Paper Piracy in Academia

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On Thursdays I like to discuss an item in the tech industry and today I’m going to cover something near and dear to my heart: academic literature piracy. The magazine, Science, published a long post this past week that showed that not only is academic paper piracy a growing fad, but it’s reached some significant milestones. In the month of February alone the popular piracy site Sci-hub had over 6.2 million pirated paper downloads.

First and foremost, I’m not ever going to ever promote the theft of anything, be it scientific research journals or Taylor Swift MP3s, in my mind you can rationalize it all you want but theft is theft and I don’t see very much grey area in the matter.

With that being said, I’d rather discuss if the entire industry of academic publications is set for significant changes. As a computer science grad student I can tell you from personal experience how difficult it is to research scientific papers. The current process is:

  • Search for a paper on a search engine, such as Google Scholar
  • Read the abstract to see if the paper is a good fit for whatever paper or project I’m working on
  • Then go find the journal or conference that the paper was published in
  • Sign into my University account so I can go through their publication portal since all of the journals and conferences store the papers behind very expensive paywalls
  • Cross my fingers and hope that the paper I found is available through one of the channels that my university has paid for

If all of the items go smoothly above I can download and read the paper

Does that seem like a process that needs to be disrupted? I definitely think so. There are countless ways that the industry could be modified to make the research process more seamless, some of my recommendations would be:

  • A practical membership program, aka Netflix for academic papers.
  • Making all journals ad supported to users with verified ‘edu’ email addresses
  • Making all papers free and placing them in an ad supported search engine, aka Google, where the publishers share the revenue based on usage

Just like the movie and music industry, academia isn’t going to be able to continue charging outrageous fees for access to content that should be freely available and they’ll have to adjust or the rampant piracy is simply going to continue to grow and they’ll eventually be left with nothing.

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