A Small Act of Scientific Civil Disobedience

Big science publications put important peer-reviewed research behind expensive paywalls. But some scientists have found creative ways around them.
Small Acts of Scientific Civil Disobedience

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter is home to communities of all sorts. It’s no surprise that scientists make use of the platform for outreach and communication, as well as simply to talk shop. 
Spend a little time on “science Twitter” and you’ll soon see the hashtag #icanhazpdf flitter across your feed.

It’s not an esoteric acronym or an inside joke; it’s a request. The sender is looking for someone to share a journal article or report that is (to them) inaccessible.

A quick Twitter search for #icanhazpdf reveals dozens of requests from scholars in search of elusive articles locked behind paywalls. Innocuous as these requests may seem, sharing these articles is in breach of copyright law. Scientists know this practice is illegal, but many still choose to take part in these everyday acts of civil disobedience.

Traditionally, scientists publish their findings in peer-reviewed academic journals in order to share their research with peers and with the wider public. These publications range in scope from behemoths like Science and Nature to more niche journals like Aquatic Toxicology or the Journal of Number Theory. The vast majority of these publications are behind paywalls, and access to individual articles can cost $20 to $40.

The costs of accessing materials are usually handled by a researcher’s host institution. Universities subscribe to journal packages from publishers at rates of tens of thousands of dollars per year. These costs can be overwhelming for many colleges, and even the most well-funded institutions struggle with the price of access. For researchers outside of academia (those at federal agencies and NGOs or citizen scientists), these data are often out of reach. This means that on any given afternoon, many will spend at least some of their time emailing colleagues or begging the Twitterverse for a copy of that latest Nature article.

Criminality aside, the fact that so many scientists turn to these informal networks begs the question of why barriers to access exist in the first place.

Organizations such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are taxpayer supported and provide funding for research in virtually every realm of science. However, when the results of such projects are published in Nature, taxpayers are not granted automatic access.

Scientists know this practice is illegal, but many still choose to take part.

The financial barriers to information are not simply a nuisance to scientists, but fundamentally limit their ability to conduct research. Without the ability to explore and thoroughly understand pre-existing literature, researchers risk wasting time, money, and resources, and, crucially, may not understand fully their results in hand. In short, better access makes for better science.

Open access publishing, which removes the barrier of paywalls, remains a minor segment of the publishing landscape. “Publish or perish” is still the canon in academia, but publishing in lesser-known, open access journals is viewed as risky for scientists without tenured positions.

In recognition of these issues, some scientists are leading the charge to alter how scientific research is disseminated. Decentralized article sharing, as happens on Twitter, is just one method used to bypass restrictions.

The website Sci-Hub enables users to search for and download journal content directly, bypassing publisher paywalls. Over 19 million cumulative users access hundreds of thousands of articles each day through Sci-Hub. The site has been compared to the music sharing service Napster and, just like Napster, is being hit by lawsuits from publishers; publishing giant Elsevier won an injunction against the site last year. For now, Sci-Hub’s founder (a graduate student) refuses to shut it down.

However, change is on the horizon.

More than 16,000 scientists have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier and refuse to publish in the company’s journals until fees are reduced. Some traditional outlets now allow authors to publish individual articles under Creative Commons license (for a fee). Although the publishing industry still holds ultimate power in disseminating research, more scientists are looking beyond the traditional model to ensure both that their work is accessible and that science itself is strengthened. Until then, there’s always Twitter.