also powers the Library Genesis database. Both sites were ordered shut down last year as a result of a lawsuit filed by a commercial journal publisher, Elsevier.”

TeleRead readers should know by now what Elsevier’s record is like in terms of aggressively protectionist policing of its own revenue streams – many of them once again publicly funded – and hostility towards more open access research models. The fact that the article mentions Elsevier with little reflection on, or apparent awareness of, this past record, is definitely a red flag to me.
So, I’m not denying that there is a genuine problem with piracy of academic literature. How big a problem? Who does it threaten beyond the profit margins of Elsevier? Those are questions that you might want to assess with a rather wider spectrum of input than this one article from CHE.


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